English Isn't Sexist (So Keep Your Hands Off It!)

If you consider head-crushing jackboots and machine-gun wielding militias to be the true tools of oppression, then clearly you’re a relic of last century. Today, oppression is dealt with words - seemingly harmless, micro-aggressive words.

Luckily, there is a growing number of verbophobic (dare I say white?) knights who rise to our defense, shielding us from an oppressively free language.

In Canada, a dashing PM and his parliament voted last week to gender neuter the national anthem by replacing the exclusionary line “all thy sons command” with the fully inclusive “all of us command.”  A week before, at the other end of the Commonwealth, David Morrison, a former Australian army chief (and Australian of the Year), impetrated his fellow Aussies to refrain from the use of sex-determined group names, enjoining infamously toxic words like “guys” and “gals.” Heartened by Mr. Morrison’s courage, the ABC published its own index of intolerable words (yes, “bossy” is one of them).

And don’t think it ends with our lexicon. About a month ago, The Guardian published an op-ed by Lorraine Berry attacking the sexism intrinsic to English grammar. Berry advocates for the word “they” to replace English’s unfortunately gender-laden singular pronouns. As has often been pointed out, “He” and “She” force a speaker into verbal acrobatics whenever she/he attempts to use the third person. Moreover, they come with a whole tradition of inequality baked into them (ie. a nurse is a she, a cop is a he). Unless we immediately embrace the pronoun “they, singular,” writes Berry, we will be “forever perpetuating a sexist ideology, even without intending to.”

Unconscionable redundancy aside, Berry makes a fair point. The English language carries a heavy baggage of atavistic cultural norms that by today’s standards could easily be deemed “sexist,” “racist,” or any other sort of “[identity]-ist.”

But there’s a snag. Language is not inherently sexist. It’s not inherently anything.

Language reflects society. That’s all language does. Like archeological digs, a language consists of layers and layers of history. It’s a deep and messy stratification of skeletons and antiquated tools. By carefully studying a language you can trace back the evolution of its culture. To take an honest look back at any culture’s history means facing the dark along with the bright, the parts that make you proud intertwined with the parts that make you cringe. Shakespeare belongs to a resplendent tradition of antisemites; Kipling practically defined English imperialism; both, by today’s standards, were unrepentant misogynists. They have both had indelible influence on the English language, and have both indelibly leaked their prejudices into it.

And here’s the point. Culture does evolve. And it does so more and more rapidly. When it comes to gender equality, we are nowhere near where we were 10 years ago - let alone 60. Certainly, there’s still a (long) way to go in many areas, but the fact is that when society becomes more inclusive, language follows.

Words like “dude” and “bitch” transgress their gendered origin - and even their historic connotations (“bitch” can easily be found used with affection while “dude” with derision). Semantic fields shift and expand along social change, as does grammar. Most importantly: those changes occur organically. 

Yet many progressives are taken by an impatience, believing there’s a pressing social imperative to actively, consciously - not to say ‘paternalistically’ - expurgate words, or at least reconfigure their meaning.

The dirty little secret of progressivism is that, as a movement, it sometimes falls behind the progress it has instigated. Our society is changing, sometimes at a pace too rapid for even progressivism to keep up. As a result, the movement occasionally finds itself still fighting old battles. Unsatisfied with having won, it looks in increasingly smaller corners for enemies long since humbled and vanquished so it can point to them with indignant, inflated outrage and smoke them out.

This obsessive search for enemies seems to me symptomatic of a political culture that was once united around feelings of grievance and oppression and now, as it finds itself holding the reins of power, faces an identity crisis. Or perhaps there’s a simpler explanation. Maybe it is part of an honest, sempiternal crusade to utterly purge conservatism, down to the very last germ, from all spheres of society. For, according to many progressives, society won’t be truly free until all remnants of its conservative past are brilliantly exposed and, with crafty cultural engineering, removed.

Not only is this goal fatuous, I submit it’s also dangerous. To trample history and set fire to the richness of language means giving up on the internal contradictions from which our culture was wrought. In our best moments, we measure ourselves against those contradictions and use them to learn and grow. Without them, history is dead and we’re left with a flat, pallid and deracinated present.

Worst of all, the desire to clean-up English to suit our politics demands a most pernicious concession: that there exists a single ideology that should enjoy authority over language. This ought to send stabs of cold down the spine of anyone who didn’t read George Orwell’s essay on Newspeak only to emerge thinking, “not a bad idea, really.”

Keep fighting the real battles. Keep winning. Language will come around on its own.

And until it does, keep your hands off it.

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