Beginning a little over four years ago — you can deduce the causative event yourself — it became popular for people to proclaim that the United States has become a “post-racial society.”
Whatever that means: “post-racial” is an ill-defined term with no clearly established meaning. It hasn’t made it into any major dictionary at this time, and even a browse through the political and sociological literature in J-STOR suggests that “post-racial,” like Potter Stewart’s pornography, is something that you’ll only know when you see. You’ll get just as workable a definition of post-racial from wikipedia (or from the smart-asses at urban dictionary) as you will from the scholarly literature.
It’s also not unusual to hear people talk about how sexism has been overcome. In fact, some research has suggested that many young women, especially before college graduation, have fully bought into this fantasy. They only become disillusioned when they hit the pavement of the job market and learn that the glass ceiling is often bulletproof, harassment frequently goes unchecked, dependents in diapers are anchors against career advancement, and, perhaps most important, they still only get about 77 cents for every dollar men earn for equivalent work (see notes). In a truly humane society, these things would be criminal acts, with appropriate punishments.
Our language, as you probably know, is steeped in sexism. Efforts to correct this have been made for generations, with limited success. Many “-man” formations (and some “-woman” or other forms) have been ‘gender neutralized.’ For example, chairman became chairperson became chair. Postman became letter carrier, which is both neutral and technically accurate. Fireman shifted to firefighter. Meter maid became…parking enforcement officer. And so on. If you keep up with language conventions and the official style sheets that many publications follow, you’ll be aware that the gender specific forms of words which were popular earlier in the 20th century (actor/actress, comedian/comedienne, aviator/aviatrix, etc.) are now frowned upon and are frequently considered sexist, if not derogatory. Most guides now recommend using only the neutral (historically male) term, regardless of the sex: actor, comedian, pilot (see what they did there, by losing aviator‘s baggage?). Since the gender distinction in words of this sort is artificial to begin with, that’s good advice — it’s also standard practice today.
AP Style gives a couple of examples showing how to convert potentially sexist terms into appropriate (and meaningful) descriptions: not newsmen, but reporters; not mankind but humanity. AP frowns especially on “-person” formations, and favors gender-distinct (“chairman” or “chairwoman“) over ‘-personized’ gender neutral (“chairperson“) terminology.
Of course, you know that something is a lively and important issue when it gets lots of ink in GMAU — where sexism as a major heading gets just under three full pages. You’ll find a lot more good advice there.
“He/She” and “his/her” constructions have proven harder to root out than “-man” type formations. Pronouns allow a sexist interpretation of otherwise neutral terms: a skilled surgeon keeps his scalpels sharp; a hygienist keeps her tools clean. And so on. Hacker and Sommers’ A Writer’s Reference is very useful here, showing not only how to use non-sexist vocabulary, but also how to use the plural (“they” instead of “he” or “she”) or to recast a sentence to minimize the awkward wordiness that efforts to purge sexist language sometimes cause.
This sort of thing is easy enough to detect and rewrite, if you’re alert to it. In fact, if you deal with this sort of thing as much as I do — and I assume that any good writer or editor does — nullifying sexism becomes second nature. So much so that I actually struggled to create some of the obviously sexist examples for this post — my first three or four attempts automatically went to neutral forms, and a few after that were simply ugly sentences which most folks would never write.
It’s incumbent on all of us to eradicate sexual (and racial) stereotypes in our language use — written and spoken. But there does, sadly, seem to be an acceptable level of sexism among certain groups, and my annoyance with it prompted this column.
During a single 12-hour period not long ago, I witnessed the following overtly sexist statements:
– Men can’t do detail work / have poor dexterity because they didn’t play with dolls / sew clothes when they were children.
– Fathers aren’t really affected by a miscarriage / the death of a child like mothers are.
– Men always cheat on their girlfriends /wives. That’s just what they do.
If you haven’t detected the pattern, I’ll turn on the spotlight: these were all blatantly sexist statements about men (and implicitly sexist about women, but let’s stick to one side of the issue). At least, I gave thanks under my breath, I wasn’t told how boys are slow learners, girls are smarter, and if it weren’t for grade school bullying by boys, all the world’s problems would be solved.
While just about every other form of overt sexism and racism has become unacceptable, one of the few exceptions seems to be that if you are a woman bashing men, it’s okay (and in some circles, apparently, still downright fashionable).
Yes, I am offended by these kinds of blanket male-bashing statements, as everyone, male or female, should be. If a group of men made equivalent comments about women in the same context as these statements were made, listeners would be shocked. Maybe — just maybe — this type of thing can be allowed in joking, friendly conversations. But all of the above were used seriously, in otherwise thoughtful discussions.
Since all of these happened in conversation, you might think it’s not really important. This is, after all, a blog on the written language. While I many times use examples from speech, I usually make a point of noting that spoken errors make for great examples, but more often than not they’re forgivable.
However the written and spoken language are inextricable, and each affects the other. In this case, one shows an especially dangerous potential to infect the other with very bad habits. It was Orwell, in his famous essay on Politics and the English Language, who asserted that sloppy thinking leads to sloppy writing (and vice versa). There are many things in the living, spoken language that we should be willing to let slide; overt sexism should never be one of them.
Keep your own writing and thinking crisp, and don’t let this type of carelessness creep in. You’ll thank yourself later, because it has the potential to keep you out of a lot of hot water.
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Notes and further reading:
When it comes to equal pay for women and men, I am aware that the figures range from a low of 58 cents to a high of 95 cents. Since 77 cents was used as an average figure by the Census Bureau in 2011, that’s what I’ve used here. The relevant graph is on page 12 (page 20 in electronic pagination).
For a useful description of how different groups perceive different definitions of “post-racial,” see Gregory D. Smithers, Barack Obama and Race in the United States: A History of the Future, Australasian Journal of American Studies, Vol. 28, No. 1 (July 2009), pp 1-16 (http://www.jstor.org/stable/41054118).