Impossible Things Before Breakfast

Location: United States

Saturday, June 24, 2006

Tell Your Best Friend, Whoever They May Be

Nearly anyone who went to college in the United States in the past two decades is familiar with the practice of avoiding “sexist language.” Although linguistic sexism takes many forms, in polite society it is typically evidenced by the grammatically correct use of male pronouns when speaking hypothetically.

“If a person doesn’t breathe, he will die.”

“Anyone with half a brain would have remembered his umbrella.”

…and so forth. The thinking is that as our minds begin grasp the subtleties of our language, we also form deep-seated opinions about the roles of men and women in our society. Allowing the male form of a word to be the default perpetuates a male-dominant social hierarchy.

There are several solutions for concerned or sensitive writers. One is to ignore the problem, because the male pronoun has been the default for centuries in the English language, and it should be obvious to educated people that the generic use of “he” or of “mankind” actually refers to “he or she” or to “humankind.” That solution does not sit well with academics, however.

Another solution is to create new, non-gender-specific pronouns, such as “Sie put hir coat in the closet.” The problem with this solution? It’s ridiculous, and it reduces communication effectiveness.

Some people just switch to the female pronoun whenever gender is not specified, a sort of affirmative action for words. The problem with this? If it was unfair for males, it’s unfair for females. If it can’t be sauce for the gander, it shouldn’t be sauce for the goose, either.

The most common solution among writers who care is to replace “he” and “his” with “he or she” or “her or his.” This is fair, sure, but it also lacks elegance. It’s particularly annoying in public speaking, where you must triple the number of necessary syllables each time the issue comes up.

The best solution thus far has been to simply switch, either randomly or methodically, between the two genders. “If a student wants to get an A in this class, she will study hard. If a student doesn’t mind an F, he won’t even bother to read the book.” But this method is troubling when, as illustrated, the writer switches between a positive hypothetical example and a negative. It also doesn’t work when the piece of writing only calls for one pronoun.

I offer an easy way out of this mess. My solution is particularly appealing because it is consistent with the way many of us already talk. To wit: grammar be damned, we should all use the non-gender specific plural forms “they” and “their” for all hypothetical pronouns. This process will be familiar to anyone who has graded high school or college writing:

“If someone goes into the dark forest, they might not come out. They’ll have to keep their wits about them.”

See how easily that rolls off the tongue? Notice that no gender is being put-upon by the construction of those sentences.

Implementing this solution will require concerted effort on the part of all of us. Grammar cops, take note. It is now acceptable to say, “Each doctor will write prescriptions as they see fit.” If we spread the word, we can change our language for the better.

If somebody has a problem with this, they should keep it to themself.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Unanswered Questions in Gay Marriage Debate

I thought it would be fitting to inaugurate my blog with a response to a column by Maggie Gallagher. I respect Maggie Gallagher. She often has compassion, she’s well-intentioned, and she is willing to criticize politicians on both sides of the spectrum.

You can read her recent column here:;_ylt=Ag3CWnOUIctHmJDto5rwqD39wxIF;_ylu=X3oDMTA5aHJvMDdwBHNlYwN5bmNhdA--

In the piece (if you skipped that link without reading it), she recounts the story of “Skip” Childs, a volunteer fireman who was not reappointed to the Board of Fire Engineers in his Massachusetts town after a Selectman questioned him publicly about a petition he had signed, opposing gay marriage.

In Childs, she has found a very sympathetic hero. By all accounts, he’s a good guy, and his wife, a female, makes cake for volunteers. It is entirely possible that Childs should have been placed again onto the Board of Fire Engineers; perhaps he would have done an excellent job.

I have a quibble with Gallagher’s reporting before I continue to my main argument. She presents the story in her first sentence as a man being fired for a petition that he signed. In truth, it appears to be a political appointment at the local level, not entirely unlike the Senate giving a judicial candidate an up-or-down vote. (To be fair, most local fire appointments probably do not involve personal politics.) Additionally, although Gallagher implies that Childs lost his position because of the signing, he was actually unanimously rejected for the position by the five-member board. Eric Williams reported in the April 22, Cape Cod Times that “most selectmen” cited other reasons for their vote.

That said, it is entirely possible that Childs was the best candidate and the selectmen made a bad decision.

However, that bad decision was based on a legitimate question: would Childs be able and willing to offer equal protection to everyone in Truro? If the answer was “no,” that would obviously be a problem.

He didn’t answer no. As far as we can tell from Gallagher‘s column, he didn’t answer “yes,” either. And he didn’t respond in a manner which convinced the selectman who asked it that the answer would be an unequivocal yes.

In all probability, Childs is a selfless human being who would rush in, pull a member of a gay couple out of a burning building, and administer CPR in exactly the manner his professional code of conduct requires. However, it’s safe to say that somewhere in America’s small towns reside firemen who would not make exactly the same decisions. Their number is probably small. Smaller still would be the number of firemen who would let a black man die, or hesitate to save a black husband whose white wife was safely outside. But in this big country, those men probably exist. It is unlikely that these men would make an open declaration of their bias at a town council meeting. But they would probably be willing to sign a petition to ban gay marriage.

Am I saying that all people who sign such petitions are biased and unfit to serve the public? Certainly not. Everyone is entitled to his or her opinion. You have just as much right to oppose gay marriage as you do to oppose interracial marriage. But if you’re not biased and unfit to serve, then say so. There are bigoted arguments to make against gay marriage; we‘ve all heard them. If there are un-bigoted arguments against it, make them. Stand up and be clear about it. Say, “It is understandable that you think my desire to prevent certain couples from enjoying the same rights as other couples indicates bias. But it doesn’t, and here’s why.”

Paul Asher-Best’s justifies his actions by asking: “If the issue is interracial marriage, would questioning him on attitudes toward black people be so out of line?”

Gallagher doesn’t answer this question. Perhaps she considers it an unfair comparison. Personally, I don’t think it’s unfair. Whether or not homosexuality is innate, the decision to marry someone of your own sex is a choice. Similarly, while race is innate, interracial marriage involves choice. It’s a choice that was opposed, quite vehemently, in many U.S. states just decades ago.

Gallagher knows that comparisons of anti-gay marriage activists and racists will be made; she has predicted as much in columns like this: .

I don’t think Maggie Gallagher is a bad person. I think she’s a deeply religious person, she cares genuinely about the world and the welfare of children in particular, and she thinks that all citizens should act responsibly.

The fact is, there are hateful people in the state of Massachusetts. There are people who oppose gay marriage because they think homosexuals are less-than-human, who would laugh rather than save the life of their gay neighbor. How many of those people are there? One hopes they number few, but no one in their right mind would deny they exist. In all likelihood, those people were more than willing to sign a petition opposing gay marriage. Maggie Gallagher, Skip Childs, and his wife are probably not anything like those people. But they were happy to sign their names alongside them.

"The time has come," the Walrus said, "To talk of many things..."

This is the first post. It isn't very long, and should be relatively free of controversy.