Tuesday, July 13, 2004

Is gender language a matter of indifference?

Recently a friend of mine asked me why I thought it made any difference whether one uses gender-specific or gender-neutral language. While I have made known my views on the subject in a previous post in another blog, "Musings of a Pertinacious Papist" ("To hell with inclusive language!"), some further remarks may be in order. My friend had been discussing Hilary Putnam views of Plato's and G.E. Moore's "Monism," and he had quoted a passage from Putnam's book, Ethics Without Ontology (pp. 18-19):
"But when one thinks that one has explained why some persons, traits of character, activities, and states of affairs are good by postulating something 'non-natural,' something mysterious and sublime standing invisibly behind the goodness of the persons, actions, situations, etc., in question, one thereby commits oneself to a form of monism in the sense that one reduces (or imagines one has reduced) all ethical phenomena, all ethical problems, all ethical questions, indeed all value problems, to just one issue, the presence or absence of this single super-thing GOOD."
While out mutual interest in the paragraph was initially directed at the issue Putnam addresses in it, it quickly became apparent to me that it was interesting also as a specimen of contemporary gender-neutral writing. Note the highlighted pronouns. Note the way Putnam steadfastly avoids using the "he" that would be so much more natural (not to mention grammatically proper) after his initial "one." Note how many times he uses "one" in the paragraph, then read it over again and ask yourself if this sounds like natural English (speaking of "natural")!

My friend responded that he didn't know whether he would say that the use of "he" would be more "natural" than the use of "one" or "one's." But his demurral is hard to defend. For one thing, all sorts of reductio ad absurdum counter-arguments are available. Take, for example, the following hypothetical paraphrase of John 3:16:
"One so loved the world that One gave One's only Son that whosoever should believe in One should not perish but have everlasting life."
I don't know of anybody in his right mind who would not find such ungrammatical convolutions awkward and unnatural, to say the least.

But my friend further asked why we should not be willing to express ourselves in language without conscripting the generic "he," particularly if we can do so grammatically. Certainly this can be done, for example, perhaps most easily by rendering every singular as a plural, thus substituting "they" and "them" for the avoidable "he" and "him." Yet my response is: but WHY WOULD WE WANT TO? It's a clear case of allowing our behavior (our particular selection of pronouns) to be modified by the environment. And WHAT environment? The silly environment of "political correctness"! Whom does that please? Does it HELP WOMEN that we avoid using male pronouns? Does it make them FEEL MORE INCLUDED? My hunch is that this is all pure rubbish, and I think most women of independent intellect would agree. If anyone is pleased by such behavior, it may be "the readership of the New York Times, or at least that part of it which shares the presuppositions of those who write that parish magazine of affluent and self-congratulatory liberal enlightenment," as Alasdair MacIntyre put it (Whose Justice? Which Rationality? p. 5). But why aim to please THEM? Why be beholden to THEM? Do we have no more cultural independence than THAT?!

My friend went on to point out that philosophers in the Calvinistic tradition of Reformed Epistemology, such as Alvin Plantinga and Nicholas Wolterstorff, like to make use of the generic "she," and to suggest that he could think of no reason for supposing that the generic employment of "he" is a divinely sanctioned convention.

I told him that I think he's right if he means that God spells out the convention in so many terms in the Bible. But I think he's wrong if he means that the convention isn't rooted in an understanding of human nature presupposed generally by the ancients and much more specifically by the biblical writers. For example, I take the masculine Hebrew references to God, found within the cultural context of Canaanite understandings of God as feminine, to be no accident. (See, e.g., Dennis Prager, "Judaism's Sexual Revolution: Why Judaism Rejected Homosexuality," Ultimate Issues, rpt: Crisis [Sept. 1993], pp. 29-36; rept OrthodoxyToday.org).

Furthermore, although my thoughts on the matter are still intellectually inchoate, I'm increasingly
convinced that the debate about gender language is one of the fault lines in the coming seismic rift between a traditional understanding of man's nature and all of those forces -- postmodernism, deconstructionism, feminism, neo-Marxism, anti-foundationalism, emotivism, anti-essentialism -- which want to "move beyond" it ... to same-sex "marriages," "cloning," and everything promised by the dark forces in C.S. Lewis's That Hideous Strength and The Abolition of Man (more on this later).