Gender Inclusive Language
It has become acceptable in some circles to ridicule attempts to be “politically correct.” One prime example of such political correctness, say some, is use of gender-inclusive language.
Communication is a two-way street. It involves the communicator’s choice of language and a recipient’s interpretation of that language. Communication occurs in a polis, or what we usually call “a community.”
Communicators make decisions when choosing which words they will use. A communicator’s life-experience, which includes culture, environment, and bodily structure, heavily influence those choices. Some words will be chosen, because they seem to express well what the communicator wants to expressed. Other words will be bypassed, because their connotations create obstacles to clarity.
The recipient of communication also makes choices when interpreting. Those choices are also heavily influenced by the recipient’s life-experience. Life-experiences act as lenses through we interpret messages.
Communicators encounter obstacles when they use words hoping to be clear only to find recipients interpret them to be saying something they don’t mean to say. These obstacles create injury when the recipient interprets the words as offensive. Communicators are morally responsible to use language that tries to avoid unnecessary injury while communicating effectively.
Various Interpretive Lenses
Communication problems are rampant not only because communicators and recipients have varying lenses of interpretation. Problems also arise because the meanings of words change over time. Some words get attached to ways of thinking and acting with a history of being offensive.
Take, as a prime example, the use of masculine language in writing and speaking. While the communicator may mean to refer to all people when using the word “men,” the recipient may interpret the word to refer only to males. Or, when the communicator uses “he” any time to refer to a male or female, the recipient may interpret “he” as referring only to males.
The obstacles in the case of gender-inclusive language are not merely about lack of clarity. The obstacles can become moral ones.
If I write, “Tom is having a claprocitex day,” I will not be making myself clear. My interpreter will not likely know what “claprocitex” means. But this will not be a moral issue, because the recipient will not likely know of any uses of “claprocitex” that have caused pain or injustice.
The problem with using only masculine language, e.g., “he,” “him,” “men,” when referring to people in general, however, is that these words carry a variety of histories. Some histories include marginalizing or silencing women. When an interpreter who knows that history hears a communicator using “he” or “him,” the interpreter can rightly find the language morally offensive. Women can be especially offended, because some have found themselves treated unfairly because of this exclusive use.
Is it the Intepreter’s Fault?
Someone who inadvertently offends others through language may say, “If they would just give me a charitable interpretation, they would see that I don’t mean harm.” In some cases, this may be true. But this retort cannot characterize a responsible ongoing dialogue. As soon as the communicator finds recipient offended, the communicator must ask about the moral implications of his or her language.
Unfortunately, the issue of gender-inclusive language has been ridiculed as an attempt at political correctness. The issue is more than about trying to meet the linguistic standards of contemporary culture, however. The issue is sometimes moral.
Gender Inclusive Language for Christians
The use of gender-inclusive language is especially important for Christians. After all, Christians want to heed the words of the Apostle Paul: “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Eph. 4:29).
Christian communication should build up others in love.
We would likely not consider a Christian loving if he or she insisted always on referring to others who express happiness as “gay.” Although the word can mean “happy,” most people in contemporary Western culture use this word to refer to homosexual men. Insisting on calling happy males “gay” seems uncharitable.
Or consider the word “nigger.” The word has been used throughout the history of the United States to keep those of African descent (and others with dark skin) from enjoying the privileges supposedly afforded all “men.” Over time, this word has become derogatory. It is now a taboo. We would not consider a Christian loving if he or she insisted upon using the word and arguing that others ought not be offended.
In a similar way, using “men” when intending to refer to people in general has become offensive. Just as “nigger” could be used to keep African-Americans from enjoying equal privileges with whites, using masculine language can – often inadvertently – keep women from enjoying equal privileges with men.
Christians Ought to Use Gender-Inclusive Language
In short, Christians who become aware that gender-exclusive language can offend ought to use gender-inclusive language so as to express love and “give grace to those who hear” them. This politically correct activity is a form of love.
Of course, one of the difficulties of adopting gender-inclusive language is that it requires a change in the way we communicate. Change is rarely easy. But love often demands that we change.
Choosing words that are gender-neutral seems to be what love now demands.