Sunday, September 06, 2009

On Humankind (The Word, Not the Kind)

So, if you haven't read The Terrible Bargain We Have Regretfully Struck, read it. Then seek out the follow up posts. Then you should maybe just subscribe to Shakesville, it being one of my favorite places on the internet.

Anyway. The piece got published by The Guardian, and surprise, the comments were not as supportive. I want to talk about one thing in particular that kept coming up: "humankind".

Melissa McEwan uses gender-neutral language as an example at the end of a long list of little things that complicate her (and many women's) relationship with men, even and especially men they respect and love:

"My mistrust is not, as one might expect, primarily a result of the violent acts done on my body, nor the vicious humiliations done to my dignity. It is, instead, born of the multitude of mundane betrayals that mark my every relationship with a man—the casual rape joke, the use of a female slur, the careless demonization of the feminine in everyday conversation, the accusations of overreaction, the eyerolling and exasperated sighs in response to polite requests to please not use misogynist epithets in my presence or to please use non-gendered language ('humankind')."

In the comments at The Guardian, that very last bit is brought up over. And over. And over. In order to prove Melissa is somehow overreacting, and this is the proof - she cares about this little tiny linguistic semantic nonsense. Some even say that, she makes good points, but that one? Ridiculous. Just a few examples, so you don't have to wade into the shitstorm that is, really, most comments threads:

"Has it never occured to her that she hears all this 'sexist abuse' as comments like 'use non-gendered language ('humankind')' are a red rag to a bull to pisstakers? Does she really not realise how ridiculous she actually comes across as? is there any self awareness at all?"

"Whilst I'm generally a supporter of women's movements for social and political equality, some things in this article seem a bit much. For example: please use non-gendered language ('humankind'). Why the hell does it matter if they say mankind? We're all adults here, and no-one apart from Foucault's spawn genuinely believe that slight alterations of language mean anything for women's rights."

Listen up: I'm going to start using the word "womankind", since it doesn't matter, and, come on, you know what I meant. I'm going to do this not just in friendly conversation, but in all of my classes, whenever I'm writing an article for publication, whenever I give a speech or presentation on any topic, and especially whenever I'm reading in church.
Most of my professors use "womankind", too, you know, because it's easier and, who cares? Changing it to the neutral "humankind" doesn't affect anyone and it's not going to solve anything. Politicians have picked it up, too. And clergy - priests, rabbis, imams, what have you - they have to use "womankind" a lot, and why bother changing it? It's been around forever, and it's not a big inconvenience to anyone.

Oh, and when I walk into a room to greet people of mixed genders, I'm going to say "What's up, you gals?" Then we're all going to hang out, maybe watch the NBA, or if no games are on, the MNBA. When they leave, I guess I'll hang out alone and listen to my walkwoman, or play on my gamegirl.

This exercise might have struck you as a little silly. Good. It strikes me as a little silly that flipping it this way doesn't occur to most people. And it strikes me as a little silly that a person who has heard themselves acknowledged in the language everyone around them uses since the dawn of fucking time can tell someone else that language doesn't affect them, and furthermore, that it's worth mocking someone who does feel affected.

Maybe language is a symptom of a "real" problem of male experience being considered universal and female experience being considered specialized (and therefore less valuable). Personally, I think it's more than that; I think there is an attitude and assumption built into all that language (or, that all that language was built ON), and using it perpetuates that problem. I think changing it would make a difference, because it would hopefully cause one to think about why the assumption present in that language is not ok. (Not to mention the thousands of women who would feel less stressed out by being reminded that society neglects and excludes them, for example, in church, or in the literature that we consider classic, or in speeches by their elected officials, or in a chat with their friends.)

But maybe you don't agree. In which case you have two options, as I see it: argue until you're blue in the face that changing the language fixes nothing! You're wasting your time! No one cares about this shit! Linguistics! Semantics!

Or woman up and just attempt to say "humankind" because there's no real reason not to.


Lauren O said...

This is a huge pet peeve of mine. A guy once told me he hated when people alternated between using "he" and "she" for a generalized example person (as in, "The average taxpayer wants his money to go to X" or whatever), because it sounded unnatural and you could tell they were only doing it to be inclusive. Yes, it apparently sounds unnatural to not think that every person who ever performs a theoretical action is a man. Having women even enter your mind while reading an article is unnatural, because you're just reading about people, not women, and people just happen to all be male. And making an effort to change that and be inclusive is a bad thing. GRRRRRR.

Mór Rígan said...

I'm totally on board with humankind versus mankind (which I never use) but I've always said humanity.

Mór Rígan said...

Sorry pressed send too quickly.

Do you think there's a value difference between humankind and humanity?

Renee said...

I love this post. One of my pet peeves is when people use the term you guys as a universal. I am not nor have I ever been a guy and I along with every other woman deserves to have our existence validated. When I point this out, of course I am the overly sensitive one. Language is power and therefore we need to actively work to correct the way that it constantly affirms masculinity as the norm.

R.J. said...

Re: humanity vs. humankind. I only picked the latter for this exercise because that's what the original post I was referring to used. In actuality I find "humanity" more natural to say, though for no particular reason, I suppose.