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Sexist language: theological mumbo-jumbo

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 Contents - Apr 1992AD2000 April 1992 - Buy a copy now
Problems of modern Biblical scholarship - B.A. Santamaria
Whence Ecumenism? The Vatican and ARCIC - Michael Davies
Sexist language: theological mumbo-jumbo - Frank Mobbs

The silly season got off to a good start in Queensland last year.

At that time - with the Soviet Union disintegrating, and a third of Africans imperilled by AIDS, and a million Australians out of work - at that time the Queensland Catholic Education Commission managed to focus on the really big problem of sexist, discriminatory language.

The Commission issued a 12-page booklet, Guidelines on the Use of Inclusive and Non-Discriminatory Language and "authorised that these Guidelines on the use of language be implemented" in Catholic education in Queensland - which is a polite way of ordering teachers and administrators to change their ways.

The reason for all this exertion is clearly set down in the Guidelines, "... if we stop using sexist language, it is an important step towards changing our consciousness - our view of what is appropriate."

Of what are we intended to become conscious? That through most of its history the English language evolved in a patriarchal or male-dominated society and, as a result, its vocabulary and grammar tend to exclude women."

As a remedy for this appalling situation, the Guidelines document rules that "inclusive language" be used, language defined as that which (1) "affirms the equality and dignity of each person" and which (2) "includes women and men in contexts where the message is directed to, refers to, and affects both and which avoids stereotypes."

All this is typical of the radical feminist technique of kidding us into believing there is a massive injustice being perpetrated on women, an injustice that calls for a revolution in the English language.

The first thing that occurs to one considering this ploy is that there is no such thing as sexist language. I have never come across an instance of it. When speakers or writers intend to refer to both sexes, they usually have no trouble in doing so. When they intend to refer to one sex only, they use the discriminations readily available in the language. People sometimes fail in these tasks, but this only shows that they make linguistic errors from time to time. In short, there is nothing wrong with the language, but only with the user of it. I say that there is no sexist language. The Guidelines says there is. What, then, does the document consider to be instances of the malignancy?

You get no prize for guessing that its prime example is the word "man" and its derivatives, e.g., "spokesman." Apparently if I say, "Justice Elizabeth Evatt, spokesman for the Law Reform Commission," then I am affirming that she is unequal to men and that she has somehow been excluded. From what, may I ask?

Or if I say, "There is a manpower shortage in the office. We could do with more typists," then I have failed to refer to women - I have excluded them from consideration. Is this supposed to be a serious argument?

What does the word "man" mean? I reach for my copy of the Concise Oxford Dictionary, look up the word "man" and find the first entry reads, "1. Human being (in indefinite or general application)." That is the commonest meaning of the word. Then I find other meanings listed, "2. The human race," "4. Adult male," and so on. Very, very obviously there are many meanings, and the rule for deciding on the meaning is simple, "Look at the context," which rule you obeyed when you understood without hesitation the examples I gave in the previous two paragraphs.

Marvellous to relate, the point I have just made is to be found in the Guidelines. The opening words of the treatment of "Man" read, "Man is ambiguous; it can mean either human being or male human being." It is a generic term when it means a human being.

Well, if it can mean a human being, and the context shows that, then where, 0 where, is the great problem?

Exclusion of women

The Guidelines has the answer, "Used as a generic term, ['man'] has led to the misrepresentation and exclusion of women!" That statement is simply false, utterly baseless. I can think of no example which shows it to be true.

An attempted example offered by the Guidelines is "Distinguished Men of Science." We are told that as long as we use this term "we make it harder for everyone to accept or imagine women in these roles."

Really? Suppose I read, "Among the Distinguished Men of Science of the nineteenth century was Nobel Prize physicist, Madame Marie Curie" - does that make it hard for me to imagine women being physicists?

Fortunately the solemnity of the Guidelines is relieved by the hilarious. It condemns the use of "to master" and "fellowship." The second must be replaced by "community, companionship." Apparently the term "Presbyterian Ladies' Fellowship" shows (to quote the document) "how language becomes a subtle enforcer of inequality."

You will recall that male tyranny in language is because English "evolved in a patriarchal or male-dominated society." That claim is common. But is it true?

I am at a loss to see any connection between a past patriarchal society and the meanings of common English expressions. Of course, past society was male-dominated. That tells me nothing about what words mean today. The ancient Romans were generally imperialist, lovers of empire. Yet I fail to see that by using such Latin words as "media", "forum" and "referendum" I am subtly enforcing imperialism.

It is sometimes urged that if masculine pronouns or other words were replaced with feminine words, then men would see how women are excluded. A nun, writing in The Tablet (London) of 23 November 1991, reports that at a workshop participants were invited to listen to a reading of Vatican II documents using feminine pronouns throughout, and that one of the men present responded that he had felt left out.

Of course he did. When a feminine pronoun is used it usually specifies that a female is being referred to, whereas "he/his/him" is, in certain contexts, not masculine at all but indeterminate, referring to either a male or a female. Thus "A student must submit his essay on the due date" refers to a Howard or a Cynthia, if they are students, but "A student must submit her essay on the due date" does not apply to Howard.

However these are but trifling matters compared to the recommendations of the Guidelines to tamper with the words of the liturgy and of Scripture. We are told that entire passages "need to be rewritten," on the ground that they employ exclusive terms. But, as I have already shown, anyone who thinks the terms in question are exclusive betrays ignorance of English.

If someone were to say, "the Creed says 'For us men and for our salvation' - what about women?" my reply would be a courteous, "Have you recently arrived in this country? Are you new to the English language?"

In some cases the Guidelines goes as far as virtually to reject foundational Christian doctrines. The Glory be to the Father (Gloria) is to be replaced by "Glory to you Source of all Being, eternal Word and Holy Spirit ...". This denies the relationship of the Persons of the Divine trinity, for the First Person is not only the source of all being but also the Father of the Second Person, in the sense that Jesus is "begotten" of the First Person. "Father" and "Son" affirm that they are of the same nature.

But the important question is: Why would anyone go to all this labour of rewriting the liturgy and the Scriptures? Why alter the most sacred of all words those of Our Lord Jesus Christ and the words loved and cherished and expounded and prayed by the Fathers of the Church, and the saints, and generation after generation of Christians?

That is the question that Queensland Catholic educators need to ponder. In the meantime, they could do no better than to drop the Guidelines into the nearest waste paper basket.

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Reprinted from AD2000 Vol 5 No 3 (April 1992), p. 20

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