Words are deeds

Philosophy, language and gender experts Dr Dino Willox and Associate Professor Deborah Brown apply critical thinking to gender-neutral language.

In Lewis Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, Humpty Dumpty insists that he can mean whatever he wants by a word. If he wants ‘glory’ to mean ‘nice knockdown argument,’ that’s his prerogative. ‘The question,’ Alice replies, ‘is whether you can make words mean so many things.’ ‘The question,’ responds Humpty, is simply ‘which is to be master.’

The irony is that Humpty Dumpty has mastered nothing and is about to become scrambled egg. Language, Alice might have said, is essentially social and operates only by agreement.

The University of Queensland made the non-news this week for allegedly instituting a ban on the use of gendered language in student essays. It must have been a slow day. ‘The end of mankind!’ prophesied The Courier Mail. ‘Has political correctness gone too far?’ Channel 9 bleated sheepishly. (‘But,’ said Alice, ‘There is no such ban.’) UQ reassured the nation that students are only advised to avoid gendered language in much the same way that they are advised to avoid racist language, colloquialisms, dropped apostrophes and split infinitives.

Why then did the story ever make it to press, you wonder? Answer: ‘who is to be master?’

Such moments in media history provide us with an occasion to reflect not just on the political dimension of language but also language itself.

The problem with gendered language, like racist language, is not only that it reinforces social inequality; it is also just plain false!

Changes in meaning affect the truth-value of what is said. Racist terms do not mean the same thing as their ‘neutral correlates.’ As Christopher Hom points out, ‘Yao is Chinese!’ and ‘Yao is a chink!’ do not have the same truth conditions. If they did, racism would be true! Instead, ‘Yao is a chink’ abbreviates a longer sentence asserting that Yao ought to be subjected to discriminatory treatment because of his membership in this racially designated group. And that, Hom points out, is false.

Now let’s consider gendered language. Those who think that ‘he,’ ‘man,’ or ‘mankind’ stand universally for all people assume that these words are inclusive. But they are wrong. ‘Animal’ is a genuinely inclusive term, which is why it designates any animal and why it supports valid inferences such as ‘Fido is a dog, therefore, Fido is an animal.’ But ‘he’, ‘man’ and ‘mankind’ don’t function in anything like this inclusive way. If they did, then ‘She is he’ and ‘Woman is man,’ would be true, and ‘Mary is a woman, therefore, Mary is a man’ would be valid. But that’s nuts. (There’s glory for you, Humpty Dumpty.)

‘But when I use gendered language,’ insists Humpty Dumpty, ‘I’m not being sexist.’

The fact, Humpty, is that language is and always has been a highly contested political space. It is not the mirror held up to nature that Hamlet hoped but a mechanism through which social reality is created and bent in ways that subtly and often imperceptibly serve the interests of the powerful.

Here is a simple demonstration. Assuming ‘as good as’ signifies an equivalence, the sentences ‘Women are as good at accounting as men’ and ‘Men are as good at accounting as women’ should mean the same thing. But they don’t. The first sentence implies that men already have the power and status in the field of accounting and the effect to be explained is how women have come to be as good as them. In the second sentence, the roles are reversed. ‘Men’ in the first sentence operates, as Susanne Bruckmüller explains, as a “linguistic norm.”
If you found the first sentence ‘normal’ but the second surprising, then you have just encountered how something as trivial as word order can contribute to shaping your implicit gender biases.

Back to our non-news story. Some students are clearly peeved by UQ’s ‘lefty’ advice to avoid gendered language — as if they are being shoved down some ideological rabbit hole not of their choosing.

Heads up: Speaking is an act, and like any act can cause harm. Speaking for others is asserting authority over them.

This is what ‘authority’ means, FYI — when you give someone the authority to speak for you, you make them the ‘author’ of your thoughts and decisions. To assume the authority to speak for all is to take what is not yours to give, and to silence those you purport to represent. (These are BAD things.)

If we value equality for all persons and the ideals of public reason — that public decisions must be made on the basis of reasons accessible from a variety of perspectives — we have no reason to encourage language use that excludes reasonable perspectives from being aired. Universities may not want to operate as language police, but they have a duty to bring to the attention of their students the fundamental fact that words are deeds.

Read more: School of Political Science and International Studies Head Richard Devetak discusses the need for universities to teach good writing practices: "To do this, we must not allow shrill culture warriors to twist the truth and turn common sense writing conventions into weapons of fake news".