Example of Sexism

Sexist Language

The right shortening of the cumbersome he or she, his or her, &c., is he or him or his though the reference may be to both sexes.  Whether that reluctance [to use this shortening] is less felt by the male is doubtful. Each, one, person, &c., may be answered by her instead of him & his when the reference, though formally to both sexes, is especially to the female.
--H.W. Fowler, A Dictionary of Modern English Usage141

Yes, if I commented that pronouns wasn't the preacher's strong suit, I should have explained grammar a bit before telling him not to get too creative with it. In the reference Elements of Style a rule is laid down that one shouldn't use experimental or novel forms, because some readers might be offended. There is, however, such a thing as artistic or literary license which I'm in favor of, and it does require creativity.  For example:

    The lead actor was in fool's motley, divided in two vertical halves.  One side was explicitly female, the other side explicitly male.  He/she came downstage and began to speak directly to the audience.
--Robert B. Parker, Walking Shadow142

Since the actor was neither male nor female, the writer needed to use some creativity, so he came up with he/she.  Fine by me.  But if a writer weak in pronouns wants only to shorten the cumbersome he or she, I'd prefer he use the rule (or the exception) rather than his own creativity.  That's what I meant.

Extra-linguistic factors surrounding pronouns are numerous, so I'll start with my biography.  I was raised in the country where I got good English grades, to be sure, but in a place where pupils are often reprimanded for saying ain't, I don't know that would indicate I should be an English major.  We moved to the city where I went to the rich kids' high school, one of the top two or three schools in the country, with the crème de la crème for teachers, and being a smart kid, I got good grades there, except for English.  My English sounded good to me.  I couldn't understand why the teacher didn't think so.  My mom told me to ask for extra assignments to up my grade, so I turned in an additional paper which the teacher liked so much she wanted me to publish it.  But it didn't help my grade.

Then my mom had me go to summer school, while the rest of the kids went swimming.  Bummer!  Our summer school teacher was a "bitch."  She did nothing but find fault.  I sweated over that course but still couldn't improve my grade. The main thing I got out of it was an inferiority complex.  Now I knew my English was rotten, in ways I wasn't even aware of.

Nowadays, I still feel my English is inadequate, and now, especially with political correctness, every two-bit scholar is telling us how to shape up.  But I know enough to know a lot of what's put out is utter nonsense.  I feel like I'm being taught by the guys who went swimming that summer rather than struggle through a summer session in English.  After a while, I start taking them to task for what they put out, I mean no personal criticism, my comments on the preacher's pronoun usage.  There's no doctrine in dispute.  Although I'm no expert on the Holy Spirit, this series in Acts makes a certain sense, and it avoids some obvious pitfalls others have come up with.  Now, I'm not sure one can actually pin the Spirit down--He will do this right when you do this, and He will never do that after a certain point in history--, because a Spirit by definition is free, but if He were subject to a completely logical understanding, this preacher has probably hit the nail on the head.  Personally, I've decided not to be afraid of the Spirit per se, but to continue to be leery of those who say they've had some kind of experience (which for all I know could be entirely genuine) which gives them such a high notion of their understanding of spiritual matters that they've shelved their Bibles, or don't consult them enough.

I went to college in electrical engineering, which kept me in an ivory tower for five years, but I learned how to write a good engineering report, which that school was noted for.  My mastery of English is good enough for that but not much better.  Paul was a tent-maker and built churches.  Peter was a fisherman and drew converts in.  John mended nets, and repaired breaches in churches.  I can write a good engineering report, and similarly analyze religious systems in enough depth for one to call my plow deep, but it's only my own narrow gift just as others have theirs.

After college, 1970, I came west where I got saved in the Jesus movement and lived in Christian communes for some years.  After that I was living 15 miles out of Eugene, and worked for a radio station in town.  But I didn't even own a radio, or a television, or read the newspaper.  I read the Bible and scholarly books, and my life was centered around church activities.  I was treated badly at an Assembly of God Church where I was a regular visitor, and when I complained, the pastor told me if I didn't like it I could go to the Church of Christ down the street.  I moved to Eugene and have been part of such a church where I am treated much better.

This was at the end of 1979 when I decided that as a Christian I should be part of the community rather than always grouped with Christians waiting for the Lord's return.  I joined a neighborhood round-singing group which for me was risque, to be singing songs other than church hymns.  But I soon got to appreciate the music, and at Christmas we did sing hymns.

The other singers complained when I threw them off by not carrying the tune.  They tried to work with me, private voice lessons, to no avail.  They had to ask me to leave their group, I was so bad, except for the hymns I'd sung all my life, those I could carry.

I don't feel like giving God my worst, so I don't attempt new songs which I couldn't carry, but stick to the old familiar ones.

There was another problem at the round singing group when they discovered some of their songs were examples of "sexism."  The group was almost all female, and I'd noticed feminist magazines strewn around the place.  One evening we were about to sing a song when someone remarked that it was sexist, so they changed the wording.  I thought about that for a while.  I'd never heard of sexism before, but everyone there seemed instantly familiar with it (this was the end of 1979).  I know what sex is, and I know that ism's in general are systems of belief about something.  But sexism?  Never heard of it.  I told you I'd been isolated.

So I examined the song.  Round songs, as poems are ultra-simple.  They have to be, in order for the parts to work together.  But they're difficult to write, which is why no one does it anymore.  All our songs were from, like, the 1800's. This poem of just a few lines in one place used a masculine gender word to refer to a person which could be either sex. They called that sexist.  So I looked at this poem of a few lines and found there was mentioned a country that contained people of both sexes, and, especially to a poet in the nineteenth century, countries were feminine gender.  So there was no gender imbalance.  I pointed this out to them, also the fact that our language is so complex that nobody can understand it completely, especially not your average speaker, which included all of them.  Furthermore, if there were an imbalance, it would be the poets who would be first sensitive to it, not someone with a political agenda that speaks in slogans.  Poets may refer to a country as she but they use the same masculine words for people in general as the rest of us. There was no imbalance.

They listened to me and decided that we could sing the song either way, individual choice.  This happened to a couple more songs.  I decided that if we were to berate sexist wording, there were better candidates.  I found one, in a round song about someone desperate to use the john.  I pointed out that john is sexist because that can refer to the customer of a prostitute.  That was the wrong thing to say in a room full of women who just weren't thinking of sexism in those terms.  I discovered that if I didn't understand sexism as it's popularly conceived, I'm better off sticking to traditional words and phrases, not trying to fight sexism on my terms.  That was my one and only encounter with an example of sexism before the eighties.  Now our reference books talk about it.  In an extensive section on the subject:

    F. Statute of Limitations. Those committed to nonsexist usage ought to adopt a statute of limitations that goes something like this: in quoted matter dating from before 1980, passages containing bland sexism--such as the use of the generic he or of chairman--can be quoted in good conscience because in those days the notions of gender inclusiveness were entirely different from today's notions.  Although it is quite fair to discuss cultural changes over time, it is unfair to criticize our predecessors for not conforming to present-day standards.  How could they have done so?
-- Bryan Garner, A Dictionary of Modern American Usage143

I'd never been exposed to the modern idea of sexism before the eighties, except an attempt to apply it to something from the 1800s which in effect inoculated me against it.  In effect I was in linguistic isolation while the rest of society changed its speech until the statute of limitations expired.  My "sexist" dialect then is not subject to censure, and since it's been demonstrated that for me to try to learn a nonsexist one is worse than keeping my original, I am exempt from any requirement for nonsexist speech.  I feel like the cat that's swallowed the canary.
    Within the territory of a language, wide deviations of dialect may be found, for example in the English of the United States largely, but by no means solely, of vocabulary. ... Such deviations disturb communication, they do not completely disrupt it.  And they are, in all known languages, a constant feature, like archaisms (e.g. in religious or legal terminology).
--Joshua Whatmough, Language: A Modern Synthesis144

Sexist and nonsexist language are, when it comes right down to it, only two different dialects in English, and as dialects are a constant feature in any language, we are familiar enough with the concept that it shouldn't throw us. Since "such deviations disturb communication, [but] they do not completely disrupt it," for the speaker to claim to use the one dialect instead of the other to "break through a firewall" is too strong an image.  I've read a bit of the feminist literature and seen them exaggerate the effects of sexist language to make it seem like it can't communicate to them, but that's done in order to persuade people to come over to their feminist speech patterns.  All it does is disturb, not disrupt, and since there are legitimate reasons I won't come over, and probably others just as valid for a traditional congregation, there's no point in such extremism.  As it only disturbs communication, the principle of all-things-done-decently-and-in-order comes into play which probably means there's less disturbance with traditional pronouns in the traditional service, and with nonsexist pronouns occasionally in the contemporary one.

Thanks to a reader for pointing out to me my logical inconsistency in calling pronouns one preacher's weak suit and then telling him not to be too creative, normally a virtue. I hope I've explained it better now.


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Earl Gosnell
1950 Franklin Bv., Box 15
Eugene, OR 97403

Contact: feedbackatbibles.n7nz.org

Copyright © 2002, Earl S. Gosnell III

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