Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Her or His, She or He

In my lifetime inclusive language has come a long way.  Since I’m only twenty-eight years old, that’s saying something.  It wasn’t until my senior year in high school eleven or so years ago that a teacher even discussed using inclusive language.  In seminary five years later it was a requirement—not entirely a surprise since my seminary and churches in general are often (not always) more concerned with people’s feelings than the secular culture.  By inclusive language I mean saying or writing, “his or her,” rather than just “his”; “God” or “Father and Mother” instead of using “Father” and “Him” to refer to God; or even using “one” to refer to a person rather than “his” or “her”—in some form or another, acknowledging that women are also humans (who knew!) who can experience what we’re writing or talking about.  If I were to say that someone should always know the location of the car keys, I’d need to say, “A person should always know where his or her keys are,” or what seems ridiculous: “One should always know where one’s keys are.”  I could not say, “A man should always know where his keys are,” and think that “man” and “his” are representative of the entire human experience.  (Gender neutral language counts, too—saying “one” over and over again or, for God, words like Creator or Sustainer or Almighty rather than Father or Him.  Gender neutral language, though, doesn’t see the individual quite as clearly)

All of this inclusive language business is, in general, quite good.  We’re not talking about mankind, we’re talking about humankind.  Male and female, men and women are all human and all trod through the human experience.  Often the human experience is slightly different for males and females, men and women, and so acknowledging that, too, is good.  It’s good because if we are going to live in peace together, which, I think, we all more or less hope to do, then we have to see each other.  We can’t do that if our language excludes half the population and makes them feel less than or unseen.

What I see a lot of now, however, are attempts at swinging the pendulum the other way.  Ideological movements often work this way: try to swing the pendulum the other way so that, at some point in the near future, the pendulum may have found a still equilibrium.  What may seem like pushing too far may only be a temporary blip in time to make people aware of the importance of the movement so that real peace can be found.  I hope, though, that by pointing out these pushes too far and suggesting a different course that I will encourage writers and orators to live in the still equilibrium now rather than waiting for a future time.

The first push too far is the exclusive use of female pronouns: the “she” and “her.”  A lot of female and male writers do this now.  By “a lot” I don’t mean majority but enough to notice the practice.  Let me remind you how I came up with the phrase “push too far”: it relates to swinging the pendulum in the reverse direction.  I don’t mean that writers who use only female pronouns are irresponsible.  In fact, I’m very appreciative that some writers have chosen to do this.  As a male, after reading the first essay (I don’t recall which essay, only that it was an essay) in which only female pronouns are used, I felt left out.  Then I read a book that used only female pronouns and I felt greatly annoyed.  So I came to appreciate how important inclusive language is through this practice.  I came to appreciate how through the ages women must have felt unseen and unheard through male-exclusive language.  The fact that women had to accept that, according to the rules of language, “man” can refer to any human and “you guys” can mean everyone, and even today many women accept such usage, especially in the case of “you guys,” only makes the unseen and unheard-ness worse because it means women didn’t and sometimes still don’t know that they are lesser when male-exclusive language is used. 

Yet while I appreciate female-exclusive language for what it’s done in opening my eyes, and while I would encourage primary schools to use female-exclusive language to teach kids the importance of inclusive language in writing and speech, it cannot become a permanent practice.  I feel bad saying so because, on some level, I understand than many men need a taste of their own medicine to really understand.  On another level, it seems just for us to make up for all the years that women were left out and unseen.  But truthfully the practice of using female-exclusive language other than as a teaching mechanism is as unjust as male-exclusive language because it leaves people in the shadows.  That is never just.  If enough people get on the female-exclusive language bandwagon then it may become a cultural practice and then we really will have swung the pendulum the other way, and then eventually men will become upset and swing it the other way, and on and on we’ll go without ever acquiring the elusive Lady Justice.  Again, I appreciate the female-exclusive language practice and understand all the good reasons and intentions a writer or orator might use the practice, but it can’t be a permanent tool for communication.  So if you happen to be reading this, I hope you’ll come to understand that inclusive language is not some liberal gobblygook and is actually a means of achieving peace in our world by seeing one another and that you’ll consistently use inclusive language so that others don’t feel the need to resort to one form of exclusive language or another and thereby oppress others.

Once we start using inclusive language consistently always we might think that we’re in the clear.  Unfortunately, some people are more sensitive.  I admit that I’d put myself in that category.  Another practice that I’ve seen a lot of lately is the use of “her or his.”  What’s wrong with that, you might ask.  It’s the same thing as “his or her” (or “her and his” vs. “his and her” obviously), you might say.  Yes, you’re right, but over time if a writer uses “her or his” all the time, then one might ask why the female is always ahead of the male.  Are women that much better than men?  It’s a sad state of affairs when people are sensitive to this type of thing, but alas, the world is full of sad states of affairs.  Again, I appreciate those writers who use “her or his” constantly and on purpose because otherwise I wouldn’t have noticed that my use of “his or her” over and over again may make some question why I think the male should always precede the female. 

So appreciative am I of the “her or his” practice that I can suggest to writers and orators a best practice for inclusive language.  And by “writer” and “orator” I don’t mean professionals only, I mean anyone who writes or speaks in any capacity, which is all of us.  First, use inclusive language.  Make sure that everyone feels seen.  Then, determine which sex and gender you most associate with.  Start with that one.  If, like me, you most associate with the male sex, then start with male pronouns.  The first time you use inclusive language, you’ll start with a male pronoun and end with a female pronoun.  Then, the next time you use inclusive language, reverse the pronouns.  Continue to reverse until you’re done writing or speaking.  This way, not only will we see all people but we will also show that we respect equally all people.  Even if we don’t see and respect equally all people, at least we won’t unnecessarily and unjustly offend anyone until such time that we can correct our thoughts and attitudes to mirror our inclusive and edifying language.  As Orwell convincingly argued, language does affect thought, so if our language is respectful, inclusive, edifying and dignifying, then we will create a more peaceful and just world.

(By the way, as far as God is concerned, I think people should feel comfortable using whatever language for God suits them.  Though God is an objective reality, unchanging and True, the relationship between human and God is necessarily subjective.  We each experience God as an individual.  If our experiences contradict, well, that’s a problem, but if I say Father and you say Mother, there is no contradiction because the nature of God’s love can encompass the Father and Mother realities simultaneously.  I cannot tell you how you should experience and relate to God and vice versa.  With that said, while I try hard to only say “God” or “Creator” or some other sex and gender-neutral descriptors, I do sometime use “Father” or “Him” when it seems grammatically silly to say “God” a bunch of times in a row.  To force everyone to use inclusive language for God denies all of us the intimate relationship with our Creator that God intends, because that intimate relationship is inherently personal and unique to you and God.  So go ahead, be intimate with God, be open and honest, and then if your relationship calls for using Mother and Her, then great; if it calls for using Father and Him, then great.  You are an individual that deserves to be seen and is seen by God, so don’t let any mere human dictate what your relationship with God will be.)

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