What is Wrong with Inclusive Language

One has to make adjustments in one’s writing if one wants to avoid sexist language.

Such a sentence is an example of the clunkiness that often comes about with the adjustment. I have heard numerous philosophers (and people in other fields) complain about the awkwardness of the ‘inclusive language’ convention—instead of ‘he’, saying ‘one’, ‘he/she’ or ‘he or she’, or the singular ‘they’. They are motivated by the desire not to read sentences like the one you read at the outset. This is ironic since, to avoid the pronoun mess, we frequently have to sift through the elegant prose we get with letter variables. We read paragraphs full of “S knows that p at time t…” This works because S can be Sara or Sean.

Growing in popularity is the use of feminine pronouns only. “If S intends to φ, then she…” ‘She’ can be a man or a woman. Despite this, the philosopher opts for she/her.

Why? Well, masculinity has dominated philosophy for so long, as we can all admit. And this dominance has not been due to Man’s “natural superiority” in the philosophical arts. Instead men’s voices are heard, taken seriously, and remembered (by men). Women’s voices were suppressed, discounted, and forgotten (by men). Then men with power teach the work of past men to their students—all of which tends to resonate more with men. The process continues until we have the notorious “canon.” It is male. This is a problem and it needs to change. Language is important. So, insofar as our language reflects who our philosophy concerns, pronouns have some role to play. We need to be inclusive with our language. We need inclusive language.

I want to advocate for a return to exclusive language. That is, our default pronouns should usually be he/him.

As I have hinted, the moral claim behind inclusive language is impossible to deny. We must leave the “men’s club” version of philosophy behind. We must critique all that we do and did in light of biases and blind spots. We, as philosophers, are interested in ideas. The uncovering of sexism in philosophy should force us to evaluate ideas differently. We refuse to continue with the methods of the past simply out of deference to tradition. Socrates taught us that.

How much of that evaluation have we done? Any cursory reading of feminist philosophy (which is still sequestered as an isolated ‘branch’ of philosophy) shows that it has countless invaluable insights for other branches. These other branches—the heavy-hitting central areas of philosophy—have deeply entrenched methodologies and power structures. They have rules and standards of recognition. There are people in privileged positions who do not want to move. Admission requires knowledge of that branch’s “literature” and a reverence for the gatekeepers. There is a selection effect too: why get into a type of philosophy unless you already think it is important and legitimate? So, what happens to these branches when they face a revolutionary feminist critique?

We know the answer from experience: nothing.

Actually, that is a bit too strong. One thing does change: pronouns.

Inclusive language in many ways distracts us. It makes us think that we have solved a problem, that we have opened the doors to others, that we have acknowledged that our universal theories are not only concerned with a certain segment of the population. And now we can get back to business as usual. We can continue to do everything exactly as we did it before. We train train minorities in philosophy to erase their own voices. All we need to edit our papers is the “find and replace” function.

What mark of progress is it when we include others in our pronouns and yet do not evaluate our sentences in light of the reasons for our previous exclusivity? Are those reasons still tucked away somewhere in the basic assumptions?

The moral insight that has motivated a shift in pronouns should force something more radical. As philosophers operating largely within the “canon,” we should be reflecting on whether the sentence we are writing (and the methodology, history, assumptions, etc. that buttress it) is true for him, her, and those who claim neither and reject the distinction. In many cases, we should be honest with ourselves and say what we mean: what we are saying is still focused and centered around him. Without saying so, our sentences are false or misinterpretations.

As it stands, inclusive language corresponds to very little by way of genuine change within professional philosophy. It serves as a form of academic slacktivism. Yet it is possible to call attention to these continued injustices. It would be powerful and noticeable. If there is still exclusivity in your branch of philosophy, let the language reflect it.Orange


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