Archive for August, 2015

The Unavoidable “He”

Monday, August 17th, 2015

What do I advise you to do when it comes to linguistic politics? I suppose I would advise you to keep a low profile for now, certainly until you get your degree, and perhaps, depending on where you get a job, until you are tenured. As the great Crossett once told me, “save your martyrdom for where it counts”.

Ideological interest in “inclusive” language has been around throughout my career. Never one to capitulate, I did make a slight concession during my first year of graduate school. In the papers I wrote for the doctoral seminar, I began using the word “person” where I should have used the word “man”, but each time I did so I inserted a footnote informing the reader that “wherever the word ‘person’ is used, the word ‘man’ is intended”. A little wiser and less pretentious now, I must say I look back on this with some embarrassment, not because I’ve decided the ideologues are right—far from it—but because it’s clear this provocation served no purpose, except to let off some steam!

Admittedly, “keeping a low profile” when it comes to current pronominal usage is difficult, and in some syntactical instances virtually impossible—unless, that is, one is prepared to say things that are either ambiguous or downright ugly. Peter Kreeft has presented the choices available to those who are determined to be inoffensive:

The use of the traditional inclusive generic pronoun “he” is a decision of language, not of gender justice. There are only six alternatives. (1) We could use the grammatically misleading and numerically incorrect “they.” But when we say “one baby was healthier than the others because they didn’t drink that milk,” we do not know whether the antecedent of “they” is “one” or “others,” so we don’t know whether to give or take away the milk. Such language codes could be dangerous to baby’s health. (2) Another alternative is the politically intrusive “in-your-face” generic “she,” which I would probably use if I were an angry, politically intrusive, in-your-face woman, but I am not any of those things. (3) Changing “he” to “he or she” refutes itself in such comically clumsy and ugly revisions as the following: “What does it profit a man or woman if he or she gains the whole world but loses his or her own soul? Or what shall a man or woman give in exchange for his or her soul?” The answer is: he or she will give up his or her linguistic sanity. (4) We could also be both intrusive and clumsy by saying “she or he.” (5) Or we could use the neuter “it,” which is both dehumanizing and inaccurate. (6) Or we could combine all the linguistic garbage together and use “she or he or it,” which, abbreviated, would sound like “sh…it.” I believe in the equal intelligence and value of women, but not in the intelligence or value of “political correctness,” linguistic ugliness, grammatical inaccuracy, conceptual confusion, or dehumanizing pronouns (Socratic Logic, 3rd ed., p. 36, n. 1).

One and the Same

Thursday, August 13th, 2015

Yes, I can see your problem. It’s so very easy for us to misunderstand or misconstrue the nature of someone else’s experience, what you call their “subjective reality”, based (as our interpretation must be) on the words they use to describe it.

I’m in the midst of a controversy of my own at the moment, and it’s moving along similar terminological lines. As I said to a correspondent who is aware of this particular clash of perspectives, disputes like this are useful insofar as they give us an opportunity to distinguish the real esotericists from their pretenders. The former, well aware of the Zen maxim that “false words are true when they lead to enlightenment; true words are false when they breed attachment”, are much more likely to cut their interlocutors some slack!

I was talking with another friend just the other day, and he provided yet a further case in point. We were reflecting on the meaning of the Delphic imperative: Gnothi seauton. He recalled visiting a Sufi zawiyah in Morocco some years ago, and being severely criticized by one of the fuqara for having said that knowing oneself means finding oneself. No, the dervish replied: we must lose ourselves—we must be extinguished (fana)!

My friend found himself unable to explain to this man what anyone who has read the Gospels knows: that finding and losing are one and the same!