Choosing which readers to annoy

Oliver Kamm (Times, 1 September 2012; no link) writes:

It has long troubled me that using “man” as a generic term or “he” as a generic rather than a personal pronoun is liable to be interpreted as a political statement against sexual equality.

That isn’t the editorial opinion of The Times… But the use of “gender-neutral language”, prescribed by many publishers and other institutions, is the cause of some serious offences against English style.

I could tolerate these, while not overlooking them, if I thought that a strict disavowal of purportedly sexist language helped eradicate discrimination.

I know of no evidence that it does, however, and it is inherently unlikely that it should.

There is no reason that the use of “man” as a generic term should inculcate the idea that women are inferior, any more than using “goose” as a generic term implies the exclusion of ganders.

I’m not going to get into the politics of gender-neutral language, nor into a debate about how far language can influence people’s views. I just want to make a pragmatic point.

One thing that language definitely does influence is the way that the reader sees the writer. Kamm provides the argument himself: whether he or anyone else likes it or not, “using ‘man’ as a generic term or ‘he’ as a generic rather than a personal pronoun is liable to be interpreted as a political statement against sexual equality”.

That is a fact about the linguistic reactions of many people. We may abhor it, we may reject the arguments that brought it about, but there it is: a fact. It’s every bit as real as the negative reactions that many other people have to some gender-neutral language.

These are opposing tastes and we have to decide how to handle the tension.

If we pick one side over the other in any given case, we’re liable to put off some of our readers – whether for aesthetic or for political reasons is beside the point. So if we can’t reasonably rephrase the tension away, then rather than dismissing the objections of either group as ill-founded, we should openly choose which group we’re least worried about.

This choice would, ideally, be based on information about our readers’ usage tastes, but that’s often unavailable – so we have to use our best judgement. Astonishingly, in such cases, we tend to conclude that most of our readers’ tastes are the same as our own.

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Comments

  • David Levine  On September 13, 2012 at 10:01 pm

    The choice becomes moot if one
    simply annoys everyone.

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