The Unavoidable “He”

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).

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