Re: gender bias in language

Lief M. Hendrickson (hendrick@NOSC.MIL)
Wed, 5 Apr 1995 20:39:58 PDT

On Mar 30, Christine Flaherty posted a message asking me if I "think
there is one woman on this list who would agree with (me) on (my)
'normal' definition of mankind?". I previously responded relative to
general usage of the word. Today the question of whether there is
"one woman on the list" who recognizes the "normal" definition has
eloquently been answered by Valerie Samson. In her Apr 4 post,
referring to the word, "mankind", she wrote, "reading this word as
non-inclusive of the totality of the human race is self-sabotage.
Perceived insults distract women from substantive issues and insure
their outsider status in academia."

Though Christine had posed her question in terms of my definition of
"mankind", the definition is obviously not mine. I did not formulate
it. Like it or not, the correct meaning of the word is pervasive,
both in the past and present in normal communications. The problem we
have is certain self-serving educators who distort the meaning of the
word to exclude females. It's gotten so bad that some people have
even developed an aversion for similar words as expressed by Iain
Davidson in his Mar 31 post where he wrote, "I now find it genuinely
unpleasant to attend meetings at which people (male and female) use
Man for the species".

A contemporary exclusion of females caused by the word "mankind" is
illusory. Insisting it is so and looking for psychological proofs
only serve to propagate exclusions of the past and create new ones.
We all know that "mankind" refers to the species homo sapiens. While
there is nothing wrong with "humankind", adding a "hu" still includes
the word "man" without including the word "woman". Are we later to
worry about "humankind" and "huwomankind"? Irrespective of the effect
of "hu" (or hue for that matter!), "mankind" still generally means
both males and females. Coercive pressure to mandate a change in
meaning results in improper interpretation of much of past literature
as well as faulty communication with normal contemporary society.

In her excellent post, Valerie also mentioned other problems in
interpretations and gave the example of wearing the color red. As she
indicated, in some places this can signify membership in a gang.
Besides signifying membership, wearing the opposing gang's color could
result in death in a gang's territory. An example is the "Bloods"
whose color is red and the "Crypts" whose color is blue. I remember
hearing in the news about a drive-by shooting of a non-gang member in
Southern Calif. because he was wearing the wrong color in the wrong
neighborhood several years ago. The problem has lessened considerably
since the Los Angeles riots following the Rodney King case, but
problems with certain special interpretations in other circumstances
remain with us. Those in language are notable.

The use of a generally accepted word, in good faith, in the wrong part
of academia is now regarded with hostility by some. And for what
purpose? Academia can set positive examples that have good results on
the rest of society in the long run. Both language change and
behavioral change follow understanding- which is supposed to be
facilitated by educators. Their attempting to force societal change
by language manipulation bipasses understanding of the issues. It
causes built-in conclusions of past communication where the "old
language" was used as well as creates factions that communicate
differently. The "femicop" coercion to mandate language change is a
method to control thinking. It does create conformity and cohesion
among those who succumb, but it certainly causes derision with the
rest of the world.