Language Reclamation Campaign

There is a movement afoot piloted by an enthusiastic splinter group of men and women, to cleanse the English language of all “sexist” words. I understand the feeling at the root of such a wish among these people, but I fail to comprehend the zeal and sense of entitlement within this faction to portray this cleansing as a vital step towards gender parity. And that I think is a weak argument. The core issue is this…. Use of pronouns in English is skewed in the masculine favour…. Of course I have no doubt they are (not entirely, as we’ll soon see). Some quick examples:-

“Every pilot knows that he needs to rest adequately before flying”.

“A doctor’s life in this hospital is meant to test his physical and mental endurance”.

“What else must a man live for than for the future of his children?”

“A scientist must not aspire for glory for him but for the benefit of whole mankind”.

As is evident in the examples above, the use of masculine pronouns can sound problematic to a true gender parity crusader. To the ultra feminist/liberal however, they fall in the offensive category, a result of the aimless liberalism peddled all around the world these days. Even for an absolutely neutral standpoint that I strive to hold on to at all times, indiscriminate use of male words does induce some ‘Male Guilt’. As I started suffering from this peculiar ailment that has affected some men of these times, I started modifying my language to eliminate all sexism that may be perceived by potential detractors. And very soon, through personal angst, I started identifying certain problems in this movement for reclaiming English language from the “toxic male chauvinism” that floods over it.

Compare it with the movement in India to change city names from colonial ones to the original native language. Bombay to Mumbai, Calcutta to Kolkata, Trivandrum to Thiruvananthapuram etc. Initially I was annoyed because, “What’s in a name?” argument won in my mind. But then I started to think. “Trivandrum” makes as much sense in Malayalam as the utterances of a lunatic. As a practice, why should the people of the land utter this nonsensical name for their mighty city (that apparently is named after the deity whose temple is the richest in the world! I mean it…google it). Changing name to Thiruvananthapuram or ‘City of Lord Anantha’ made sense, celebrates the culture and partially erases the memory of a humiliating colonial history. Above all, linguistically it was an elegant move. On the other hand, even though I wouldn’t describe the purification-of-language movement as gauche, with malicious intent or as a hate campaign, I sense some serious problems. Some of which are irritants that can be solved through mature adjustments and some are hurdles that cannot be hopped over but can only be circumvented.

Here’s when I start treading on real thin ice. Let me summon all the sugar-coating abilities that I possess to avoid pissing off a small bunch of ultra-liberal men and a large section of women {may heavens be praised that not all of them would disagree with me, considering the women I know in life}.

Language is a human discovery, possibly an effect of our large brains. Possibly the single most important reason for our species emerging as the dominant one. Language does not merely help exchange our ideas with others but it shapes our thinking. The realms of knowledge that we can explore with our minds may be limited by the language we use because conscious mind is conditioned to record and recover the data in our brains using language. Unless you can articulate it using some language, an idea will remain like a floating cloud that cannot be captured and studied. However as you code an idea using language, trying to be as accurate as possible, you start seeing the limitations that it pose. What Noam Chomsky says is probably true that the rules of Language are mostly strange and unknown.  The quagmire that is language can truncate, stretch and distort any idea due to the strange interactions between the text, subtext and context. Therefore there needs to be considerable maturity among the users of a language to adjust to the distortions of language due to its incorrect application so as to avoid frequent conflicts regarding the use of certain words, phrases etc.

The primary argument for expunging the “sexist” words and usages from language derives from the atonement that these liberals await for millennia of subjugation of women by men. There’s no doubt that we’ve been under-utilising 50% of humankind towards advancing our species. We failed to realise that stereotypical assumptions on what women are capable of and what their roles in society must be are incorrect and not in the long term interest of our species. However the twentieth century changed all that. Women are spreading their wings and flying alongside men in all walks of life. Long way to go but we’re tending to a consensus and conviction that men and women are equal. Many measures like universal adult franchise and equality of opportunity mandated by law are vital steps that we have taken towards righting the wrongs that women suffered since long. The Language Reclamation movement misguidedly brands itself as a  ‘Emancipation of Women’ movement, which I agree, has noble intentions but are blinded by a sense of entitlement and sheer ignorance on how language evolves. It not only is an idea that does little to elevate the status of women, it can lead to serious issues if implemented using the radical zeal of its supporters.

If someone made a remark 100 years ago referring in general to teachers, soldiers or sailors using masculine pronouns, no one was really offended because almost all in these professions were men. Situation has changed. Women are almost everywhere. So shouldn’t the language evolve with the situation? Legitimate question. And my answer is yes it must or maybe it will, eventually. Languages evolve constantly, accepting new words and gradually demoting others to archaic. The mechanisms that cause such evolution act over long periods and are triggered by social and cultural changes. Women’s assuming greater responsibility in running humankind, is the symbol of a radical societal change in progress. Therefore I believe that the kind of words that remind people about our chauvinistic past will find lesser and lesser favour in daily usage and will eventually die a slow natural death. It is this natural process that the liberals want to hasten. Such efforts will not be vastly different in principle from the Nazi book burning extravaganzas held during their noble efforts to erase native cultures.

As an earnest effort, I tried to rid my writing of “sexism “. Using ‘they’ or ‘he/she’ in place of ‘he’. Initially I thought that it will merely be difficult. However now I am more inclined to believe that it’s almost impossible. Three reasons….

Firstly, the effort involves me constantly worrying about being gender-neutral than focussing on conveying my idea using the best possible set of words. You may say that it’s because I’m a victim of male chauvinistic conditioning, making it difficult for me to transition smoothly into the new Gender-Neutral world. That is a generally true inference but it’s precisely the reason why I would prefer the natural and gradual evolution of language through general consensus on words to avoid and words preferred. In about 200 years, all victims of male chauvinism like me would be six foot under and language will be free of “evil”. As for the present, don’t arm-twist me into finding a replacement for usages like ‘one-upmanship’.

Secondly, for me searching for gender neutral words is just a task using a thesaurus but not for people who create art and literature. Linda Perry of the rock band called ‘Four Non Blondes’ wrote (song called “What’s Up”), “ I realised quickly when I knew I should, that this world was made up of this brotherhood of man”.  She I don’t assume, ever thought that calling humankind as ‘brotherhood of man’ will be sexist. That phrase has got a poetic ring to it which would’ve been lost if she were to call it as ‘fraternity of Homo Sapiens’ (‘HuMankind’ is still somewhat sexist). If circumventing sexism while writing simple prose can cause significant distraction to me, keeping it completely clean of such “offensive” words will cause considerable anguish to poets and writers. We may be left with their “clean” but dry creations.

The top ranking reason why I think the no-sexism-in-language movement is set to fail is because all future generations will continue to read the literature of today and the past which may be replete with words and usages that are sexist according to the liberals of today. So, in the future, do we intend to ‘sanitise’ all past literature before our children get to read it? Imagine what would happen if we write a computer code that will perform ‘find and replace’ actions in literary works to remove such words (It has to be done by supercomputers considering the humongous amount of literature to digitise and ‘disinfect’, starting with the earliest writings preserved from thousands of years ago) . We do that indoctrination campaign and we’ll mostly find that we’ve turned a Shakespeare play into absurdist nonsense. Must we shield our children from the original works of great writers of the past, written in the language of their times? Not a good idea, as we and our children learn most of our vocabulary and improve our grammar and style by reading great works of the past and not from dictionaries and textbooks. We can teach our children the context of those times when sexism was not even recognised and tell them to be merely aware of it, nothing more.

So as for me, after my failed attempt at ridding myself of literary chauvinism, I’ve decided that I’ll use language as I please. I’ll never start with a disclaimer to the liberals who may pounce at the perceived sexism in my language. I’ll keep my language mostly decent. I’ll not have an obnoxious style or attitude reflected in it and I”ll be respectful to all including potential detractors. I believe that there are some words that are difficult to be replaced with technically gender-neutral alternates and so I won’t struggle. If I find the need, I will use a masculine pronoun if the word helps convey a generally ‘man-like’ emotion and use a female word to convey tenderness, compassion etc (Male and female qualities? Whole different debate altogether, Coming Soon!) . These words will reflect the mental associations that I have made in my life through my experiences. Like in the advice of an elderly, “Hold your child’s hand as much as possible because there’ll soon come a time when she won’t let you”. A picture of a little girl child conveys the feelings of tenderness and love that the quote wants to convey than a boy’s.

Everyone’s language to himself. You decide. You have the very essential right to be offensive but just don’t be maliciously hurtful. Use a he, she, he/she, (S)he or they, whichever is the word that comes to your mind as you reflect on the idea that you are trying to encode. I’m cool about individuals asking me to refer to them with a particular pronoun, which may be appropriate to use for any one of the 56 different genders that National Geographic listed , that they might identify themselves as. I would surely oblige. If you prefer certain words to be avoided in YOUR vocabulary, then it’s your decision. Let others remain comfortable with theirs. As time passes, these words will undergo an evolution very similar to what’s described by the Theory of Natural Selection except that this will be Artificial Selection. In the same way that we bred wild flowers into cabbages over hundreds of years, let each word face the test of human selection. Maybe (but highly unlikely), one day the Linguistic Reclamation movement’s choice of language prevails. But, trying to literally shove a particular ‘brand’ of language down the throats will merely end in failure. No one can claim any moral superiority in language and I admire and try to live by the following quote….

I Disapprove of What You Say, But I Will Defend to the Death Your Right to Say It.

Evelyn Beatrice Hall, English author 1906

So say what you want mates….And let me say what I want. And no getting-at-each-other’s-throats while we do that please…. Thank you.


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