Gender-Inclusive Language and Christian Love
Communication is a two-way street. It involves the communicator’s choice of language and a recipient’s interpretation of that language. The call for gender-inclusive language sometimes causes tension in Christian circles.
A great deal goes into the choices a communicator makes when choosing which words will be used. The 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 perfectly what the communicator wants. Other words will be bypassed, because their connotations create obstacles to clarity.
The recipient of communication makes choices when interpreting. Those choices are also heavily influenced by the recipient’s life-experience. This life-experience acts as a lens through which the recipient interprets messages.
The biggest obstacles to clarity come when a communicator uses words hoping to be clear only to find that the recipient interprets those words to mean something quite different. The obstacles create injury when the recipient interprets the words to mean something offensive. Communicators are morally responsible to use language that tries to avoid injury while communicating effectively.
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. In addition, some words get attached to ways of thinking and acting that have 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 is that these words carry a variety of histories. Some of these histories includes marginalizing or silencing women. And when an interpreter who knows that history hears a communicator using this language, the interpreter can find the language morally offensive. It can be especially offensive to women who have found themselves personally treated unfairly because of this use.
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.” But this retort cannot characterize a responsible ongoing dialogue. As soon as the communicator discovers that the recipient of the message has been 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 a moral one.
The use of gender-inclusive language is especially important for Christians. After all, Christians should heed the words of the Apostle Paul who wrote, “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 nearly always be about building 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. If Christians intend to love in their speech, they would want to be careful in the use of “gay.”
In a way similar to the change of the word “gay,” many today interpret the word “men” as referring only to males. In the minds of many, “he” is not equated with “person.” “He” and “him” are masculine titles. Some women find it uncharitable to be referred to using this masculine language.
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.” At one time, in fact, African-Americans used the language of themselves in a nonderogatory manner, and most were not offended when “whites” used the language in reference to them. But over time, this word has become a taboo. We would not consider a Christian loving if he or she insisted upon using the word and arguing that everyone else 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.
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.
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.
Changing one’s way of communication by choosing words that are gender-neutral seems to be what love now demands in our society.