|June 21st, 2023
|contra, ling, satire, they
In the past, gender was undeniably a useful reference, but one cannot emphasize enough how little meaning terms like "he" or "she" are when a person's name or appearance does not clearly indicate which applies. In fact, they aren't just meaningless—they can actually cause problems; it's likely that in conversations in gendered spaces you've seen well-meaning people try to correct pronoun usage that, in fact, was already correct. And while alternative pronouns, like using they/them for everyone, avoid the problem of being discriminatory and exclusionary, they keep us in a frame of pronoun reference, with all its historical baggage, instead of embracing a relational approach.
It's possible that you are looking for a more visible or immediate shift to gender-free speech, as a way of asserting your or your organization's commitment to inclusivity. Relational speech has been criticized for its invisibility, which strikes some people as a pandering concession to linguistic conservatives who are resistant to being referred to as "they". Experience tells us that the people who are angry about gender-free speech do not perceive relational speech as conciliatory: we have been accused of creating "a war" with our words. As that language suggests, it is an emotional subject, and as a result sometimes impervious to logic: people who are unhappy about being inaccurately labeled with "plural pronouns" see no contradiction, for example, in insisting that others accept being labeled with inaccurate gender terms. Confrontational or otherwise, though, relational speaking is not just a move away from gendered language. It also offers us opportunities to reframe and enhance our conceptual understanding of the geography and geometry of language. I hope that this text is persuasive on relational speech as a more radical rethinking of English, moving away not only from heteronormative paradigms of speech, but also from binary thinking in general.
Continue reading: Chapter 2: Pro-Drop English
The above is playing off positional calling advocacy, and especially Dancing the Whole Dance (my review). Just as I'm in favor of contra dancing switching from Gents/Ladies to Larks/Robins, I'm in favor of English switching to using "they" for everyone. I do see a small space for pro-drop English and positional calling, in allowing someone to, by putting careful attention into their words, avoid gendered references in environments where explicitly gender-free language would elicit a bad response. Overall, however, I don't think either is a good direction for the dance/language as a whole.