A Person Paper on Purity in Language.
June 18, 2002 3:34 PM   Subscribe

A Person Paper on Purity in Language. An old William Satire (aka Douglas Hofstadter) piece that's well worth reading. "One of the more hilarious suggestions made by the squawkers for this point of view is to abandon the natural distinction along racial lines, and to replace it with a highly unnatural one along sexual lines. One such suggestion-emanating, no doubt, from the mind of a madwhite-would have us say 'he' for male whites (and blacks) and 'she' for female whites (and blacks). Can you imagine the outrage with which sensible folk of either sex would greet this 'modest proposal'?"
posted by jacobm (21 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

What makes this piece "well worth reading"?
posted by peeping_Thomist at 4:18 PM on June 18, 2002

Its an old piece but considered a classic in its own way. Hofstadter is making a point about how sexism has insidiously entered our language. His analogy with racism drives the point home rather well, I think, and in a perversely entertaining fashion.
posted by vacapinta at 4:47 PM on June 18, 2002

I liked it. Sort of slow-going at first, it doesn't really get going until whe starts throwing the race specific pronouns around in the middle.
posted by swell at 4:56 PM on June 18, 2002

Tremendously entertaining. He brings up some very good points about racism and sexism, especially the part about Mr./Mrs./Ms. What's annoying about satire about this is has some logical gaps in it: It assumes that the analogy between Men and Women is the same between Blacks and Whites. I'd disagree.

For one thing, men and women are chemically different. There are physical differences, and the way each sex handles problems and reasons things through is very different. In contrast, I doubt that any significant differences arise between races that aren't just the product of different environments, such as where one grows up, etc.

Also, what about the division between men and women's sports, etc? I guess the problem I have with this article is there's clear differences between men and women. There aren't between different races.

I don't have a problem with gender neutral terms. This author just makes a flawed argument as to why they can be problematic
posted by Happydaz at 6:00 PM on June 18, 2002

A passable parody mirrors the language of the author. As silly as William Safire can be, he would never use the phrase "silly prattle." Never. As much as I would love to laugh at Wm. S., I couldn't get past the first paragraph.
posted by kozad at 7:48 PM on June 18, 2002

After he wrote this for his own amusement, Hofstadter should have erased it from his hard drive. It's dreck.
posted by peeping_Thomist at 8:19 PM on June 18, 2002

More and more, Happydaz, I doubt that any significant differences arise between men and women that aren't just the product of different environments, such as where one grows up, etc.

I thought this piece made an excellent point in a novel way. Well-done.
posted by acridrabbit at 8:30 PM on June 18, 2002

I'm pretty sure my penis is not the product of a "different environment," acridrabbit.

I also think you underestimate the effect of our different hormonal systems.
posted by five fresh fish at 8:48 PM on June 18, 2002

posted by delmoi at 8:55 PM on June 18, 2002

A novel idea competently executed. The language is thick and obnoxious, but that's entirely the point. Thanks for the link - I'd never heard of this little piece.
posted by Mars Saxman at 9:30 PM on June 18, 2002

kozad: I don't think the point is to make fun of William Safire; IIRC, William Satire is a name Hofstadter used for a number of satirical articles of all kinds.

peeping_Thomist: why don't you like the article? You've expressed that opinion twice but haven't said anything about why you hold it. Care to share?

Happydaz: why do you think the difference you point out is relevant? (That's not a barb. I'm curious.)
posted by jacobm at 9:59 PM on June 18, 2002

This is getting a lot of traffic lately. If you're using this paper, I'd like to know toward what end or how you came across it. (June 18, 2002)

Heh. I wrote him to let him know.

Great link.
posted by frykitty at 10:16 PM on June 18, 2002

This piece appeared in Hofstadter's Metamagical Themas, which was a collection of his miscellaneous writings, mostly those he did for Scientific American.

I found it unpersuasive the first time I read it and I find it so now.
posted by kindall at 11:43 PM on June 18, 2002

I find it amusing and provocative. Hofstadter is a pleasure to read. He loves to play with words and games and uncover hidden symmetries. Metamagical Themas, of course, is an anagram of Mathematical Games, the Martin Gardner column he replaced.
posted by vacapinta at 12:04 AM on June 19, 2002

This article was a nice surprise. Hofstadter's Godel, Escher, Bach is one of my all-time favorite books. I didn't know he was writing a column for Scientific American.
posted by Loudmax at 4:48 AM on June 19, 2002

"I'm pretty sure my penis is not the product of a "different environment," acridrabbit," five fresh fish said.

I guess you subscribe to Freud's "anatomy is destiny" belief. I would ask you to consider this: "Sex" is defined as biological differences in genetic composition and reproductive anatomy and function. "Gender" is what culture makes out of the 'raw material' of biological sex.

It is important to distinguish sex from gender because equating them can lead to the belief that differences in the traits or behaviors of men and women are due directly to their biological differences, when the traits or behaviors may actually be shaped by culture. It is impossible to delineate in the modern human what differences between men and women arise from anatomy and what from environment, since none of us is raised in an environment completely free of gender constructs.

Once again, I doubt that any significant differences arise between men and women that aren't the product of different environments.
posted by acridrabbit at 6:02 AM on June 19, 2002

acridrabbit -- as you say yourself, it's difficult to tell whether the differences are biological or cultural. So your doubt is just that: doubt.

I tend to disagree, actually: testosterone has definite, measurable effects on personality and temperament; men have higher levels of testosterone, therefore at least some differences between the genders are caused by one's biological sex.

Not that that should have any bearing on the question of equal rights and so forth, of course. I just wouldn't be so quick to dismiss biology as a potential source of those differences.

As for this article: I've always had a vague dissatisfaction with the idea of nongendered language -- actually got into quite a flap over it during my thesis defense, because one member of the committee had a problem with the fact that I preferred not to use clunky pronouns like s/he and his/her. But this piece did really make me take a step back and see it from the other point of view, so I've got to applaud Hofstadter for that. (The "Tale of Two Sexes" he refers to in the postscriptum, though, sounds thumpingly dull and unconvincing -- simply reversing the roles isn't a surprising enough inversion to make anyone question their own assumptions, I think.)
posted by ook at 8:48 AM on June 19, 2002

The fact that there are real differences between men and women, biological or cultural, is not the point. Even if men are biologically different it doesn't mean they are superior. Hofstadter obviously thinks standard English usage reflects the belief that men are superior, a belief he wishes to counter in his writing by using non-sexist language.
posted by caveday at 9:31 AM on June 19, 2002 [1 favorite]

Acridrabbit: I'd say there's a fair amount of biological differences between men and women besides the obvious plumbing. Yes, environment is really important. And I'm sure at some level that the way we bring up kids influences whether they behave like a man or a woman. (The whole difference between gender/sex idea.)

But I don't buy it as a complete explanation. Why are there separate schools for boys and girls in many places? Why do businesses that try to sell dolls to boys and army men to girls fail so miserably? Why do we drive so differently? (Here's the stereotype: Men: aggressive and stupid drivers. Women: Not assertive, clueless drivers.)

You could say all this stuff comes from environment. But I think it's an incomplete explanation.
posted by Happydaz at 9:40 AM on June 19, 2002

Thank you, caveday, for making a very good point.
posted by acridrabbit at 8:02 PM on June 19, 2002

The negrists claim that using the word "white," either on its own or as a component, to talk about all the members of the human species is somehow degrading to blacks and reinforces racism. Therefore the libbers propose that we substitute "person" everywhere where "white" now occurs. Sensitive speakers of our secretary tongue of course find this preposterous. There is great beauty to a phrase such as "All whites are created equal." Our forebosses who framed the Declaration of Independence well understood the poetry of our language. Think how ugly it would be to say "All persons are created equal," or "All whites and blacks are created equal." Besides, as any schoolwhitey can tell you, such phrases are redundant. In most contexts, it is self-evident when "white" is being used in an inclusive sense, in which case it subsumes members of the darker race just as much as fairskins.

I think that all this talk about biological difference has missed Hofstadter's point; namely, that sexism is implied, and indeed, inherent in "standard English usage." I think the paragraph above illustrates his point quite well. The all-inclusive masculine gender doesn't necessarily imply that men are superior; just that they are the only people who matter.

In any case, I fail to see how biological differences justify gender distinction in the very grammar of a language.
posted by skoosh at 4:21 AM on June 20, 2002 [1 favorite]

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