Situating usage

John Mcreery (jlm@TWICS.COM)
Sun, 8 Jan 1995 21:08:43 JST

First, a Happy New Year to all my friends and colleagues on Anthro-L.
Second, heartfelt thanks to Mike Lieber, Eve Pinsker and Dwight Read
for introducing some subtlety into the great gender-inclusive
language debate. I do think we need to go further in contextualizing
the usages we debate and would like to offer the following case in

At the U.S. Naval Academy, where daughter Katie is looking forward
to soon not being a "plebe" any more, the term "midshipMAN" is
officially defined as gender-inclusive. Is everyone equal? Of course
not. No institution is more explicitly hierarchical; upper classmen
outrank lower classmen, higher ranking officers outrank lower-
ranking ones. Rank is dramatized in costume (stripes and badges on
uniforms) and ritual ( those lower in rank are required to greet and
salute those higher in rank and, so long as the orders in question do
not transgress precisely prescribed limits, do what those higher in
rank command.

What is striking, however, is massive effort being made to minimize
the relevance of both race and gender. There are blacks, hispanics,
asians, women scattered throughout the hierarchy. When Katie
started plebe year the Brigade Commander was black, her batallion
commander a woman, her squad leader Cambodian. While passing
through the Academy, both men and women are trained to take orders
from members of other races and genders.

Is gender a non-issue? No. Gender is marked in uniforms, most
visibly in the "stewardess cap" shape of the "covers" (i.e., hats) worn
by female midshipmen; most audibly in the rule that says female
superior is addressed as "Ma'am" while a male superior is addressed
as "Sir." The physical readiness requirements for women are
somewhat lighter: 18 pushups instead of 40, for example.

For Katie, the most difficult thing about the Academy's social
arrangements arise from the combination of (1) the rule that
prohibits dating by plebes and (2) the hyperesensitivities engendered
by public and official reaction to the Tailhook scandal. While men
are free to form close friendships and hang around each others'
rooms shooting the bull, a man and woman who display the same
behavior will be called down for violating (1). Add (2) and it's hard
indeed for a woman to become just one of the "guys." Katie, who has
never found it a problem to be friends with men as well as women
and is very aware that career chances depend in part on the
networks she builds while going to the Academy, finds this very

One Academy custom that helps some women to ease the strain (but
is also deeply embarassing to others) is the weekly session at which
plebes take turns telling dirty jokes to the upperclass in charge of
them. (Example: "How is a man like a snowstorm?" "You never know
when they'll come, you never know when they'll stop, and you never
know how many inches you'll get.")

Reminds me a lot of the "dirty talk" session that is always part of
training for Tokyo English Life Line. There the rationale is clear. You
can't be an effective counselor if "dirty" words distract you and you
can't respond calmly to callers whatever words they use. The same,
it seems, is true of naval officers, who will ultimately be
responsible for seaman whose words and behavior both might well
be offensive to those with more "genteel" or (dare I say it)
"politically correct" expectations.

John McCreery (JLM@TWICS.COM)