I can hear them now. “But it just sounds so awkward,” they will say. “They can’t make us write three extra letters, it’s so much more work! Everyone knows I don’t mean anything by it. Besides, it’s not like it really matters– even the Bible does it!”
This scene is repeated in classrooms across Samford’s campus every time final paper assignments are passed out. I can hear the groans, the curses and the wailing already. That bane of English-speakers everywhere: the dreaded “gender-neutral and inclusive language required” clause. You know it well. It means writing “men and women” instead of the infinitely simpler “men.” It means typing out “he or she” instead of the (basically) equivalent “he.” It means having to use the unbearably awkward “one” instead of the learned and loved “his, him or himself.” Another invention of the politically correct agenda, surely gender-neutral and inclusive language represents nothing less than a complete violation of everything America holds dear!
But wait. Before you grab your torches and pitchforks or burst into a patriotic monologue in defense of our beloved nation, allow me to respectfully disagree. The words we use are anything but trivial or unimportant. Word choice is one of the most critical decisions you make every day. The reason? Language structures thought and so has a direct effect on the way we act. Language is the framework by which we relate our experiences to our perceptions. At the most basic level, we cannot escape the influence of words: I am using language in order to write this article, and you are using language in order to read it. In other words, words matter.
Because words matter, the words we use to describe other people have to matter. Using gender-neutral and inclusive language is a matter of profound moral importance. We have a responsibility to structure our speech in a way that does not exclude, discriminate, stereotype or offend. Writing “men” instead of “men and women” can never be an innocent act, even if you mean it to be. We make the same mistakes in our speech every day. Calling something “gay” or “retarded” as a derogatory term directly affects homosexuals and the mentally disabled. There is a huge difference between describing someone as “Latin American” and labeling anyone who vaguely looks like they were born south of the Rio Grande as a “Mexican.” Like a group of 5-year-olds using curse words they learned at school that day, even if they have no idea what the words mean, we still have an obligation to stop them.
“You’re oversimplifying the argument again, Adam. Languages are a product of history. They have been growing, developing and changing for thousands of years. Isn’t it dangerous to artificially alter the way we speak? Haven’t you read 1984?”
Orwellian dystopias aside, history can only explain the past; it can never justify it. The English language may have developed to prioritize men over women but that does not mean we should continue to do so, and does not come close to making it right. Language can be used to humanize or dehumanize, equalize or subjugate, unify or segregate. The words we use decide whether we accept or condemn, value or despise, welcome or reject, love or hate. You are right, it is extremely dangerous to alter language. But you are wrong—language is too dangerous not to alter it.
Adam Quinn is a freshman English major from Decatur, Ala. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org