I’m going to go out on a limb and assume I’m going to offend some folks with this post, most likely some of the same people I offended when I addressed my issues with feminism, but I’d like to state for the record that I am not blaming feminism for this one. I am blaming cowardice and stupidity. If you are offended by anything I have to say in this post, I will gladly address your concerns, but I wanted to get that out there first.
So I recently found out that the University of North Carolina – Chapel Hill has removed the word “freshmen” from official documents to adopt more “gender inclusive language”. Point of fact, according to the linked article the policy change occurred in 2009, but then I don’t stay abreast of every action I find idiotic in the world, just the ones that come knocking on my doorstep. It’s not even that I find this terribly shocking in and of itself, since this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of something like this happening, it’s the fact that something like this is still happening in 2009.
Look, I love the English language, and I get as much as anyone that words have power. I use them every day, in my job and in my hobby (you’re reading the latter right now, if I haven’t offended you too much already). But there has to be a point at which we say that while words have meaning, there is such a thing as reading too much meaning into words. I realize the deconstructionists out there will disagree with me, as will certain others, but where do we draw the line?
I cite as an example, and the reason I say “why is this still a thing?” the exact same joke I made when this whole question of language use first came to my attention… back in 1993. That’s right, about twenty years ago. At the time I was joking about the word “humankind”. Obviously this word is offensive, as it contains the word “man” and is meant to refer to all homo sapiens. Therefore we should change it to hupersonkind. However even this is offensive, as it contains the word “son”, which is still gender discriminative, as well as making assumptions about family roles. That simply won’t do. We should therefore make it into “huperchildkind”. The word “kind” may remain as it is an affirmation, and something we should all strive toward being.
Ridiculous? I should say so. And that was my point. Any attempt to change a word simply because it contains within it a masculine form which, within the established rules of the English language is the gender-neutral form, is just that: ridiculous. I’m not aware of attempts to change European languages that default to masculine and feminine forms for inanimate objects, although if those exist I would consider them equally silly. The rules of language may be arbitrary, but they exist and we follow them because they work. Taking offense where none is intended or necessary is just looking for excuses to be angry at the whole damn world for not bending to your whims, and frankly there are better windmills to tilt at.
This is not to say I oppose all attempts to make language gender-neutral. While I abhor such ludicrous neologisms as “actron”, I freely accept the interchangeable use of the gender-neutral term “actor” being applied to men and women who ply the same trade, and a magician is equally as talented (or not) regardless of gender. There are also times and places where gender differences are useful in one’s title; or perhaps you are one of the folks who don’t care if you are served by a masseur or a masseuse. None of these, however, are relevant to the issue above; that is simply a matter of cowardice and stupidity, blindly flailing about in a craven attempt to please all and offend none. The end result is often the exact opposite.
Words matter. They have power. They have meaning. They can be used for so many things, to create joy or sorrow, to enlighten or spread ignorance and fear. So long as we give in to the forces who would take away our words in the name of cowardice and stupidity, all we have left is