‘Planet of the guys’

// 23 October 2008

“So long as we live among men, let us cherish humanity”

Andre Gide

“It has been said that man is a rational animal. All my life I have been searching for evidence which could support this.”

Bertrand Russell

“The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, and to do good is my religion.”

Thomas Paine

Echidne of the Snakes writes eloquently on why it’s problematic to refer to the human race as “man”, and assume that “man” means both women and men:

Women still are the numerical majority in this world. That those most numerous are not the default for human beings is worth thinking about

Comments From You

Cara // Posted 23 October 2008 at 9:25 pm

Yes. Thank you.

Language DOES matter.

I was having an argument with my boss the other day over the use of ‘chairman’ and ‘manpower’.


Janis // Posted 24 October 2008 at 1:23 am

It so is. Your point is well made and needs to be constantly remade. I continue to battle against being addressed as ‘guys’.

Tony Moll // Posted 24 October 2008 at 9:03 am

Gender neutral language, yes, but not at the expense of the beauty of the language.

My female boss is the “chairman” – that’s her job title and she loves it.

My Indian friend (female) was celebrating her country’s “unmanned” mission to the moon.

I’m happy for the upper house to be called The House of Lords, rather than the House Lords and Dames, though I’d rather it were abolished altogether.

I love dating women, but would never fall in love with a womyn.

Sarah // Posted 24 October 2008 at 9:59 am

I’m involved in project planning at the moment, and I do wince slightly every time someone refers to ‘man-hours’. It seems petty to complain, but surely there’s a better way of phrasing things like that?

It’s a very male-dominated workplace, to be fair, but there are a few women here, and I at least would prefer not to be made to feel invisible…

Sabre // Posted 24 October 2008 at 12:19 pm

The male as default occurs so commonly I don’t even notice it. Manpower, man-hours, chaps guys, fellows, batchelor’s degree, masters degree, mankind, manning an operation, manhandle… it goes on.

Whenever I hear of scientists referred to as ‘he’ it makes me invisible – I hate it.

@ Tony Moll

re. the house of Lords, women who sit there are given the title Baroness not Dame. Why not just give the women the title of ‘Lord’ too? It would certainly start making ‘Lord’ more gender neutral, and then also phrases like ‘Lord of the Manor’ would also apply to women!

re. the ‘beauty of language’, it’s not so beautiful to me when it excludes me. What makes language beautiful? I think it’s when language eloquently expresses exactly what is meant. People argue that saying ‘he or she’ instead of just ‘he’ spoils the flow of words and is not eloquent. To which I say let’s find a descriptor, a new word, that can be equally applied to all genders. ‘He’ does not apply to women so using it means the language doesn’t express what is meant, thereby failing to be ‘beautiful’ in my opinion.

The solutions are pretty simple – change the language! Make words that substitute ‘he or she’ and ‘him and her’ and start using them (some people still use ‘one’ but sounds a bit posh now for most peoples’ liking now). A chairman becomes chairperson or chair (something my workplace already does). Instead of ‘man’ say ‘human(s)’ and humankind’ – it only adds ONE more syllable, is that so bad?! It would be very easy to substitute most of the male defaults in our language if there was the will.

But people (mostly men in my experience) still are dismissive of disliking the male default, of course it maintains their status quo doesn’t it? They haven’t been made invisible by language yet they think they can dismiss me when I say that I have, grr.

Anna // Posted 24 October 2008 at 12:38 pm

god forbid the rights and feelings of women should come before your appreciation of the language.

Cockney Hitcher // Posted 24 October 2008 at 12:47 pm

I love dating women, but would never fall in love with a womyn.

That’s just as well, because I can’t imagine a womyn (or indeed a ‘woman’ who wants an equal relationship) ever falling in love with you.

Tony: we get it. Lots of the women you know are either happy to go along with sexist norms or simply never think to question them. As has been said to you before, the fact that some women are sexist does not make sexism ok.

As for the ‘beauty of the language’, that’s subjective. Some of us find inequality not only unjust but also very ugly.

Leigh // Posted 24 October 2008 at 2:37 pm

@ Tony Moll: “I love dating women, but would never fall in love with a womyn.”

That would have to be the weakest reason for turning down someone you might fall in love with I’ve ever heard.

George // Posted 24 October 2008 at 4:01 pm

“I love dating women, but would never fall in love with a womyn.”

Well, that really is reassuring – as long as I don’t protest *too* much at the inequalities contained within our language, then I can still be sexually attractive!!!

Danielle // Posted 24 October 2008 at 8:21 pm

The beauty of language? Or the ego boost that men must get from having the entire human race descibed on their terms?

I am so glad I’m not the only one who thinks this. When people (usually men, but not always) disagree about the importance of this, I ask them how they would feel if everything were reversed, if mankind became womankind, chairman became chairwomen, etc.

How would you feel, Tony? Marginalised? Pissed off? As if your whole sex’s contribution to history and society has been ignored?

Hazel // Posted 25 October 2008 at 12:53 pm

What I see as the beauty of the language is that we have a multitude of words for the same concept.

Why use chairman when you can use presiding officer or moderator?

Why use unmanned when you can use crewless or remotely controlled?

Why use House of Lords when upper house or second house would do?

Cara // Posted 25 October 2008 at 4:24 pm

Hear hear, Sabre, Hazel and Danielle.

By the way, Tony – my boss is female too. I note you seem to assume a ‘boss’ is male unless specified otherwise? See how that works?

The problem with words like ‘chairman’ is that sometimes the chair. is. not. a. man.

It is that simple.

Like others have said, it’s making women invisible. Making men the default.

‘Chair’ sounds better to me anyway.

I appreciate the beauty of language, too. Gender-neutral language doesn’t have to be clunky and ugly. As Hazel says, gender-neutral alternatives can be found that are just as good or even better. English has a rich vocabulary, with many words for the same (or similar) concept. That’s part of its beauty.

Sarah // Posted 25 October 2008 at 4:44 pm

“What I see as the beauty of the language is that we have a multitude of words for the same concept.”

I agree, and often when there are different words for the same thing, your choice of which word to use is significant, and says more than just the raw definition of that word – that’s part of how language works. Different words can literally mean the same thing, but have different shades of meaning and connotations, and evoke different images. That, surely, is part of the ‘beauty of language’.

Also language changes over time, it always has, and in part that change reflects and is driven by changing social mores. Many of the words and phrases we use are rooted in a time when society was structured rather differently, and so it’s natural that they will change over time so as to better enable us to describe today’s reality. Of course some archaic words and expressions persist, and they’re part of the richness of the language and often we wouldn’t want to be without them, even if we’ve almost forgotten the original meaning. But it’s silly to insist on a rigid adherence to language exactly as it was at a particular point in history – that says more about your political and emotional attachement to the social norms of that era, than any inherent ‘beauty’ in the words.

debbie holmes // Posted 25 October 2008 at 6:09 pm

i think there is constructive point here,

and a real chance for change.

i think there needs to be a working group to identify gender descriminators in our langauge, both spoken and written,

and with some simple advice / steps / re-writing,

many gov. departments, large companies, schools, colleges,

ect, could introduce subtle changes to text and word, to make better use of

terms, to express equality.

for example,

i address

people as poeple.

man hours, as work hours.

my boyfreind as my partner

Anne Onne // Posted 25 October 2008 at 6:59 pm

I wrote about this a while back on The F-word, and a tousand times yes! This cannot be repeated enough. Women are rendered invisible by language that can be used to include them (invisibly, of course! ) or exclude them, depending on the speaker. One day, the patriarchy decides the word ‘man’ includes women, so they should just deal with the words. The next day, when it suits the patriarchy, they decide that ‘Men’ means just men. Women can’t do X or aren’t entitled to Y, because it’s for men.

bzzzzgrrrl’s comment on my blog post back in June is a great example – Her mother, ”who is now in her 60s, was raised to believe that “he,” “man,” “mankind,” included her, and she believed it. Until she was in her twenties and wanted to be ordained a priest in our church. Very quickly, she saw how easily men in power will assert that gendered language IS gendered, rather than inclusive, after all. (“It says, ‘man,’ right there in the Bible!” “The prayer book only refers to priests as “he.”) Years later, she was a pioneer, and was one of the first women priests in the Episcopal church.”

Whilst language used to be neutral has the potential to be exclusionary, that is a danger, and it should be rectified.

Language is flexible, and the English language is particularly rich with synonyms and nuances. It’s a resilient language that is constantly changing, constantly adding new words and leaving others behind. So the idea that not using one word over another somehow makes a language less beautiful is biased, because people are only applying this in defense of sexist language. We don’t have people clamouring not to change random words or avoid non-gendered terms being relegated to history, because most people realise that the language changes.

Hey, it’s your choice who you date, but judging someone based on inoffensive language is rather odd. I have language preferences myself,and whilst I can’t quite bring myself to use Zie, Hir etc into most writing (though I try to imply in other ways that gender isn’t a simple binary), I do at least respect other people’s wishes to use harmless language as they wish. Reinventing the language is a good thing, and making a label for yourself is an important part of finding your path in life. It’s one thing to have an issue with someone using derogatory language (quite the turn off, guys!) and another to take issue with how someone defines themselves.

It’s not an issue that there aren’t any neutral words we can use, but rather, that sometimes people have such an averse feeling to change that they refuse to modify their language.

It’s a matter of familiarity: I was brought up reading ‘he or she’ and more neutral language, so to see ‘chairwoman’ or ‘chairperson’ feels natural to me, whereas to a person who is used to the male-normative tone of the past, these terms feel alienating, and they resent them. I think a lot of the reason people have such a violent reaction to the relatively harmless ‘political correctness’ of changing a few words is that they feel an assault on what they are used to is an assault on them. They got used to the sexist way of things, and feel that there’s no reason to change it if it doesn’t affect them.

Incidentally, Liss at Shakesville also had a great post up about this about a month ago, and points out very astutely that even the Declaration of Human Rights gets it wrong:

”All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights. They are endowed with reason and conscience and should act towards one another in a spirit of brotherhood.”

Brotherhood? What about kinship? Kindness? Togetherness? Mutual respect?

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