On the April 5 edition of 60 Minutes, long-time correspondent Morley Safer opened his segment on Wikipedia by referring to it as “the greatest argument-settler wrought by man.” That’s April 5, 2015. Really? We’re still saying and hearing phrases like “known to man” or “mankind has always . . .”? And even on a TV show with some claim to intellectual respectability like 60 Minutes?
Granted, I live and operate in a relatively rarefied environment, the academy, where we’ve been extracting gender-specific language like Safer’s for decades and substituting gender-neutral wording. Hence, freshman has become first-year student. Sure, it’s a little bulky, but it has the virtue of abandoning the days when first-year students were mainly, if not exclusively, male. Same goes for a word like chairman. When I became the first woman “chair” of the English Department at Davidson College, I instantly adopted that de-gendered title, as have, by now, all of my male colleagues who chair departments and committees. One syllable is plenty, and it’s free of gendered bias. It’s a noun for all seasons.
I appreciate that folks outside of academe may be rolling their eyes at this minute attention to individual words. Come on! I can hear you thinking out there, is the way you refer to a student or a head of a committee really that important? I share some of your impatience with political correctness, believe me. Once, in a departmental meeting, I was chewed out publicly for saying that my students were being “crippled” by their dependency on the filler “like” in their speech, whereupon I was, like, too stunned to talk back. But I want to make the case that gendered language can contribute to gender inequality, especially when it conveys male privilege or superiority.
Ever the sage about human behavior, Shakespeare turns a keen eye on the matter of custom over his career as a playwright. The word comes up repeatedly in his canon, as it does in the works of his early modern contemporaries. Think of Hamlet’s reference to “that monster custom” when he castigates his mother for her adultery with Claudius. The basic idea is that habit can create reality. When that reality is misbehavior, custom itself is monstrous: it has given rise to monstrosity. We like to think we can use words like mankind and yet really think humankind, but, in fact, merely by saying mankind repeatedly, we reinforce the thinking that anything worth noting about the human race sifts down to what men have done, thought, made, or felt.
In truth, if we really want to further an all-inclusive society, then one place to start is the way we speak, which conditions the way we feel and think. Referring to people as male people inevitably cuts out a portion of humanity whose contribution is already noteworthy and needs acknowledgement and encouragement to grow.