Are we ready for Gender-Neutrality?

This column was in my local daily paper earlier this week: http://townhall.com/columnists/monacharen/2012/03/09/gender_specific_writer/page/full/

Mona Charen

Essentially, columnist Mona Charen expressed discontent about Apple’s new word processor Pages because its spelling and grammar corrector suggested she make some of her terms more gender neutral.

Now, I can see her point on some counts–Pages tried to correct the “lady” in “first lady” to “individual,” for example, which doesn’t quite make sense. Furthermore, it preferred “speaker” or “advocate” to “spokesman” and Charen was concerned that her sentence would be confusing with either of those suggestions. In this case, if the person she was quoting was, indeed, a man, there really isn’t an issue anyhow.

But Charen doesn’t say that Pages was too picky or was offering the wrong suggestions. Her anger was directed, rather, at the political correctness of the spelling and grammar corrector. She concludes her column thus:

Apple’s language sentinel has been schooled in political correctness at the expense of English. In another column, I mentioned that the collapse of marriage was “aggravating” inequality in America. Consider “irritating” or “exasperating” instead, Proofreadress advised.

No, those are words I reserve for her.

Does political correctness actually significantly change the English language? If it does, is that a bad thing? This may be a better question for a linguist than for an activist for social change, but I think that political correctness mostly affects suffixes (-er/-ess, -man/-woman, etc.), so probably won’t change the form and function of the language to the point where it’s unrecognizable.                      
Perhaps a more pressing concern is that our society may not ready to unlearn political incorrectness. Are we so used to the current structure that we can’t see past it, that when change starts to affect all parts of society, people get irritated and exasperated?                                                                                                                                   .
I think that Charen was mostly overreacting (especially because Microsoft Word’s Spellcheck isn’t perfect either), and I don’t think that her column was much more than an outlet for frustration because she didn’t connect her anger to any broader problems besides pushing “political correctness at the expense of English.”                                                   .
Still, I think that it’s important that we recognize, as feminists and, more importantly, as activists, as people trying to change society and its discourses, that these are the arguments and sources of resistance that we will meet. People don’t really like change, especially when they feel personally confronted with it.                                                                     a
That said, do you think Apple was right to include these “politically correct” suggestions in Pages’ Proofreader? Do you think Charen has a right to be upset? And most importantly, do you think that this is just an isolated case of somebody being anal, or is it an indicator of widespread resistance to “political correctness” and why it exists?                                       aLet me know! For those of you traveling back to school after break today, be safe.                         aPeace,
Annie

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2 thoughts on “Are we ready for Gender-Neutrality?

  1. I don’t think what we are entirely ready for gender neutrality. There are many useful contexts for gender distinctions, as Mona Charen artfully suggested. I still use the male nouns/pronouns as I was taught, but I encourage my wife to use female nouns/pronouns in her writing.

    This year marks the 40th anniversary of Title IX, the landmark 1972 federal legislation banning sex discrimination in education, including in athletics. The Legislature could honor this sports milestone for women by finally lifting the outdated ban on mixed-martial arts — for women and men.

    To understand my position on women in combat and combat sports such as mixed martial arts, read my post at http://michaelbenjamin2012.wordpress.com/2012/03/12/let-women-join-the-fight-lift-the-mma-ban-in-ny/

    I liked your post. I hope to re-visit regularly.

  2. I think English as a language isn’t ready–as Charen points out, “first individual” sounds absolutely ridiculous, and one would never say that–and I don’t think we need to be completely gender-neutral either (if we’re talking about a man, there’s no reason the suffix or pronoun shouldn’t be masculine). This also, of course, affects people who identify as a gender other than their biological one, people who are of indeterminate gender, or people who identify as no gender at all–people who fall outside the binary, basically.

    I’m curious, too, though why Charen felt so attacked by her word processor. Why, I wonder, are sexism and racism still so prominent in our society more than 40 years after the movements seeking to end them began? Why is political correctness still so controversial?

    It’s interesting that you bring up the martial arts, because I was actually just talking with a family member about Santorum’s comments about women in the military. The major thing for me was Santorum’s use of the word “natural”–there is no natural state of the human being because humans vary so widely. I don’t think it’s right to generalize like that. But my family member pointed out his reasoning for still agreeing with Santorum on some level. He argued that while there are women who are capable of serving well in combat, society itself isn’t ready to have women serving. He argued that society couldn’t handle seeing female soldiers suffering from PTSD, for example, or serious war injuries. He also thought that placing women in combat would make society less inclined to go to war, which is sort of the unspoken reason why liberals push for women in combat.

    My first response, of course, was “Well maybe being less inclined to go to war wouldn’t be such a bad thing.” But thinking back on it now, if our society “can’t handle” women serving in combat, maybe the biggest problem isn’t whether we should send them, but why we have this idealized sanctity of the female while men are more disposable, perhaps.

    There’s just so much to talk about. Thanks for joining the conversation, and please do check back often!

    Peace,
    Annie

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