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Your sexist writing style isn’t professional, dude

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There is sexism in language, it does enhance the position of males, and males have had control over the production of cultural forms. (Spender 1985: 144)

Sexist writing takes one of a few forms: you could assume that all your readers are men or you could use gender essentialist views of women and men.

Why does this matter? Surely, women have made many advances in the last 100 years? And surely, no-one means to subjugate women by something as simple as language?

My answers: it matters because women are human beings. Women and men should receive the same social, political and economical treatment. Yes, women have made many advances over the last century  or so. But that does not mean that the process is finished: we still need to eliminate much man-centric language and thought processes. The former will only happen once the latter – modifying our thought processes – becomes the norm. And changing our thought processes is dependent on changing our language; the one cannot happen without the other.

And yes, most people do use [sexist] language innocently but that is a poor excuse for using sexist language.

I recently started reading Die Burger again and was offended at the subtle jabs at women in this Afrikaans daily: journalists write of companies, the SA government and processes as ‘he’, ‘his’, and ‘him’.

I had a look at my copy of the Afrikaanse Spelreëls but I couln’t find any rule that promotes the use of the male pronoun when writing of inanimate objects.  And even if there exists a rule such as that, surely Afrikaans – and, by extension, Afrikaans editors – should change the ‘convention’ to something more fitting the 20th century? Surely we should lobby the Afrikaans media to change their writing style to include, and not exclude, women.

One of the excuses apologists offer for using sexist language is that it’s a reflection of today’s society. And that’s where they leave it; they’d rather not try to change the language – that’d be too drastic and would give to much power to the ‘PC brigade’.

I wrote Henry Jeffreys, Die Burger’s editor,  a few emails – first email on 17 August – and only received a response from Hendrik Coetzee, Die Burger’s ombudsperson, on 2 September. He offered one reason why they support the male hegemony: it has been thusly decreed by the compilers of Afrikaanse Woordelys en Spelreëls and Sakboek van Regte Afrikaans.

Here’s the problem I have with that argument: it’s lazy and does nothing to change the status quo; instead, it approves of, and justifies women’s oppression. Another excuse Hendrik offered was that other languages — English, French, Dutch — use sexist ‘conventions’; therefore, it’s OK that Afrikaans follows their example.

I wrote an email to Die Suid-Afrikaanse Akademie vir Wetenskap en Kuns and received – instantly! – an email from Professor van der Elst: he’s referring this issue to Professor Kotze, the head of their language commission. Professor Kotze doesn’t agree: he reckons that this has nothing to do with sexism; it’s part of the language conventions.

Professor Kotze from Nelson Mandela Metropolitan University answered one of my many questions about the gendering of pronouns. I wasn’t satisfied with his answer and tried to prod a bit more. And then he wrote an incredibly patronising email to me – and to me alone; he had not CC the other respondents in on this last mail – with the hopes that I’ll have a wonderful life: “Sterkte met u lewe vorentoe.” It is OK for him to disparage me; however, it is not OK for me to be offended at his actions.

I’ll try to contact a few Afrikaans and Women’s Studies professors to see what they think.

I don’t know whether they’ll agree with me that this is sexist; many women are indoctrinated by society — they don’t see sexism. And they are some of the key people we need to speak out and voice their disapproval — if they do disapprove after they had given the issue deep thought. Your organisation or company needs an anal grammarian to obsess over everything you send out – to internal as well as external clients. But this person needs to be progressive, or at least aware of all the -isms out there.

So many of us wordophiles — my word — obsess over whether to use may or might; few of us obsess over non-ableist language. A few of us claim to watch our sexism but how many have a definitive stance on which term is more appropriate — gypsie or Roma? How many are there who still use ‘men’ and ‘guys’ as generics?

I’m not sure what to do next. The gatekeepers have spoken and I feel powerless. I feel powerless because of my inability to have a conversation with them without getting told off for my tone. I feel powerless because of the lazy arguments they use to justify the language rules. And I feel powerless because far too often I have to hear how I should rather fuss over more ‘worthy’ things. What those things are I don’t know.

For a far more intellectual discourse on how language affects our reality, read this University of Stanford article and this Shakespeare UK pdf.

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Written by Joy-Mari Cloete

November 9th, 2009 at 11:03 am

17 Responses to 'Your sexist writing style isn’t professional, dude'

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  1. Just to had some ‘facts’. In french we do not have something like it. It’s he (‘Il’), she (‘Elle’) or undefined (‘on’).

    So, in our language, something must have a gender. Everything have a gender (it’ he, or she). I agree that more often it’s he. And a lot of title are masculine (by example ‘Madame LE ministre’). But the concept of it doesn’t exist in our language, and it gives me a lot of pain when I have to use it in english (but I try, because it’s not gramatically consist to speak of a company using he, it should be an it because it’s not a person and it doesn’t have a gender).

    Just my few cents

    okhin

    9 Nov 09 at 2:33 pm

  2. Can I presume that you’ve emailed Charles Ash, demanding that he change the name of his Bruin-ou blog to something less gender-presumptive? Hmm?

    neil

    9 Nov 09 at 3:28 pm

  3. Nope, I did not. It’s a private site and I have no say about something like that.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    10 Nov 09 at 10:25 am

  4. Tee hee – the trusty old vroumoer argument: What happens in the private sphere stays in the private sphere (assuming for a moment that blogs with columnists are indeed private.)

    Here’s the problem I have with that argument: it’s lazy and does nothing to change the status quo; instead, it approves of, and justifies women’s oppression.

    neil

    10 Nov 09 at 4:31 pm

  5. Neil, if you have a problem with the name of Charles’ site, please mail him.

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    10 Nov 09 at 4:32 pm

  6. ’m nt sre wht t d nxt. Th gtkprs hv spkn nd fl pwrlss. fl pwrlss bcs f m nblt t hv cnvrstn wth thm wtht gttng tld ff fr m tn.

    (lthgh myb shld stck t th cnvntn f nl ttckng “thm” fr “thr” bgtr. Sn j m br’?)

    neil

    11 Nov 09 at 9:40 am

  7. Whch s jst crptc w f sng tht:

    ’m nt sre wht t d nxt. Th gtkprs hv spkn nd fl pwrlss. fl pwrlss bcs f m nblt t hv cnvrstn wth thm wtht gttng tld ff fr m tn.

    (lthgh myb shld stck t th cnvntn f nl ttckng “thm” fr “thr” bgtr. Sn j m br’?)

    neil

    11 Nov 09 at 10:39 am

  8. f th grmmr n yr ml t prfssr Ktz ws nthng lk yr grmmr n ths pst, ‘m nt srprsd h ws cndscndng.

    Thabo

    13 Nov 09 at 4:03 pm

  9. I like this post and totally agree, Joy Mari :)

    sarah

    16 Nov 09 at 1:20 pm

  10. Hey, Sarah

    Any thoughts on whom to rally to reflect on media organisations’ use of Afrikaans?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    16 Nov 09 at 3:01 pm

  11. “Any thoughts on whom to rally to reflect on media organisations’ use of Afrikaans?”

    I know you were asking Sarah, but charity begins at home (i.e. Bruin-Ou.com)

    neil

    19 Nov 09 at 3:55 pm

  12. Hey, Neil

    What do you mean?

    Joy-Mari Cloete

    19 Nov 09 at 3:59 pm

  13. Hey Joy

    I’m not trying to provoke, but it seems to me that the name “Bruin-ou.com,” is at least as gender-presumptive as anything you’ve read in Beeld. I’ve raised this point earlier on this thread. So when you asked Sarah for ideas on whom to rally, I’m reminded that our policing of other people’s gender sensitivity is strange if we’re lax about monitoring our own. Check jy?

    neil

    19 Nov 09 at 5:51 pm

  14. Hi Joy,

    You left a comment on my blog Feminist Looking Glass so I came here for the first time. You might be interested in a post I wrote last month about “Stereotyping by Pronouns.” Rather than trying to use gender neutral language, I think that there are benefits in using feminine pronouns when no gender is given.

    Mike

    20 Nov 09 at 2:27 pm

  15. “Rather than trying to use gender neutral language, I think that there are benefits in using feminine pronouns when no gender is given.”

    Mike, I absolutely agree. The biggest benefit (in my view) is that whomever you’re talking to gets to question why they wouldn’t have queried your gender-specific pronoun if it were male. Hypocrisy is best purged by self-detection. This is a typical instance of what happens when I do this orally:

    Interlocutor: “So they’re appointing a new finance minister.”
    Me: “Cool, I hope she’s numerate.”
    Interlocutor: “How do you know it’s gonna be a woman?”
    Me: “I don’t, but ‘it’ sounded thingy.”

    This is usually met with sheepish acknowledgement of gender bias on the part of whomever I’m speaking to.

    I went to Catholic school, where I used the same technique in reference to the Holy Spirit. This caused some consternation on the part of my principal, who wanted the comfort of gender-specificity without the irreverence of the attendant genital questions.

    neil

    22 Nov 09 at 6:05 pm

  16. To paraphrase a famous line, I’ve stopped worrying and learned to love the masculine pronoun.

    Where possible, I avoid the problem of gender-specific terms. Companies, countries or organisations should be referred to as “it”, in any case. “Mankind” can easily be replaced by “humanity”, if you find “humankind” too clumsy. I also cannot see any good reason to follow the tradition of using the feminine pronoun for a country or a ship, except in specific circumstances such as when you refer to your own anthropomorphised car.

    When denoting people, however, the supposedly non-sexist alternatives are all problematic. “She” is just as inaccurate as “he” but longer and somewhat startling, “he/she” is just plain ugly and artificial, and “they” is both ugly and grammatically incorrect. In longer constructs, the “-person” suffix to replace “-man” is often clumsy, and omitting it altogether is usually incorrect. “Chair” is the classic, albeit overused, example.

    Worse, by drawing overt attention to gender-neutrality, these artificial alternatives sensitise readers to gender, instead of leaving the issue as inconsequential, which surely is the objective of true gender-neutrality. A similar argument can be made about emphasising diversity, which merely over-sensitises people and stimulates guilt, animosity or wariness, rather than encouraging true non-racism. One of your other commenters, okhin, noted that in other languages, many non-human nouns or verbs have masculine, feminine or gender-neutral forms. Calling attention to them merely highlights gender, rather than neutralising it as one would expect if true equality is the objective.

    There’s another reason why I favour the male pronoun when referring to a generic person. In all cases, typographic style should be such that the reader expends the least possible effort. Text should be easy to read, and the eyes flow smoothly along a sentence. This has many implications for style. Minimise the use of parantheses, because they are hurdles to moving eyes. Write out acronyms and avoid unnecessary capital letters for the same reason. Use shorter sentences wherever possible. Use shorter words if you can. All of these help a reader to focus on comprehension of the subject matter, rather than the mechanical act of reading.

    This principle, in my view, is violated by using “she” in preference to “he”. It makes readers do a double take that distracts them from the subject at hand, and that detracts from a writer’s ability to engage with a reader’s intellect.

    Yes, equal rights is a serious matter. But it should be fought on serious grounds, and not devalued by pronoun pedantry.

    Ivo Vegter

    27 Nov 09 at 1:11 pm

  17. “There’s another reason why I favour the male pronoun when referring to a generic person. In all cases, typographic style should be such that the reader expends the least possible effort. Text should be easy to read, and the eyes flow smoothly along a sentence.”

    This thinking animates all the objections you’ve raised here, Ivo. The question you beg is why it expends so much more energy for you to read the word “she” rather than “he.” It can’t be the surge of energy induced by the extra s. (Else, I presume that you find plural references really taxing.)

    No, instead you provide the answer elsewhere: “It makes readers do a double take that distracts them from the subject at hand, and that detracts from a writer’s ability to engage with a reader’s intellect.”

    In paraphrase this means that any and every instance of women popping up uninvited in a piece of text is immediately and so totally offensive to your sense of propriety, that your ability to read and understand is seriously impaired.

    So what the gender pedants are trying to do, Ivo, is desensitise you. For your own good. Through painstaking training you too can learn to read that most challenging monosyllable “she,” without skipping a beat. It just takes lots of exposure. Which people like me are happy to provide gratis.

    You “she” what I mean?

    neil

    27 Nov 09 at 5:36 pm

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