But I Am Not Androgynous
December 07, 2015
Let’s call everyone “they”: Gender-neutral language should be the norm, not the exception.
So writes Silpa Kovvali, an exquisitely progressive she-person, in the pages of Salon:
We are forced to… give in and refer to our co-workers, students and friends as “he” or “she.” The result is that our language caps our ability to be progressive in this realm, forces us to immediately characterise people as male or female.
Which is only accurate and expected practically all of the time. And so,
We ought to revert to the gender neutral “they” whenever gender is not explicitly relevant.
You see, Ms Kovvali believes that gendered pronouns and honorifics are an “outdated linguistic tic.” And not a useful, rather concise source of information, a signal of respect, and a way of clarifying who it is we’re talking about.
The effect of elevating gender’s importance is felt by the cis-gendered as well. None of us fit neatly or entirely into a traditional gender binary, with all the expectations of masculinity and femininity that these buckets entail.
And yet despite this claim, and the somewhat random mention of buckets, almost all of us seem quite happy to be referred to as either male or female, as if it were in fact “relevant,” and the demand for gender-neutral pronouns remains, to say the least, a niche concern. I’d even venture to suggest that some of us might feel slighted by the wilful omission of – diminishing of – our respective maleness or femaleness. However, Ms Kovvali feels a need to inform those less enlightened, i.e., the rest of us, that,
The goal is greater inclusion… to be respectful to those we write about, and to be clear to our readers.
By risking affront on a daily basis and introducing a clumsy and needless ambiguity. Because vagueness is the new clarity.
Readers may wish to pause for a moment and think back to any recent discussion involving spouses, siblings, parents or children – anyone you know well – and then try repeating that conversation stripped of gender identifiers. Said out loud by actual people, about people we know, gender-neutral language tends to sound contrived and its connotations are unlikely to be flattering. And then imagine the effect of this modish neutering on popular culture - say, the quasi-pornographic romance novel: “They looked at them lustfully and reached for their buttons.” It would, I fear, be hard to keep track of the various theys involved. And a great literary genre would be rendered incomprehensible.
Ms Kovvali nonetheless insists,
Gender neutral language is a matter of clarity, and of accuracy. Perhaps radical is sensible in this realm as well.
That a tiny minority object to gendered pronouns, or pretend to object in the hope of seeming morally fashionable, is apparently grounds for the rest of us to be imposed upon, and possibly insulted, with a widespread and routine denial of our gender. It isn’t clear to me why un-gendering everyone is hugely preferable to the highly unlikely mis-gendering of one person, potentially, in theory. And much as I hate to be a bother, my “preferred pronouns” are masculine. Like almost all human beings, I am not alienated from my sex in psychologically hazardous ways. I am not of indeterminate gender. I am not a they.
Ms Kovvali is a “New York based writer who focuses on social and cultural criticism.” She “identifies as an Indian woman.” She was educated at Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania.