Objectivism and gender-neutral language (2000)

Roger Bissell

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Objectivism and gender-neutral language

by Roger E. Bissell

A. Gender-indefinite use of "man" and "he" (10/19/00)

Some propose that a simple solution to the problem of gender reference to a generic person is to alternate between masculine and feminine usages. Others object that the generic use of terms like "man," "he," and "mankind" is perfectly clear and understood in such a context, so there is no good reason to alternate between masculine and feminine terminology.

One could, however, make the same point about terms like "nigger" and "kyke" and "wop" and all the rest. The point that often seems to be brushed aside or minimized in such discussion is that many people find masculinization (or feminization) of indefinite gender references to be offensive. I think we speak too much in the third person anyway. Why not shift to speaking more in the second person? Instead of "If a person wants to come late, he is welcome to do so" (or she, or he/she or s/he etc.), why not say "If you want to come late, you are welcome to do so"? If this seems too personal, you can still say something like, "Anyone who wants to come late is welcome to do so."

An example offered by those who favor gender alternation is "An author needs to maintain her perspective on the psychology of human relationships." The standard objection to this is that this is confusing and represents a "capitulation to radical feminists."

What I wonder is why on earth anyone would use either "his" or "her" in that sentence? I would say: "A moral agent needs to maintain a sense of proportion." If using "her" is a "capitulation to radical feminists," using "his" is a capitulation to testosterone worship!

I think there is a woeful lack of creativity and imagination being displayed in this and most previous discussions on the subject. Either it's right to avoid masculinizing indefinite gender references -- in which case, we need to suck it up and stop whining about how hard it is to find graceful ways of expressing ourselves. Or it's right to masculinize indefinite gender references -- in which case, we all ought to go out of our way to use masculine pronouns, even if we could legitimately avoid gendered pronouns entirely. (The radical feminist notion of deliberately feminizing indefinite gender references is just as bad, in my opinion.)

It's really hard to get very worked up over this, because I'm still steamed about the Journal of Ayn Rand Studies having a formal policy of accepting only the spelling "aesthetics," and not the spelling Rand favored, "esthetics." (Unless quoting Rand, of course.) Now that is an issue worth fighting over. (But I wonder: if Tori Spelling married Billy Grammar, would their children be interested in our discussions?)

B. Unwelcome suggestions (10/22/00)

Following are comments excerpted from a letter I sent to someone about two years ago, at which time I was offering her some advice on writing style in regard to gender neutral wording. I offer them here in support of Carolyn Ray's Enlightenment project on gender language reform -- and I add my disapproval of the mono-genderization imposed by the editors of the Navigator. [2006 note: this refers to the former name of the publication of The Objectivist Center; it is now called The New Individualist...reb]

"Beyond the general sorts of stylistic improvements I would suggest, I noticed a couple of stylistic quirks that are peculiar to the Objectivist movement, and which I strongly urge you to expunge from your writing:

"Any time you want to talk about human beings in general, and not merely a male human being, I would very much like to see you refrain from using the words "man" and "men." I am not a flaming feminist, but I am very sensitive to the need for gender-neutral language, especially in a movement that has a long-standing problem of being heavily over-run with males. I think that I am typical of the people you will want to reach with your ideas--and most of us find the use of the generic "man" to be very irritating, if not downright offensive. An example of what I'd suggest: "_Man's_ [replace underscored with: Human] cognitive ability has been referred to as 'reason'." Another: "Reason has been used and abused _by man_ [delete underscored words]." Another: "_Man's_ [replace underscored with: The] ability to reason is a complex integration of many components." The most graceful replacement may not always be obvious, but ingenuity and perseverance will triumph--and pay dividends of good will, to boot."

My correspondent did not take kindly to such suggestions, to say the least. The generic "man" was good enough for Ayn Rand, so it was good enough for her!

It's interesting to speculate how Ayn Rand would have reacted to the suggestions I have made on gender-neutral language, and to whether her writing would have suffered or benefited as a result of following those suggestions.

I'm confident that Rand's writing would have been at least as powerful and more effective without it. I would have been pleased to show her example after example of how her most obnoxious verbiage could have been improved. No doubt she would have rejected those suggestions -- and me, as well, I'm sure. C'est la vie. Except she ain't got no more vie, and I still do retain a "skoash"!

C. Enlightening use of gender-neutral language (11/1/00)

Michelle Fram-Cohen recently offered a sample of gender-neutral language flowing from her work on a project sponsored by Carolyn Ray and her Enlightenment organization. Bill Dwyer's analysis of this sample of gender-neutral language is correct but somewhat narrowly focused, in that he looked at only one of the instances of Michelle's attempt to gender-neutralize the original essay. Consequently, the "reverse sexism" in some of Michelle's editorial changes is not the sum total of the attempts she made at a gender-neutral rewrite -- and Bill's criticism is somewhat overblown and incomplete (at the same time!). Also, Bill's proposed "cure" is, as many of us argue, part of the problem. He wants to revert to traditional usage, with the masculine pronouns acting in their (to many of us) objectionable "gender-indefinite" roles. I will propose other solutions that avoid these sticking points.

* * * * *

Bill's claim, that the use of "she" and "her" in gender-indefinite situations is "reverse sexism", drops the context of the overall essay and the overall purpose of Michelle's re-write. I don't know whether Bill did in fact read the entire essay or is just fixating on this one passage, but the fact remains that he doesn't point out that Michelle did use "he" and "him" elsewhere in her essay -- and I'm not referring to quotes from Peikoff, but to her own words:

"However, succumbing to outside pressure is not the same as willful evasion. It can be the result of conflicting values, like the case of an Atheist who decides to get married in a religious ceremony out of respect for his parents, because he respects and values them in spite of their religion."

As you can see, Michelle is not engaging in "reverse sexism," but in an attempt to balance gender references in gender-indefinite situations using "he" and "his" and "him" in some cases and "she" and "hers" and "her" in others.

While I agree with his critique of "reverse sexism," Bill would have been more accurate in his criticism of Michelle's re-write had he instead used the term "gender egalitarianism," for that is what Michelle is really trying to practice. While I am in principle in favor of what she is trying to do, I consider the practice rather awkward and jarring to the ear, and I think clarity and stylistic smoothness would be better served by less of "him/her" flip-flopping than more.

Michelle has another stylistic device that I find quite useful and agreeable to the ear. It's more personal and motivating, which is what you want ethics to be, right? It's the use of second person pronouns, instead of third. Michelle uses this approach to very good effect elsewhere in her essay, and I suggest it here:

Instead of: "Peikoff brings up an example of a poisonous food, for which a rational person would have no appetite. Anybody rational would not consider acting against her convictions, no more than she would consider eating poisonous food."

I would (following Michelle's other uses of this approach) say: Peikoff brings up an example of a poisonous food, for which a rational person would have no appetite. If you are rational, you would not consider acting against your convictions, any more than you would consider eating poisonous food.

Some other passages and my suggested alterations:

1. (Michelle) Emotions are invalid, however strong one's loyalty to her emotions may feel.

Rewrite this as: Emotions are invalid, however strong your loyalty to your emotions may feel. Or: Emotions are invalid, however strongly loyal one may feel to one's emotions. Or: Emotions are invalid, however strongly loyal you may feel to your emotions.

2. (Michelle) Independence is not the trait of the "lone wolf" who places the rejection of other people's judgment above her own judgment, lest her judgment corresponds to theirs.

IMO, this is an inappropriately written passage. "lone wolf" in nature is a male wolf, not a female, so the male pronouns are prima facie appropriate. So, if you want to break away from the male connotations of the term, you will have to do more than simply replace "his" with "her." Instead, I'd suggest expanding the passage, rather than simply replacing gender pronouns, as follows:

Independence is not the trait of the "lone wolf". The lone wolf, who has an overriding aversion to making judgments that correspond with those of other people, is less motivated to make independent judgments than to reject those of others. (I also like this rewrite because it makes the value-hierarchy of the lone wolf clearer to the reader.)

3. Here is a long example that shows both the strength of the second-person construction and the problems with inconsistency in the sentences following.....

(Michelle) You do not have to wait until you reach the state of moral perfection in order to allow yourself to be proud. You have to value your potential for moral perfection, in spite of your flaws, in order to keep working on yourself. Pride consists of the ability to believe in one's virtues in spite of one's flaws. Thus, there is no excuse for someone who resigns himself to his flaws.

See the problem with the inconsistency between the last two sentences -- as well as between them and preceding sentences? Suggested rewrites: (1) change the last sentence: Thus, there is no excuse for one to resign oneself to one's flaws. Or: Thus, there is no excuse for you to resign yourself to your flaws. (2) change both sentences: Pride consists of the ability to believe in your virtues in spite of your flaws. Thus, there is no excuse for you to resign yourself to your flaws. [And, I might add, there is no excuse for intelligent Objectivists not to avail themselves of these gender-neutral alternatives to sexist language. Stubborn refusal to give up paleo-Randian sexist attitudes does not constitute a valid excuse.]

4. Continuing the previous passage.....

(Michelle) In the section on Justice, Peikoff wrote that a person is not to be judged by his flaws as long as he did not act on them. Here, Peikoff provides the course of action one should take once one acted on them.

Rewrite: In the section on Justice, Peikoff wrote that people should not be judged by their flaws as long as they have not acted on them. Here, Peikoff provides the course of action people should take once they have acted on them.

* * * * * *

I've said before that it just takes some effort and creativity, maybe also some ingenuity at times, to avoid sexist language. I agree with Bill Dwyer that "reverse sexism" is not a good solution. But Michelle deserves more credit than Bill is willing to give her -- and more encouragement from the rest of us who support the whole thrust of her and Carolyn's project at Enlightenment. So: back to the drawing board, Michelle, but you're on the right track!

[2006 note: Since there has been no indication for quite some time that Enlightenment is still in operation, Carolyn's project on gender and language has probably fallen by the wayside. However, I think that it was headed in the right direction and that, with a little extra input and effort, it could have made a genuine contribution to Objectivist, or at least Neo-Objectivist, writing style...reb]

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In the book on plots I am reporting on in another thread, Ronald Tobias uses politically correct gender. But it is completely awkward. Sometimes he starts talking about a "she" and you have to stop a second to realize that he is just replacing the neutered "he" of custom.

For example, here is a quote from the chapter on Rescue that I just did:

"The antagonist is a device whose purpose is to deprive the protagonist of what she believes rightfully belongs to her."

Now the catch is that Tobias also uses "he" at times in the same chapter. It's about a 50-50 balance.

This book was written in 1993 and I'm glad that this particular habit didn't catch on. The gain in politically correct writing would have been overshadowed by this kind of awkwardness and a lot of vagueness if the he/she thing caught on.

I would vastly prefer a non-sexist way of expressing things, but I have decided to stay with the neutered "he" for now. The ideas are more important than gender-style to me.


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I think the words he or man are pretty neuter terms so even as a female, I'm not offended. What I don't like is the going back and forth for the sake of political correctness. That is insulting to me as a female. I don't wish to be pandered to.

Take the rescue plot for example... I'm more comfortable seeing the protagonist as a he, victim as a she, and antagonist as a he. If you reverse the order to have the protagonist as a she, victim as a he and the antagonist as a she, then it just seems so unnatural, backwards and so contrived and it gets in the way. It is this type of hypersensitivity to gender issues that bothers me. I have always seen he and man as perfectly acceptable terms to describe either or both genders in a generic sense... Man can be commonly used as shorthand for human without offending this particular female.


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That's weird... I always prefer the longhand of human (at least in formal or semi-formal writing). But in general I look deep until I can find a gender neutral term or take a hard stance on gender of the participant early on.

In conversational speech it's all context.


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  • 10 months later...

Here is my policy on sexist language.

I decide based on the context.

Take: "Everyone made *** own decision."

If I am writing of a group of Mujahedin, all male, then "...his own decision."

If I am writing about a group of women, then "...her own decision."

If I am writing about a mixed group, or about people in general, then the choice will be:

(1) "...his or her own decision."

(2) "...her or his own decision."

(3) "...their own decision."

The first 2 I prefer use every other time, approximately. I like that sense of balance it provides.

The 3rd is technically incorrect; but it is easier. If the situation calls for terse and compressed prose, then to hell with the grammar police.

Another possibility comes to mind: if I have made clear in writing that this group consists of men and women, and if then I say: "Everyone grabbed his prayer rug..." then that is a way to imply that the women in the group did not do so.

A critic might ask: "Why not just say that all the men grabbed their prayer rugs?" Because that says explicitly that the women were excluded. My phrasing implies. Whether it is better to be explicit or implicit will of course depend first on one principle: what is the writer here trying to accomplish by his or her writing?

All these decisions are what good writer must decide for her or himself. :bug:

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  • 1 month later...


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