One of the unexpected pleasures of reading right-wing tracts is the excuse to indulge in a heady few minutes of utopian fantasy. According to folk like David Gelernter of the American Enterprise Institute, the feminist revolution is a done deal.
In this case, Gelernter sets out how feminists have ruined modern English for sexists such as himself, with our ‘he or she’ and our ‘chairperson’. Encountering such a viewpoint is a refreshing change from the real world, where our language is absolutely permeated with patriarchal norms. Where the casual use of ‘he’ to refer to both men and women has been replaced with ‘guys’ (except when it hasn’t been replaced at all); words like woman or girl, and all those terms associated with being female or feminine, are seen as heinous insults; I could go on…
“College students and full-fledged young English teachers emerge from [a] feminist incubator in which they have spent their whole lives,” Gelernter asserts. If only it were true!
But his main concern, we are meant to believe, is not to return to a mythical time when men were men and women were women (and mended his socks), but the impact of feminism on written English.
How can I (how can any teacher) get students to take the prime rule seriously when virtually the whole educational establishment teaches the opposite? When students have been ordered since first grade to put “he or she” in spots where “he” would mean exactly the same thing, and “firefighter” where “fireman” would mean exactly the same thing?
I am sure I don’t need to explain to a writer that fireman does not mean the same as firefighter – one could be either a woman or a man, and the other is a man, or perhaps a rare woman allowed by some quirk of fate or leftist politics into a job generally set aside for a man. A male firefighter is the default, a female firefighter the exception, we understand.
The column is riddled with telling phrases, such as this:
The fixed idea forced by language rapists upon a whole generation of students, that “he” can refer only to a male, is (in short) wrong.
Language rapists? What better phrase for those pesky feminists and their silly insistence on consent!
Even Gelernter doesn’t believe that one pronoun can stand in for men and women, though, as becomes clear when he describes his reaction to hearing ‘she’ used in exactly the way that ‘he’ supposedly is:
At the bottom of this junkpile is a maneuver that seems to be growing in popularity, at least among college students: writing “she” instead of neutral “he,” or interchanging “he” and “she” at random. This grotesque outcome follows naturally from the primordial lie. If you make students believe that “he” can refer only to a male, then writers who use “he” in sentences referring to men and women are actually discussing males only and excluding females–and might just as well use “she” and exclude males, leaving the reader to sort things out for himself. The she-sentences that result tend to slam on a reader’s brakes and send him smash-and-spinning into the roadside underbrush, cursing under his breath. (I still remember the first time I encountered such a sentence, in an early-1980s book by a noted historian about a Jesuit in Asia.)
It’s tempting to quote this whole article:
Why should I worry about feminist ideology while I write? Why should I worry about anyone’s ideology? Writing is a tricky business that requires one’s whole concentration, as any professional will tell you; as no doubt you know anyway. Who can afford to allow a virtual feminist to elbow her way like a noisy drunk into that inner mental circle where all your faculties (such as they are) are laboring to produce decent prose? Bargaining over the next word, shaping each phrase, netting and vetting the countless images that drift through the mind like butterflies in a summer garden, mounting some and releasing others–and keeping the trajectory and target always in mind?
Yeah, who cares! Misogyny makes for good copy, so go for it. Why not throw the n-word in that tricky paragraph a couple of times for good measure.
However, this is the most deluded paragraph of all:
The depressing trail continues one last mile. What happens to a nation’s thinking when you ban such phrases as “great men”? The alternatives are so bad–“great person” sounds silly; “great human being” is a casual tribute to a friend–that it’s hard to know where to turn. “Hero” doesn’t work; “Wittgenstein was a great man” is a self-sufficient assertion, but “Wittgenstein was a hero” is not. Was he a war hero, a philosophical hero? (Yes and yes.) “Wittgenstein was a great heart” (also true) can’t be rephrased in hero-speak, and can’t substitute for “great man” either.
Whatever fantasies anyone might indulge about ‘he’ acting as a gender-neutral pronoun, surely nobody could be as idiotic as to think that this is a comparable phrase. Was Jane Austen (almost the sole woman named in the column) a “great man”? Or are women simply incapable of achieving enough to qualify for this high praise? To answer Gelernter’s question, what happens to a nation when phrases such as “great men” fall out of favour, is that greatness is no longer narrowed down to a purely male attribute. Which terrifies men like him.