Saturday, April 12, 2008

DIal A Different Cliche, Sam

Sometimes things just fall into your lap. As a nice followup on some griping about Gender Studies a few days ago, a story about a publicity whore suing to have Hillary disqualified as a presidential candidate. His reasoning? The exclusive use of masculine pronouns like "he" in the Constitution means women aren't qualified.

Guess he's never heard of a universal masculine.

Fortunately, the courts don't seem to be taking this seriously. OF COURSE women like Hillary are included in the universal "he" used in the Constitution. The immediately preceding link, in fact, goes to an article with a whole host of examples of purportedly feminist women using the universal masculine to refer to themselves. And the article itself gives an even better example: Susan B. Anthony, refuting this selfsame argument in 1870, points out that if the universal "he" in the law books doesn't include women, then no laws prohibit women doing anything - they're free to steal, murder, etc. - generally carry on as they please.

OF COURSE "he" in legal texts includes women. Just as it does everywhere. What's more - Gender Studies professors know it and have simply dreamed up this issue as a way to have something to talk about, rather than having to learn statistics or go to medical school or in general acquire any of the time- and brain-intensive skills that would be par for the course in any serious attempt at a "Gender Studies" Department.

Click here for a typical example of the kind of logical confusion that too much fretting over this issue causes. The link goes to an essay by a female professor who makes a habit of using a feminine universal. That is, she says things like "Every dog has her day." Annoying, but so far, fair enough. But then she frets because in some cases her use of the feminine universal might exacerbate sexist stereotypes.

So, in-class discussion may turn to a testator's ability to put assets into trust because a beneficiary's money management skills are suspect. I might wish to say (using masculine pronoun), "if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can adequately manage his property, the testator may choose to put that property into trust." And my instinct is to flip the gender of the pronoun. But if I flip the gender there, I'm suddenly bringing up sexist notions about women who are unable to manage their property -- "if there are questions about whether a beneficiary can manage her property . . ."

And so she admits that

This means that my universal pronoun usage is not consistent. For positives and neutrals and gender-neutral negatives, I use the feminine universal; for potentially-gender-problematic negatives, I use the masculine universal. ... It creates a weird double standard, with positives and neutrals and gender-okay negatives getting one treatment and potentially-gender-problematic negatives a different treatment. It sends a negative message of its own, that I'm okay with a masculine universal sometimes.

Which really does beg the question of what's wrong with a masculine universal that's right with a feminine universal? Honestly, if you're in a position to believe that using one pronoun ('he') is sexist, then surely it follows from that that it's equally sexist to use the other? How could it fail to be? Well, I suppose a practitioner of this bit of wilful sexism would defend himself by saying that "society" (whatever that is) is generally sexist in favor of men, so until such time as roles are equal, we'll prefer to use a feminine universal instead, as a way of fighting the good fight. Fine - but what then? To the extent that this is an effective method of fighting sexism (which I do not for a moment believe), then the day will eventually come when we've achieved full gender equality (that time is now, but never mind). WHAT THEN? At that point, how do we know which to use? Will the government set up some kind of ethereal web spider that crawls the web, tallies up references to people by gender, decides whether they've been equally proportioned, and assigns a universal pronoun for the day based on what it's gathered? You know - maybe along with the stock quotes and the weather forecast at the bottom of the screen on the Today Show there will be a "Universal Pronoun: Masculine in the morning, with a 20% chance of feminine in the evening?"

What rot. If there's to be gender-neutral universal given the tools we have, then there are essentially two choices. (A) Pick one or the other and stick with it. (B) Use "they" instead. What you cannot plausibly believe is that you're fighting sexist stereotypes by adopting the non-universal form and using it as though it were the universal - bucept in cases where you don't feel like it for arcane political reasons. That this woman even has to raise this issue is proof that too much thought has been put into this issue.

Another example of a similar absurdity comes from a 1927 Canadian Supreme Court Ruling to the effect that a Emily Murphy could not be a magistrate because she was not a "person" as defined by the British North America Act (the document that was passing for a Constitution in Canada at the time). You see, the BNA apparently used "he" in the singular and "persons" in the plural, implying that the use of "he" had been deliberate and therefore excluded women. So women were apparently not legal "persons," which should have been a bit of a puzzle for Canadians since women had been voting there since 1918.

If you're laughing at the reasoning here, that's because it is indeed funny. "He" has among its uses that of a universal pronoun - period. And in fact, despite Geoff Pullum's spirited defense of the Canadian Supreme Court's grammar knowledge, the fact is that in the Canada of the time, as its foremost legal authorities really ought to have known, the universal masculine was legally enshrined as such, having been declared so by an 1850 Act of British Parliament (and hence legally binding in Canada, at it preceded the 1867 Confederation). Granted, it might not be a perfect choice for such a pronoun. I do think there is often a garden path effect associated with masculine universal forms - meaning that people get two readings for it (the male-specific and the unversal ones) simultaneously, and that this might cause parsing problems in certain situations. But this would hardly be the only example of such an ambiguity in English (or any language, for that matter). Language is nothing if not adaptable - and people are certainly capable of learning to use a masculine pronoun as a universal consistently, even if not everyone does it currently.

Certainly, to address the question at issue in this post, the tradition of American law understands the distinction between a universal and a gender-specific masculine. That is why, for example, it was necessary to phrase the fourteenth amendment provisions related to voting in such a way that they specifically refered to "male citizens" or "male inhabitants," as in, for example, section 2:

Representatives shall be apportioned among the several States according to their respective numbers, counting the whole number of persons in each State, excluding Indians not taxed. But when the right to vote at any election for the choice of electors for President and Vice President of the United States, Representatives in Congress, the Executive and Judicial officers of a State, or the members of the Legislature thereof, is denied to any of the male inhabitants of such State, being twenty-one years of age, and citizens of the United States, or in any way abridged, except for participation in rebellion, or other crime, the basis of representation therein shall be reduced in the proportion which the number of such male citizens shall bear to the whole number of male citizens twenty-one years of age in such State.

The inclusion of this kind of language in a document that otherwise refers to "persons" and "himself" and so on would hardly have been necessary if the authors were not well aware that universal masculine pronouns had a universal interpretation. If "he" always meant "male," in other words, why wouldn't they simply have said "he" here, as they do in every other part of the document? Because "he" doesn't reliably mean "male," that's why.

Now, are there problems with the masculine universal? Certainly - but they are parsing problems, NOT political problems. To the extent that the universal masculine creates a garden path effect, it's cumbersome, true enough. But it is not "oppressive" or even "confusing" by any stretch of the imagination. It would be nice if there were a universal that were not phonetically identical to the masculine form, granted - but to wring one's hands overly much worrying that the universal masculine has measurable social consequences is to suffer from all sorts of deterministic delusions, not the least of which are etymological.

Look - words change and evolve in their meaning. Paying too much attention to where they came from is a recipe for all sorts of confusion. To cite a common example, I am in the habit of "dialing" phone numbers, even though I haven't used a rotary phone in at least 20 years. Even back in my childhood, when rotary phones were still not entirely uncommon, I experienced no cognitive dissonance talking about "dialing" numbers on our pushbutton phone. The point is that it doesn't bloody matter that the construct "dial a number" comes from days when you literally did just that - it is a context-specific way of talking about entering a number. It doesn't reflect "pro-rotary" bias in English any more than universal "he" reflects gender bias. To take this a bit further, when I lived in Japan, both forms of "dialing" were actually in common use - but NOT on the basis of which kind of phone you used (indeed, I think I only saw one rotary phone the whole time I was there - in the late 90s - and I'm not sure it was working). Rather, older people habitually said mawasu ("dial") whereas younger people preferred kaku ("enter, punch in"). Now let me ask you a question. Suppose I wanted to conclude from this that Japanese people are technologically cleverer than Americans because they've updated their langauge to reflect changes in the technology? Would that sound like a solid argument to you? Of course not, nor should it. You would insist, before drawing such a conclusion, that we look at all kinds of other factors, most of which would have nothing to do with language at all. And so it is in the case of the universal masculine in English. When Americans talk about "dialing" a number on their cellphones, no one honestly imagines that there are rotary cellphones in use, or even that Americans are confused on this point! And when Americans talk about "every man for himself," no one honestly imagines that the speaker believes females are not supposed to take care of themselves.

The whole thing is a farce. And the courts, fortunately, seem to agree. The article ends with this bit from legal scholar Jonathan Turley:

Turley described the masculine pronoun argument as part of "urban mythology" that is spread on blogs and the Internet.

"It's a fun subject for blogging, but it's not very compelling on a legal basis," Turley said.

Right - a fun subject for blogging. I've had fun. Now let's do stop worring about oppression built into our pronoun system and insist, if we may, that Gender Studies researchers get real educations and find more serious projects to work on in the future.


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