Gender-neutral personal pronouns: Let’s use he!

I’m a rich, white, cis- male in a homogenous affluent community in one of the easiest countries to live in in the world. I’m not a linguist, just an opinionated exaggerateur, in case the blog’s title and tagline doesn’t make that sufficiently clear. I am however 100% correct in calling my idea the perfect solution to the issue of gendered pronouns, not just in English, but in any language with gendered pronouns. It’s time to abandon the singular they and zhe, xe or whatever your preferred alternative is. Let’s instead just ungender he and she.

Gendered pronouns are problematic. Historical and current reactionary use mirrors old fashioned assumptions about the sex and gender of actors, with generic references to doctors, engineers or dock workers always using he, nurses and secretaries always being she, and roles with no stereotypical gender defaulting to male. Not the worst feature of a sexist society, but an obvious one, with subtle influence on our perception of the world, as well as being a symptom of the perception of the writer.

Less obvious to many is that their use, not just the overuse of he, cements the importance of the binary gender world view, which, although a natural result of the dominance of binary sex, leads to an exaggerated, harmful and unnecessary polarisation of the “feminine” and “masculine” in our various cultures. (If criticism of the binary gender “paradigm” seems silly to you, I recommend this video: On Gender.)

And in addition to these problems with bias in gendered pronoun choice in generic references (An engineer should be aware of her biases) there’s the problem of their use for specific references (Alex forgot his/her boots). Partly this is the same issue as the one described in the previous paragraph, and partially this is about individuals not wanting to be referred to by the wrong gender or by gender at all.

Use of gender-neutral pronouns are often promoted to solve some of these problems, but not all. Several failed drafts of this paragraph have showed me that this limitation is almost entirely due to people having a more limited goal in mind though. Expand the use of any suggested gender-neutral personal pronoun to replace he and she entirely and you’ve solved all of the problems, but you’ve also increased the resistance against acceptance significantly and you’ve made a system with complete lack of backwards compatibility. There is only one solution to this: Ungender the current pronouns.

Hillary Clinton announced his running mate for the 2016 presidential election today. Cheng Bai is a virtual unknown, but Clinton believes she will be a valuable asset in his run for the presidency.

Sure it will seem clunky for a while, but many languages manage without gendered pronouns and the benefits are many.

  1. No new words need to be introduced. The fact that it’s a completely new word is a significant barrier to gender neutral pronouns such as zhe.
  2. Suggested system works for all languages with gendered pronouns.
  3. Old or reactionary writings are 100% compatible with the system, even if the use of a strict 1:1 relationship between biological sex and linguistic gender will seem a bit quaint in 100 years time, when everyone does it the new way.
  4. In a transition period you can reverse the traditional use completely and overuse she to your heart’s content, which will also seem quaint to people 100 years from now, but will make your intentions obvious and help acclimatise your readers to the concept.
  5. The pronouns can always be different in a two person scenario, regardless of the genders involved. Not the most important feature in the world, but it makes he and she more useful than they are today.
  6. No need to figure out the actual or preferred gender of a person you write about. Now this might be a barrier if it’s important for you to take that person’s preferences into account, an admirable priority, but I think you should weigh that against how many reactionary malety males you could annoy by randomly referring to half of them as she. And for those of you with a preferred pronoun, won’t you please think of the children?!

Now read the fake quote about Hillary Clinton above. Once you’ve gotten over your brain’s insistence that referring to Hillary as “he” is wrong, what gender is Cheng Bai? And should it matter?


Posted on June 14, 2015, in Feminism, Philosophy, Writing. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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