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Pronouns and Triviality

 
 
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 02:39 am
New here. Hi. Smile

Reading through a number of the philosophy topic threads I noticed that some here are keen on arguing by example using exclusively male pronouns. "If someone knows he is ____ then ____" is the kind of thing I mean.

My question is don't we think this is rather a bad practice? Probably this is done unthinkingly, which is fine. I don't mean to denigrate members here. But given bodies like the APA (American Psychological Association) changed their code of conduct to eliminate sexist pronouns back in the 1970s, it feels peculiarly out of date for it to endure in any serious-minded place in 2012. Not to mention it is harmful in that it excludes women from discussion.

I understand that this could be viewed as a trivial matter, and it's the topics that concern people chiefly, not the manner in which they are discussed. But I take Wilde's quote on triviality quite seriously, without irony. I think there is much to be said for serious discussion of the outwardly trivial.

But perhaps you disagree.
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Type: Discussion • Score: 14 • Views: 11,460 • Replies: 187

 
roger
 
  5  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 03:06 am
@medium-density,
Don't you find it awkward to keep saying he/her, or even worse, something like hisorher? How does "If someone knows 'one' is ____ then. . . ?

Propose something better, and it might catch on. I know someone who used to use abbreviations for she/he/it, and use the search and replace function to replace s/h/it. I hope she never missed an occurance of ****.
medium-density
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 03:24 am
@roger,
Hi Smile

I think you're speaking to the triviality of the question rather than acknowledging the importance of overturning sexism in all corners of our discourse. That's one way to come at the argument. A practical way.

But on the practicalities of it, yes I see what you mean. Wherever possible I use "they" rather than "he" or "she". Something as simple as "s/he" could also work.

Anyone else have a suggestion?
Setanta
 
  0  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 03:26 am
I would hardly use Wilde as a source of profound wisdom. These are conventions. The APA style manual does not rule peoples' use of the language, and i doubt that you can make a compelling case that women's self identities are irreparably harmed by the use of such conventions. You are free to do as you choose of course.

As for what gets posted in philosophy threads at this site, that is one area in which the second half of Wilde's dictum is well taken.
medium-density
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 04:36 am
@Setanta,
I only invoke Wilde so as to pre-empt any objections on grounds of triviality, I wouldn't get hung up on appraisals of his wisdom, if at all possible.

They are conventions, so I don't really blame anyone for using them. And it's true that it's somewhat difficult for me to make a compelling case for the harmful nature of sexist pronouns, since I'm not a woman.

I just think they are careless and needlessly excluding. We would do better to be inclusive in all our language. Sexism is insidious, and oftentimes a subtle thing, so we should be on the watch for it, and eliminate it wherever possible.
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 05:32 am
@medium-density,
The sky is falling! The sky is falling!

-- C. Little
medium-density
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 11:04 am
@Setanta,
I think I've dealt with the objection that I'm treating a trivial subject seriously already.

Do you think there's no such thing as benevolent sexism? Or do you just think it's not worth opposing?

This question goes for anyone, I'm not enormously invested in Setanta's thoughts as they seem to have made their uninterest clear.
0 Replies
 
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 11:24 am
My thoughts made their uninterest clear? I was unaware that my thoughts not only have a life of their own, independent of me, but of which i would be unaware until informed by you. Without endoring your term "benevolent sexism," i certainly think opposing an innocent and neutral use of pronouns is not something worth getting worked up over.
sozobe
 
  3  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 11:47 am
@medium-density,
Hi medium-density, welcome to A2K.

I think there are a lot of ways to get around the "he" default. Even though it doesn't bother me that much I do see your point, and agree. I remember reading someplace about changes towards gender-neutral language having a real (positive) effect, but I don't remember enough about it to find it back right now.

I'm not sure what I usually do. I think I use "one" or "someone" fairly often. I'm sure I revert to "he" sometimes too when I mean people of either gender.

Basically, I wouldn't go so far as to say it's bad practice, as in I'll get mad at someone who does it, but I also think it's worth putting some effort into avoiding it, myself.
maxdancona
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 11:51 am
@medium-density,
"He" and "his" are not sexist pronouns. They are used in English, according to Merriam Webster, "in a generic sense or when the sex of the person is unspecified".

The sexist pronoun is "she" which only refers to females.

I propose we get rid of the gender specific pronouns; "she" and "her", and just use the gender neutral pronouns "he" and "his" for everyone.

See. problem solved.
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 11:56 am
Hehehehehehehehehe . . .
0 Replies
 
medium-density
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 12:16 pm
@Setanta,
Benevolent sexism isn't my term, you can read a brief description of it here: http://www.bps.org.uk/news/benevolent-sexism-puts-women-asking-help if you're interested.
medium-density
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 12:21 pm
@sozobe,
Hey sozobe, thanks for the welcome Smile

I'm afraid I'm one of those bores whom it does bother (obviously). I just think we can have a more inclusive discourse this way. Once it's pointed out you can't help noticing it (or at least this was true for me), and it rather upsets the flow of what you're (I'm) reading.

I also feel like I've seen research along the lines you describe, but I don't think you need research to tell you that gender-exclusive language of any kind would contribute to a general sexist tone in society.
medium-density
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 12:31 pm
@maxdancona,
I'm afraid I'm not going to assume you're being facetious.

So, obviously a dictionary can't be an eternal and infallible source of meaning -they change with the language they catalogue. And this doesn't even address the point, which is that using "he" and "his" to refer to a person, regardless of gender, is sexist. No matter whether a book compiled by people supports this use or not.

Using a book made by people to assert an infallible truth is a well known mistake, you know.
sozobe
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:03 pm
@medium-density,
Was it recently pointed out to you?

It's something I noticed a very long time ago (I'm 42 now, maybe at age 10 or so?) and while it bothered me quite a bit at the time, I've since gotten used to it. Not in a defeatist way, just that it doesn't get my dander up to the same extent.

At any rate, are you looking for solutions? I think it's not that hard to do, really. (I've been doing it pretty extensively -- though I won't say exclusively for fear that someone will pounce on a post of mine where I use a generic "he" -- for something like 32 years I guess.)
maxdancona
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:20 pm
@medium-density,
Quote:
which is that using "he" and "his" to refer to a person, regardless of gender, is sexist.


Why is using "he" and "his" to refer to a person, regardless of gender sexist? They are just combinations of letters. Would using "foo" or "flup" to refer to a person regardless of gender be sexist?

And why can't a dictionary be an infallible source of meaning? Do you have another suggestion?

maxdancona
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:24 pm
Is this sexist?

Quote:
An individual has not started living until he can rise above the narrow confines of his individualistic concerns to the broader concerns of all humanity.


- Martin Luther King Jr.
0 Replies
 
medium-density
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:37 pm
@sozobe,
I realised this was a problem when I read my first mature book, The God Delusion, when I was 16 or 17. It's explicitly referred to in there as something feminists raised our consciousness about.

Difficult to think of a solution, short of establishing a facist system to control language use. I suppose being the change you wish to see is the most that can be done. That and bothering philosophy forums with this complaint...
0 Replies
 
Setanta
 
  1  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:39 pm
@medium-density,
Well, it was your decision of use "benevolent sexism" in this case. From your source:

Quote:
Benevolent sexism describes insidious behaviours and beliefs that reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. It's a controversial idea. It's not always clear if an act, such as a man opening a door for a woman, is simply polite or an example of benevolent sexism. Another issue is whether or not benevolent sexism is harmful. A new study led by Juliet Wakefield claims to show that exposure to benevolent sexism can put women off asking for help.


Perhaps you can explain how using "he" and "his" in a neutral form tend to reinforce the idea that women are less capable than men and need their help. Many people these day will default to "she" and "her" when wanting a singular pronoun for an indeterminate individual. Do you consider that this wold reinforce and idea that men are less capable than women and need their help?

Much ado about nothing. I am reminded of the feminists of the 60s who claimed that French was a sexist language because all nouns had a gender. Pointing out to them that the word for breast was masculine and the word for mustache was feminine--that the assignment of gender to nouns was notional and not referential made no difference to them. They had a agenda and they were sticking to it. I suspect you are the same.
medium-density
 
  2  
Reply Tue 11 Dec, 2012 01:48 pm
@maxdancona,
[quoteWhy is using "he" and "his" to refer to a person, regardless of gender sexist? They are just combinations of letters. Would using "foo" or "flup" to refer to a person regardless of gender be sexist?][/quote]

Why does anything mean anything? That's a nonsensical argument, if you'll forgive me for saying so. English-speakers agree that the words "he" and "his" refer to men. The idea that we can just use the pronouns which refer to men as catchall's for any gender is sexist. It's actually rather simple.

Quote:
And why can't a dictionary be an infallible source of meaning? Do you have another suggestion?


Actually I don't. I don't believe there can be an infallible source of meaning.

And as for the Martin Luther King quote, of course I think the pronoun he employs is sexist, whereas the overall sentiment conveyed is not.
 

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