Politically correct 'he or she' does little for feminism

Monday, February 16, 2009 | 10:29 a.m. CST; updated 8:58 p.m. CST, Monday, February 16, 2009

“Everyone’s a little bit racist,” the Avenue Q musical number goes. “Ethnic jokes might be uncouth, but you laugh because they’re based on truth.” How true, how true. Everyone’s also a little bit sexist, but that is similarly OK (and inevitable) to a certain degree, and gender-equality battles should be chosen accordingly.

Though there are sexist practices worth fighting — I’m all for railing shrilly against things like the Saudi driving ban — other supposed campaigns for equality do more harm than good by overcompensating. The most ubiquitous example of the latter is the “he or she” phenomenon: I don’t know who first asserted that this usage was necessary, but I would like to find out where he or she lives and poke him or her in his or her eye.

The above sentence well exemplifies what vexes me most about this “politically correct” behavior. The idea behind it, best I can tell, is to show that men and women, even hypothetical ones, are equal in status. But by forcing awkward construction into the sentence, the speaker equally suggests that females are so very delicate that they can be injured by not getting equal pronoun space.

Many of the similarly overzealous PC phrases that were forced on society decades ago have since been deemed, thankfully, unnecessary. No one can, for example, have a truly sincere conversation about someone being “vertically challenged.” Even the term “African-American” is dying out and being replaced by the less ethnically fretful “black.”

As a blogger by the (fantastically straightforward) name of “Angry Black Woman” explained in a post, the term “African-American” feels “overly formal” and can be offensive in suggesting that every black person actually has some connection to Africa or by insinuating that the whole race needs to be linguistically mollycoddled.    

The main problem with “he or she” is akin to the latter issue, and it was raised by the Angry Black Woman and many of the other people who responded to her post: More than it achieves anything else, a PC construction draws attention to itself.

The cumbersome “he or she” model often draws so much attention that the substance of the sentence is actually eclipsed by the pronoun panic. (I again direct you to the last sentence in the second paragraph.) And just using "she" as a replacement for the long-established standalone "he" is similarly jarring and salient; that kind affirmative etmyological action might even be more distracting.

Don Ranly, a professor emeritus at the Missouri School of Journalism, dedicated a page of a publication editing textbook to this pronoun problem, and he cites multiple alternatives that can help a writer circumvent the clunkiness of “he or she.” Take the following sentence: “A nurse should do her job.” To fix this, you can, for example, make the subject of the sentence plural, as in “Nurses should do their jobs.” Or you can recast the whole sentence in the second person: “If you are a nurse, you should do your job.”

This does cleverly solve the PC problem for the moment, but the required reworking compounds another dilemma: By being overly sensitive toward potentially offending women, we’re sacrificing efficiency for little, if any, reward. I don’t mean just efficiency in terms of space either. I happen to believe that renowned grammarians have better things to do with their time than make answers to sexism hand-wringing (whether or not those grammarians would agree).

There is the oft-cited caveat that sexist language isn’t only about protecting the dignity of women, and the sentence reworked above is a good example of the type a person might quote to make this argument. Male nurses, they would say, have pronoun-sensitive feelings, too.  But the equal-problem defense is a red herring. With all due reverence to the male nursing community, I don’t believe they are a strong enough lobby to cause this kind of massive linguistic shake-up: feminism is most certainly the culprit here.

So to the person who feels that this satisfies some feminist streak, I say that it doesn’t. If you want to break real glass ceilings, go to Saudi Arabia and rally women drivers. And to the woman who continues to disagree, I make the special plea for her to recognize how much stronger the gender would seem if we didn’t balk at gender-neutral hypotheticals. It’s only an insult if women are precious enough to take it as one.   

Katy Steinmetz is a columnist and reporter for the Missourian. She moved to Columbia after spending two years teaching in Winchester, England, and one year in Edinburgh, Scotland. She has freelanced for a variety of publications, including 417 Magazine in Springfield, Mo., and the Guardian in London. She plans to complete her MU master's degree in 2010.

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