Friday, 16 May 2014

Gwynne, sexist language and causing offence

He's good value, that Gwynne chap. Two posts out of one little book which I haven't even read.

In his preface, Gwynne explains about his use of pronouns. He notes that 'he' used to be used for 'a member of the human race of either sex', but now is found offensive by 'some people' (here, he implicitly compares these overly sensitive people to those sensible women who used to use 'he' 'without hesitation or objection'). He (rightly) says that 'he or she' is 'disagreeably clumsy', but then irrationally dismisses singular 'they', a perfectly elegant and simple solution with good historical pedigree. His dismissal is based on nothing more than the 'authoritative' opinion of a style guide and Simon Heffer, who is a journalist, and whose work has been called 'staggeringly erroneous' and inconsistent by, you know, actual authorities on language (=linguists). So, he says, he will avoid generic 'he' where it is possible to do so, so as not to potentially annoy those namby pamby sensitive readers. However, avoiding it completely is beyond even Gwynne's considerable writing skills, and so sometimes, he must use it to avoid awkwardness. He says,
Please be assured, therefore, on the few occasions that you see the all-embracing 'he' or equivalent, that it is occurring without any offence being intended.
Oh, well, that's all right then. If he doesn't mean any offence, there won't be any offence. Permit me to make an extreme analogy, which I'll put under a break as it contains highly offensive language (the 'n-word').

Let's imagine Gywnne said this (and I'm not for one moment suggesting he ever would; it's for the purposes of exposition):
The word 'nigger' used to be use to refer to people with dark skin, and those people themselves used to use it without hesitation or objection. These days, it is found to be offensive by some people, but the alternative, Person of Colour, is often disagreeably clumsy. To overcome this defect, some use the term 'black', even when referring to people whose skin is not actually black, but brown. To avoid causing possible offence, I will try not to use the word 'nigger' wherever possible, but please be assured that on the few occasions that you see 'nigger' or equivalent, that it is occurring without any offence being intended.
I'm not sure that would have helped Jeremy Clarkson or the BBC Radio Devon DJ David Lowe, are you?

OK, that's all the offensive language for the moment. My apologies. It just seemed a useful comparison, although of course that word is much more offensive than using generic 'he'.

The point is, Gwynne totally misses the point. And so does everyone else who moans about not being 'allowed' to use certain words, and political correctness and so on. If I ask someone not to use a particular word, it's not because it offends my delicate sensibilities; it's because it's contributing to a culture of racism, sexism or whatever it is.

There are some words that are offensive, to be sure: some swearwords are taboo enough that many people simply find them unpleasant and don't want to hear them bandied around. If you're in a public place, you have to be aware that this is the case and moderate your language accordingly. Some people refer to 'freedom of speech', apparently unaware that your freedom of speech extends only as far as communicating your opinions to people 'willing to receive them' - not forcing them on those who aren't. Furthermore, it does not permit you to cause offence to other people or groups.

But lots of words don't actually offend me or others, but I still don't want people to use them. I can't personally be offended by the 'n-word', because it doesn't refer to me. I still don't think it should be used, even when there are no black people within earshot, because it perpetuates the culture of racism and 'otherness' which is still extremely damaging to a large proportion of our society. Here's an excellent article by Musa Okwonga which explains it far better than I can. It isn't about your freedom of speech, and it isn't about avoiding causing offence to bleeding-heart liberals. It's about not being an unthinking part of an ingrained inequality. This goes for racial slurs, and it goes for sexist pronouns. Why couldn't Gwynne use generic 'she'? It never even crossed his mind. Our language reflects our attitudes and, more importantly, it reinforces them. So we have to be vigilant.

I'm pretty hypocritical in this respect. I use 'postman', 'policeman' etc to refer to those workers of any gender. When I do, I see -man as a suffix rather than as the lexical form 'man'. It loses its vowel articulation, being reduced to the schwa vowel, rather like the place suffixes -mouth, -borough and -ton have. I rather like this use, and provided that we all forget about its male origins, we'll be fine. But perhaps I should substitute 'person' instead ('policewoman' etc is no better - why specify?).

And one final point of interest: I learnt recently that MLE has a new generic pronoun (it works rather like 'one'), which is 'man'. It's analogous to the older English pronoun 'man', German 'man', and the 'man' in Jamaican creole. At present it seems to refer only to men, but let's see how that develops.

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