Gender Inclusive Language

I am reading The Really Hard Problem* by Owen Flanagan for an philosophical independent study of sorts. The book is basically about finding meaning in a material world, and I’m not talking about Madonna’s material world, I’m talking about everything that exists is finite and material and there is no G-d and no metaphysical stuff.

Anyway, Flanagan who teaches as a James B. Duke Professor of Philosophy and Neurobiology at Duke University** and has been published numerous times in academia, DOES NOT USE GENDER INCLUSIVE LANGUAGE. What? This still happens? The Really Hard Problem was published in 2009, Flanagan was a young man during the beginning of the Feminist movement in the 1960’s, he should be down with the gender-inclusive language thing.

UPDATE! I jumped the gun, so to speak, when I wrote this. Flanagan uses female pronouns in his later chapters. My apologizes.

Needless to say, this really bothered me, not only being a woman but also being a minority in the field of philosophy. Women only comprise 21% of Ph.Ds in philosophy.*** I brought it up with a friend and fellow student of philosophy on a bike ride later . His opinion on the matter was that if both genders are equal and mean the same thing (he is just the masculine  3rd person just as she is the feminine 3rd person) then what does it matter if someone uses just he or just she in their writing? When it comes down to it if what gender pronoun Flanagan uses does not affect the premises of his argument. So why care?

My friend raised a good point, my only retort was that Flanagan excludes a whole people from his examples, which if you are arguing a universal point, as Flanagan is doing, looks un-universal. So, yeah my counterargument sucked and I was embarrassed. I want to know what you all think,

Does it matter if you use gender inclusive language when it comes down to it? Why or why not?

*His title is a smart-ass take on David Chalmer’s “hard problem of consciousness” (why do we have qualitative phenomenological experience at all).

** Vom, I have major beef with the wannabe “Princeton” of the South. But that’s neither here nor there, I just wanted to get in a little ad hominem action.

***“Salary, Promotion, and Tenure Status of Minority and Women Faculty in U.S. Colleges and Universities.”National Center for Education Statistics, Statistical Analysis Report, March 2000; U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, Report # NCES 2000–173;1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF:93). See also “Characteristics and Attitudes of Instructional Faculty and Staff in the Humanities.” National Center For Education Statistics, E.D. Tabs, July 1997. U.S. Department of Education, Office of Education Research and Improvement, Report # NCES 97-973;1993 National Study of Postsecondary Faculty (NSOPF-93).

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8 Responses

  1. Hi Desiree,
    Yes it matters, and yes, Flanagan should know better. The examples we use in everyday life and in academic philosophy help to shape our thought worlds. If we insist on having a thought world where the only people who do anything or who are worth thinking about are men, we train ourselves to look at men one way and women another.
    So the best option, in my opinion, is to use a variety of pronouns.
    In light of the history of women’s oppression however, I think one would actually be justified in using only female pronouns and women in examples (men have had more than their fair amount of time in the limelight).
    This kind of reasoning actually applies to a number of different things. For instance, it’s one thing for a magazine to have a picture of a scrawny white woman in its pages. Fine, there are scrawny white women in the world. But when ALL you EVER see is scrawny white women, that’s when the thought world created by the magazine (which is especially problematic if it’s a so-called BEAUTY magazine), or the magazines (plural), becomes problematic. It perpetuates false and distorting standards of ‘beautiful’ or of ‘normal’ instead of fighting those standards and setting them straight.
    My two cents.
    Peace,
    -Daniel-

    • Hi Daniel,

      I very much agree. I do think, however; that trying to make up for lost examples using women by only using female pronouns is not how to level the playing field, so to speak. It’s a bit tit for tat, I think that by using both male and female or switching off between the two as you mention, is a way to set the example for others to follow you. So as you said, the best opinion is to use a variety of pronouns, and I totally agree. I especially like your example of popular magazines use of “scrawny white women”.

      Logical Operator (not Desiree)

  2. FYI Daniel, Logical Operator is no one named “Desiree.” Thanks for your two cents.

  3. How about using gender neutral pronouns?

    sie/zie, hir/zir, hirs/zirs, hirself/zirself are all acceptable gender neutral pronouns that can easily be inserted into the philosophical discussion… the problem is that they aren’t common in everyday vernacular. However, they could become more common if people used them more often, so why not start with philosophy?

  4. Yeah, oops, sorry about the identity mixup. (I found this blog via a friend’s link, and I thought it was her blog–silly me.)
    Gender neutral might in principle be fine, but it’s rather passive. Our social imagination needs ACTIVE reconfiguring. Our dominant social metaphors are sexist, racist and biased, and tend towards the perpetuation of such modes of life and social organization. Therefore, in my opinion, a more imaginatively confrontational mode of reorientation is necessary.
    My third cent.
    Peace,
    -Daniel-

  5. Hey Daniel–not trying to identity-confuse anymore, but this is Desiree. I used to write for this blog, and if I ever do again, it will be under this screen name. 🙂

  6. Actually, I think gender neutral pronouns are anything but passive, as they allow for the acknowledgment of more than two genders. Gender neutral pronouns were invented by journalists as a means to avoid having the pronoun dilemma when speaking in generalities, but they have come to be widely used in the transgender community by those who do not identify as either male or female. Genderqueer, two-spirit, and other trans individuals have utilized the gender neutral pronoun for some time now, and I think the best way to be as inclusive as possible is to account for those genders that exist outside the binary when speaking to “people” as a whole.

  7. It seems to me that we have slipped backwards in terms of sexist language in the U.S. over the last 20 years. Even my favorite all-boy punk rock band, the Ramones, wrote a song called “Humankind.” But nowadays, from PBS narrators, politicians, teachers, etc., I only hear “mankind.”

    Here is my reverse-gender essay, which you may enjoy….

    http://daisybrain.wordpress.com/2009/09/28/why-i-wear-only-women-made-clothes/

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