How not to fight Sexist Pronouns

I fully understand that there are two sides to the debate over whether “he” as universal pronoun in English is sexist. I also get that most people who care about such things (not necessarily the population as a whole) falls in the “it’s sexist camp.” Full disclosure: I’m in the “it’s harmless” camp, but I see the case for the other side well enough that I don’t generally make an issue out of it.

That doesn’t mean it isn’t a little irritating to hear people using “she” as a universal pronoun. For one thing, since absolutely no one was raised speaking that way, it’s an affectation – like how people from nowhere near the ghetto used to call each other “dawg” in the 90s. Any time you’re signaling something you don’t really feel to score cheap social points, people will think less of you. For another thing, it’s manipulative. Since the person choosing to use “she” rather than “he” as a universal pronoun evidently thinks that use of “he,” in it’s own possibly small way, contributes to unconscious sexist biases, he must logically believe that using “she” in its place is a way of curing you of your innate sexist biases. Well, that’s condescending and obnoxious – both in the presumption that I the listener have such sexist biases in the first place, and in the evident assumption that the speaker has fewer. Not to mention, there’s a concommitant assumption that I, as someone less enlightened, am this easily manipulated. Finally, it brazenly disregards the gender-neutral alternatives. As such, it seeks to perpetuate the problem with a new set of roles rather than to actually solve it. It’s confrontational rather than solution-oriented.

Now, the descriptions I’ve just given are a little uncharitable, and I suppose they won’t apply – certainly they won’t apply fully – to all casual users of the universal “she.” Sometimes it’s just social pressure, sometimes you just wake up feeling more motivated than usual to fight gender stereotypes, whatever. So when I hear the universal “she,” I try to give the benefit of the doubt. Basicaly, what I look for are signs that the speaker uses the pronoun evenly. Does “she” crop up in both negative and positive contexts with roughly equal frequency? Does the speaker slip into one of the other patterns (universal “he,” avoidance, use of plurals) in one context or the other? If the speaker switches freely between use of “he” and “she,” does the balancing of positive and negative contexts seem deliberate, or is it plausibly randomly apportioned? (Meaning, for an average-length conversation, one or the other should show up more often in negative contexts just by chance. If it’s too even, it’s evidence of conscious switching.)

Today, I came across a sterling example of what I’m talking about on John Scalzi’s blog. It’s a piece on criticism – what it’s for, and when to take it seriously. It starts off like this:

Let’s start with the critic. When the critic sits down to critique or comment, she has several choices for the goal of the critique, some of which are:

OK, so critics are “she.” Fair enough.

Consumer reporting: Describing to [a] potential consumer why a particular thing (book, album, film, game, etc) is or is not worth their time/money/attention.

Consumers, by contrast, are “they.” My warning bells are already starting to go off a bit, since an innocent use of “she” as universal pronoun should not really be accompanied by a use of plural in another context. No proof yet, but it sort of gives the impression that the plural strategy is more natural for Scalzi, and that he’s doing the “she”-thing deliberately (as an affectation – see above). Not an auspicious start. But … to be fair, there’s usually a many-to-one relationship between consumers and critics, so maybe it’s in that sense that consumers are plural and critics are singular.

The next three motivations for criticism (Exegesis, Instruction, Polemic) interestingly avoid use of pronouns at all. Critics are now just critics.

But here it shows up again with a vengeance:

Note these goals are not exclusive; a critic may mix and match these goals in whatever proportions she feels necessary to convey her message most effectively. Alternately, she may choose to go with one primarily and have the others only in supporting roles, if they are there at all.

Whether the criticism is ultimately effective to a large degree depends on two things: One, whether the critic herself is, as a matter of craft, effective in reaching her critical goals; Two, whether the audience for the critique is well-matched with the goal of the critique.

Highly consistent use of the universal “she” all of a sudden, after several paragraphs of avoidance strategies (univeral plural, avoidance of pronouns). Again, it feels like an affectation. Since the avoidance and plural strategies are clearly in this author’s toolkit, one wonders why the alternating universal doesn’t seem to be.

Several paragraphs again pass before we get another opportunity to see much in the way of a pronoun strategy (there were pronouns in the intervening paragraphs, but they’re all natural plurals) – but when we do, it’s pretty damning.

Another answer is when the critic’s personal agenda or polemic makes evident the contempt they have for a person or class of people (who you may be, or to which you may belong) and/or makes evident they have a hard time modeling the idea that others who are outside their own brain or are not of their own small tribe might have valid and defensible reasons for critical choices with which the critic disagrees. This is essentially the difference between “I would not have chosen that” or “I don’t understand how you could have chosen that,” and “Only an idiot would have chosen that” or “You chose that; what’s wrong with you?” In all cases the critic may have a valid point to make, which may be worth considering. But in the latter two cases the critic is also rhetorically signalling that she believes you exist on some lower plane of existence. In which case I think you’re perfectly entitled to say, whatever, jackass, and ignore them moving forward.

Up to this point, critics have been consistently “she” – or else legimiately pluralized. And at the end of the paragraph, they’re “she” again. But ONLY ONCE. And that’s significant, because we’ve changed from a context in which critics are shown in a neutral or positive (well, they are in some sense the protagonist of the piece, being the main subject matter) light to one in which they’re acting unprofessionally. Once we’re talking about critics being unprofessional, grinding personal axes and acting superior rather than expressing legitimate disagreements with mainsteam opinion, suddenly we get the plural avoidance strategy. “Another answer is when the critic’s{SINGULAR] personal agenda or polemic makes evident the contempt they[PLURAL] have for a person or class of people…” And “But in the latter case the critic[SINGULAR] is also rhetorically signalling that she[SINGULAR] believes you exist on a lower plane of existence. In which case I think you’re perfectly entitled to say, whatever, jackss, and ignore them[PLURAL] moving forward.” So even in the one instance where Scalzi sticks with his original “critics are ‘she'” choice, it’s quickly mitigated by a reversion to the plural avoidance strategy. Very interesting.

And it only continues:

To be clear, critics are perfectly within their rights to be as snobby or contemptuous or jackassed as they would like to be. As a critic, being so is often cathartic (to say the least), and for those of us consuming the criticism, it’s often fun to read. But when critics are, they should do so with the understanding that if their actual goal is to educate and inform those to whom they are being snobby contemptuous jackasses, well. They have likely failed. Alternately, if the critic is not aware of the level of snobby contemptuous jackassedness oozing from their critique, then they are not in control of their instrument, and they need to go back and try again. Now, it’s possible that the critic is actively attempting not to be a snobby contemptuous jackass, and someone reading them still considers them so. In which case: C’est la vie. However, as a practical and fiduciary matter, it’s probably best that a critic doesn’t leap to the assumption that the problem of others conceptualizing the point of her prose rests with the other party.

Notice that in this paragraph, in which we continue to talk about critics in a slightly negative (though admittedly more neutral in this case, since we’re getting explanations for legitimate instances of snobbery in criticism – namely when it entertains or is cathartic) way, critics are suddenly a group. And yet … once we’re talking about them wholly negatively again (as when they’re snobby without self-awareness of same, a sign of being a bad critic), we’re back to the representative singular with plural agreement.

Shortly thereafter, the piece ends.

Well, go an read it for yourself and tell me I’m wrong. When critics are the good guys, they’re studiously in the representative singular with singular agreeing pronouns, all of which are feminine. When critics are the indifferent-to-bad guys, they’re a group and get grammatical plural agreement. When they’re the unambiguously bad guys, or are otherwise being described as incompetent, they’re back in representative singular, but this time with plural agreement. It’s a very clear pattern, and it’s the pattern of someone making an effort to be politically correct.

In writing this way, Scalzi unconsciously makes the case agains “she” as universal pronoun. We can pretty fairly rule out that useage is randomly apportioned here: the universal “he” makes not even a single appearance. There’s likewise evidence that it’s an affectation. “She” is, to the best of my knowledge, NO ONE’s default universal. I can well imagine that some people fairly naturally use it alongside “he” these days, but it seems unlikely that there are people for whom it is the SOLE universal pronoun – and certainly that is true of people in Scalzi’s generation. More to the point, he seems fairly comfortable with the plural avoidance strategy (using a plural pronoun to agree with a singular antecedent for the purpose of avoiding sexist bias), which begs the question why he doesn’t just go with that. I suppose I could believe that he freely switches between use of a universal pronoun and the plural avoidance strategy (though this would be much easier to believe if the gender of the universal pronoun changed from time to time), but that still doesn’t explain why there’s a perfect correlation between the tone of the context and the choice of strategy. It’s consistently the universal “she” when the antecedent is shown in a positive light, consistently the plural avoidance strategy when the antecedent is shown in a negative light, and it’s mostly consistently the plural avoidance strategy (with minor exceptions) in neutral contexts. Nope – that’s gotta be deliberate.

Well, the trouble with it being deliberate is that Scalzi outs himself as a language manipulator – no better or worse than those people who make an effort to say “I’m doing well” in response to your “I’m good, how are you?” just to style themselves as more educated than you. It’s no less bullying in this case than that one, and I wish people would stop it.

To be fair, of couse without a close look at a broader range of Scalzi’s writing, the basis for concluding things about his motivations is a little thin. Perhaps I’ve just stumbled across an outlier (maybe someone called him on use of universal “she,” and he’s being deliberately provocative; perhaps it really is just a coincidence). But I don’t think so, somehow, and in any case this kind of context-sensitive application of the universal “she” strikes me as wholly typical of its use. The truth is that while there’s the outside possibility that a person consistently using “he” as the universal pronoun is speaking wholly naturally, without sexist bias, there is no such possibility with “she.” Since no one grew up with this as the standard use, and since its appearance is the result of a highly vocal campaign to consciously change the language, it is always exceedingly unlikely that any person using it as their sole universal pronoun, as Scalzi is doing here, is doing so naturally or without an agenda. Such uses are always suspect – and, since no one likes being manipulated for political ends – offputting.

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