Monday, 24 February 2014

What language should we use? Aesthetics vs. inclusiveness

The Economist is known for being a strident defender of all things capitalist (it was once said that “its writers rarely see a political or economic problem that cannot be solved by the trusted three-card trick of privatisation, deregulation and liberalisation”). One reason for why it has been so successful in pushing this agenda is its widely acknowledged quality of writing. It is so well known for its clear non-jargon writing that the Economist Style Guide has become a best-selling book. Idle browsing led me to  their advice on what titles to use when writing about someone:
The overriding principle is to treat people with respect. That usually means giving them the title they themselves adopt. But some titles are ugly (Ms)… 
Now, it had not even occurred to me that anyone would think that “Ms” was “ugly”. I was brought up taking it for granted that we should automatically use “Ms” rather than “Mrs” so it doesn’t strike even strike me as odd. Perhaps that reaction is different in older generations. (In any case I doubt that we should be using gendered titles at all).

But I wonder whether it even matters whether it is “ugly” or not. As the article suggests the “overriding principle is to treat people with respect” and whether or not a word or phrase sounds or looks nice seems to be a fairly unimportant consideration in comparison. Treating people with dignity and respect by using inclusive language seems to me obviously more important than aesthetic considerations. Using slightly longer or more unusual language seems such a small price to pay for being decent towards other people.

However a lot of people who do not like “politically correct” language seem to think differently. They scoff at differently abled rather than disabled, sex workers rather than prostitutes, transgender rather than transvestite. Their real motivation is usually that they do not believe in the underlying claims for respect and equality, but it is often dressed up as caring about the attractiveness of language itself. (For a perfect takedown of these “political correctness gone mad” people see this sketch by Stewart Lee).


Perhaps there is however a more respectable position than the anti-"political correctness" crowd when it comes to the trade off between more inclusive language and aesthetics. Perhaps there is something to the idea that language should not be altered so much so that it becomes sterile and bureaucratic. Maybe the aesthetic value of language is in fact greater than I have suggested. Let me even grant for a moment the point that some inclusive language can appear ‘unattractive’. Saying fisherperson rather than fisherman for example might truly strike some as weird.

But even on this I’m not convinced. Our understanding of what is and is not aesthetically pleasing language is not objective and unchanging. Just as with “Ms” and “Mrs” I think we can become quite quickly accustomed to new language and no longer consider it unattractive. Salesperson, spokesperson and police officer have all become so accepted that I doubt whether anyone still sees them as intrusions on attractive language. Our aesthetic judgements are intimately connected with our wider views about justice and equality. When our views on the latter change, it affects the former.

Of course the aesthetic costs of using inclusive language might vary from language to language. English for example does not have gendered articles (the, a) and it has relatively few gender specific nouns, and those that are can be made neutral fairly easily. That is not the case with many other languages. German for example has gendered articles (der/die, ein/eine) as well as most nouns. In German you can't for example just say "the student" or "a professor" and be gender-neutral, because there are different versions of the noun to refer to either females or males. So in order to be gender-neutral you have to write "der/die Schüler/-in" and "ein/-e Professor/-in" to include both female and male students and professors. That is more cumbersome and less attractive than it is in English. But the alternative is using a single gender (which nearly always means the male gender) to cover everyone. I think the consequences of that are much worse than using a few extra slashes and hyphens.

The temptation might be to try to find some middle ground position. But in this case my view is that inclusiveness trumps aesthetics every time when it comes to language. The language we use shapes the environment that people live in, and when that language excludes and insults people it contributes to a hostile and oppressive environment. I’m willing to sacrifice quite a lot of aesthetic value to avoid that.

12 comments:

  1. Hi Bruno, thanks for raising these interesting question (and for the link to Stewart Lee!). Let me ask you in a bit more detail:
    1) would you concede that there are different kinds of texts, in which aesthetics play a different role? We wouldn't want to rewrite Shakespeare, would we? My impression is that conceding that much does not give up a lot, because most texts that really raise questions about inclusiveness are contemporary non-literary texts. Do you want make such distinctions, and if so, where would you draw the line?
    2) there are different ways of improving inclusiveness in languages such as German. One is to have gender-neutral versions in every instance. Another one is to randomly mix male and female versions. A third possibility, which is often used, is to add a footnote on the first page to say that male and female individuals are addressed, even when only one version is used. I'm not a fan of this latter strategy if it is combined with male versions, but one could also combine it with female versions. When this was suggested at a German university a few months ago, it raised a public outcry, but it could be a good solution in contexts in which women are in a minority. Do you have a preference for one of these versions?

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    1. Hi Lisa, thanks for questions! I would say:

      (1) You're right that I didn't distinguish between literary and non-literary texts, and that the value of aesthetics varies between them. I agree that we shouldn't rewrite classic literary texts (although I think we should make people aware of what is problematic about them). But I'm not sure that inclusive language is more important in modern non-literary texts. Literature (and more generally - TV, film, theatre) has a much larger audience and bigger emotional impact than journalism and academic articles/books. The language used there therefore plays a much more important role in shaping social/cultural perceptions - hence making it more important to be inclusive.

      On the other hand I don't write literary things, so I don't have to confront this problem! Perhaps there is more of a problem when you want to write a really good play/book that doesn't sound awkward, but my sense is that if you are truly committed to using inclusive language you can find a way to incorporate it. Some artists will I think too easily use aesthetics as an excuse for their laziness and/or lack of caring about inclusivity.

      (2) I agree with you that saying you will use the male version to cover everyone is unacceptable. I'm quite happy to use female versions to cover everyone. Its quite sad to hear that it led to an outcry in Germany since thats basically standard in English academia! I think that reflects how Germany is still behind on inclusiveness (especially when it comes to race).

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  2. Bruno, thanks for the post. It seems to me that there is a position within the anti- "political correctness" camp that you do not consider. Some people claim that being politically correct is basically only an aesthetic alteration (even if towards a pooorer aesthetics), which without changes of mindset is hypocritical if not a diversion. Do you think that using inclusive language gets us closer to having an inclusive mindset?

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    1. You are right Siba. There is definitely an issue with people superficially using inclusive language while still saying and doing racist and sexist stuff. It always annoys me when philosophers for example think that all they need to do in order to not be sexist is start using "she" and "her" in their hypothetical examples.

      So its certainly not sufficient for creating a more inclusive mindset. That requires more thoroughly de-gendering and de-colonising our assumptions and beliefs and making actual changes in our environment (e.g. quotas, equal pay, gender/racial balances). But I do think that the language we use is an important (and maybe even necessary) step towards that. Being forced to reconsider our language should lead people to reconsider why many consider it exclusive.

      Ultimately I think we need to do both, and call out people who use inclusive language without making any substantive changes to their thinking or actions.

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  3. Bruno, thanks for the post. Beginning without a clear question in mind, I wondered if I could focus on something that interested me in your penultimate sentence. Here you say, ‘when language excludes and insults people it contributes to a hostile and oppressive environment’. That comment made me wonder whether there are two slightly different threads running in your text. One (with which you begin) concerns how people feel about the terms used to label them. Another concerns what labelling does to reinforce norms of certain kinds. Take, for example, the use of the term ‘disabled’. One reason against using that term to describe someone is if that person would rather not be labelled in that way. Another reason is that it might reinforce the idea that that person (or people with the feature to which one is referring) is in some way *less able* than some other person(s), an image which, if sufficiently widely perceived in that way, could lead to these individuals being viewed as less equal, perhaps even treated as such. I suspect that these two things can often come together, but they could also come apart. Perhaps some people who choose the title ‘Ms.’ actually do not find it excluding or insulting to be called by other titles (and may even accept alternatives if Ms. were to sound aesthetically displeasing in some context), but we have reason anyway to reject its usage if it reinforces some unjust norm. That case would not problematize your claim. You could harness both arguments. But it made me wonder where you wish to load your case most? I take it you probably see both as issues, but do they have different kinds of importance and might they hold different weights against the aesthetic case?

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    1. Thanks Andrew, I agree that there are (at least) two main reasons for using inclusive language: (a) to show respect to the individual person, and (b) to not contribute to a hostile/oppressive general environment.

      I'm not sure whether I think either one is more or less important. Respecting individuals might seems more important because the person is directly in front of you, but then the general environment has the potential to harm many more people. So even if someone did not feel personally excluded by "Ms", I'm not sure the aesthetic consideration would be greater since there is still going to be the potential of harm through the general environment.

      If there really is no potential for your language to go beyond the individual (e.g. private conversation) perhaps then aesthetics could play a bigger role. But I think that is rare, and also you don't know how the language might affect the person even if they say they don't mind. They might for example not want to upset someone or cause a stir by complaining, or they might even internalise that language where it subconsciously affects their self-esteem.

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  4. "But the alternative is using a single gender (which nearly always means the male gender) to cover everyone."

    The "singular their" is very common as well.

    Despite a strong literary history for it, I don't like using a a plural pronoun like they or their as a gender neutral singular. The reason is simple: I aim to write with maximum clarity. I have enough problems articulating myself without the need to think through whether interchanging singular and plural pronouns. I'll leave such writing for the greats like Jane Austen.

    "I, John Shepherd, might conceal any family-matters that I chose, for nobody would think it worth their while to observe me."

    I'd much prefer we adopt new gender neutral pronouns (or revive old ones) to clearly articulate what we mean to say. From time to time Universal Unitarian (UU) publications use the term xe to refer to s/he and xem to refer to him/her. If this isn't adopted, might there be a gender inclusive singular in proto-English languages?

    Examples:

    Xe will begin by writing xyr name on the paper name tag located directly in front of xem.
    Each child will bring xyr overnight bag and a midday snack with xem to UU language camp.

    She or he will begin by writing his or her name on the paper name tag located directly in from of her or him. Each child will bring his or her overnight bag and a midday snack with her or him to UU language camp.

    Anyone who disagrees is a fool, and xe can go fuck xyrself.
    Anyone who disagrees is a fool, and s/he can go fuck herself or himself.

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    1. Invented gender-neutral pronouns are really interesting. A quick look at Wikipedia gives the following examples: 'e, 's, h', zhe, ze, zher(s), shi/hir, zhim, merr(s), hu, hus, hum, and humself. Sweden even formally introduced a new gender-neutral pronoun "hen" into the national encyclopaedia: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/11/swedish-gender-neutral-pronoun-hen-national-encyclopedia_n_3063293.html

      I would be quite happy to start using an invented one in English, if a movement builds up around one. But for the moment I generally end up using "they" even if it sacrifices a little clarity. Clarity (like aesthetics) is something I'm willing to compromise on when it comes to inclusive language.

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    2. Again, the German experience, while not having a gender-neutral pronoun, goes a bit into this direction: what is often done is to use participle forms which are gender neutral: "Studierende" instead of "Studentinnen und Studenten". This assimilates it to "students", which is gender neutral in English. And of course you first got some people complaining about aesthetics, but by and large people get used to it.
      I am not sure how the introduction of a completely new pronoun would work. Who would decide about this? Who would have the authority to make it mandatory? I am not saying that it could not be done, I'm just saying that it raises additional questions. Maybe looking into the processes that lead to the introduction of the first elements of gender justice would be interesting, to see how this has happened and what one can learn from it for what could be next steps!

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    3. I don't think anyone would have the authority to make it mandatory. English (thankfully) doesn't have an Académie française. I think it would have to be a process that came out of the feminist, queer and transgender movement, which I suppose might then someday also be legally recognised once it reached a certain level of common usage in society.

      But at the moment (as far as I know) there is no real movement towards that. My experience of activist meetings for example is that people state which gender pronoun they prefer to be referred to (he, she, they) and others are asked to respect that. And since none of the other attempts (zhe, ze, xe, etc) has gained much traction "they" seems to be becoming standard here.

      But that might change and I would be very happy to start using a new pronoun if it emerged.

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  5. Thanks, Bruno. Let me ask about the operationalisation of your thoughts, which I'm quite sympathetic to. How do you think we should look to bring these changes about? Should we look to bring it about through individual action or through more institutionalised structures or both? For example, like in Orwell's 1984, do you think that nethe language used by newspapers should be edited so as to bring it more in line with your proposals?

    (You may be interested to hear that in my teaching this year I've pursued a policy whereby I said that I'd mark a student for failing to use politically correct (and, in particular, gender-neutral) language. The results have been promising.)

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    1. I'm a fan of your individual marking action! I would also be in favour of, for example, academic institutions encouraging inclusive language in students and faculty. But I would be wary of state institutions doing the same. I certainly think that state institutions should use inclusive language in their own remit (laws, directives, government websites etc) but regulating outside of that brings up the 1984 worries you mentioned.

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