Beware the pronoun: How inclusive language doesn’t mean an inclusive environment

Michela Quecchia is a third year at KCL and a cancer survivor with an interest in healthcare and the environment. Currently juggling OCD and philosophy studies.

[Featured Image: Three people with purple hair and green shirts reading they, them, theirs against a light purple background.]

Whether you are a student or a professional, or simply watch the news, you must have noticed that more and more articles and speeches feature female pronouns in an effort to include both genders in the narrative. Examples have become gender inclusive, with thought experiments featuring female professors, miners, doctors, and any other profession that our gendered society usually make us correlate with men. With our feeble, human minds finally warming up to the idea that gender fluid and transgender people indeed exist and have the right to be represented as any other human being, the trend to incorporate female pronouns seems to be taking under its wing gender neutral pronouns too – such as they/them – and steadily pushing for their adoption into everyday language. Finding your pronoun in a relevant article, hearing it uttered on the silver screen while talking about policies and reforms gives you the exciting and fortifying feeling of being recognised, accepted, and cared for. You believe that these experts are taking you and your need into consideration, and that they want to tell you ‘I see you’, ‘I am working for you and with you’. Alas, the case is often the complete opposite.

Do not get me wrong. There are people who are incorporating all pronouns with the intention, purpose, and goal of making a difference and taking us all into consideration. However, the use of female pronouns (and gender neutral, particularly in the years to come) is often quite cruelly used just as a façade to promote ideas and reforms that still have at their base, core, and end a male individual, or a gendered social structure. This article wants to be not only an explanation of how this is achieved, but also an encouragement to listen closely and weight every word of a new proposal, article, job requirement or policy.

The phenomenon of the avoidance of linguistic gendered discrimination is often referred to as linguistic abolitionism. Linguistic abolitionism is employed to get rid of the appearance of discrimination, to the level that Catherine MacKinnon named the ‘difference’ analysis, which recognises gender discrimination only when clearly exposed; say, for example, by using words such as ‘man’, ‘he’, or ‘his’ in a document listing requirements for a certain position or job. However, MacKinnon recognised a stronger, deeper rooted, and much more difficult to counter, way of discriminating women against men – this she called the ‘dominance’ model.    The dominance model finds the culprit of this social problem in the discrepancies in power distribution among male and female population, and it identifies the ways these are kept in place, such as “hidden” – or not so much – requirements in seemingly gender-neutral job descriptions, or gendered concepts that are so deeply rooted in our mindset that we barely recognize that a new law or policy might not be referring to, or helping, women at all. The dominance model shields light on the façade of accepting speeches and all-encompassing rhetoric. It offers us a warning and motivation to take time and understand what one is actually saying, as we do not have the luxury of being automatically inserted in the dialogue, nor in the solution to the problem. As feminist narrative has vastly shown, it is indeed not solely in language that women find barriers hard to circumnavigate. Unfortunately, language abolitionism – even when used in good faith – just acts as yet another barrier, by eliminating not the problem, but cancelling the narrative that is so precious and instrumental in helping us solve the issue of gendered discrimination. When we get rid of pronouns, or normalize them on an external, utterance-centered level with no particular recognition of their meaning, we eliminate the language with which we can continue our narrative and counter gender discrimination.

I do not want my article to stop people from using female and gender-neutral pronouns in a proactive and helpful way, nor to have you, my lovely reader, assume that everyone dropping a ‘she’ or ‘them’ in their discourse is doing so to get away with the discrimination problem without solving it. My goal is two-fold: firstly, I would like to make people understand that, even though they might be using inclusive language as part of the fight against gender discrimination, this is often not enough if not downright unhelpful, and to make sure they either support their grammar choices in the action and content they propose to their audience, or to change language and challenge this issue in a more proactive way. Secondly, I would like us all to be reminded that we do not have the luxury to trust utterances without studying their meaning. As cynical and angering this is, any individual who was not born of male sex (and identifies with it) has experienced discrimination in hidden requirements, in their condition or situation being left out or downright ignored in policies, laws, or even something as silly-sounding as sport gear. Words are sure pretty, but there is no point in naming your fictional doctor ‘Rose’ if then the argument and goal of your paper or speech does not encompass women at all. Let us all look for inclusivity beyond the accustomed use of our pronouns. 

Bibliography:  

MacKinnon, Catharine A. ‘Difference and Dominance: On Sex Discrimination’, in Feminism Unmodified – Discourses on Life and Law, pp. 32-45. Cambridge: Harvard University Press: 1987.

Image Source: https://www.advocate.com/commentary/2017/3/13/get-know-new-pronouns-they-theirs-and-them

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