“degender” our words?

Perhaps you’ve noticed. Perhaps you have not. There have been many recent passionate pursuits to degender various customs and facets of current culture. To “degender” — which by the way, is not universally recognized as a word yet, as my auto-correct continually rewrites it as “defender,” which would seem to foreshadow a related meaning — but the idea is to eliminate any association or reference to a gender or sex. In current culture, “sex” refers to one’s biological attributes. “Gender” refers to socially-constructed attributes. Sex is assigned at birth; gender is identified by the individual.

Let us also insert prior to today’s discussion, knowing this is an ardent issue to many, I want to ensure we especially adhere to our commitment to respectful dialogue. The Intramuralist, imperfect as we are, will always strive for honor of all. Even and especially within disagreement or difference of opinion.

During the last days of 2022 (and I’m always intrigued by the timing of releases), the IT community at Stanford University released their professional advice regarding word choice in Stanford websites, code, and culture. The organized effort is called “The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” (EHLI). While the the advice is not a mandate nor does it represent university policy, it was crafted by the “senior-most technical leaders from major Stanford units.” Their influence is sought-after, strategic and strong.

Their EHLI list was long. It had 10 categories which included hundreds of words. Noting that their list included omitting perceived harmful words such as “American” (because it is commonly used to refer to “people for the United States only, thereby insinuating that the U.S. is the most important country in the Americas”), “blind study” (because that “unintentionally perpetuates that disability is somehow abnormal or negative, furthering an ableist culture”), or “beating a dead horse” (because it “normalizes violence against animals”), there was significant, brutal backlash to the initiative. As included in a succeeding Wall Street Journal editorial, “Parodists have it rough these days since so much of modern life and culture resembles the [satirist publication] Babylon Bee.”

In response to the backlash, Stanford quickly acknowledged some error in judgment; as conceded by Chief Information Officer Steve Gallagher, “We clearly missed the mark in this presentation.” While Stanford admitted some of their error, they are not alone in their degendering efforts. So let’s respectfully examine the idea of eliminating socially-acceptable words solely because of their association with gender or sex. Stanford’s advice includes the following:

  • Changing “freshman” to “frosh, first-year student” because the word “lumps a group of students using masculine language and/or into gender binary groups that don’t include everyone.”
  • Changing “gentlemen” to “everyone” because the word “lumps a group of people using masculine language and/or into gender binary groups, which don’t include everyone.”
  • Changing “ladies” to “everyone” because the word “lumps a group of people using gender binary language that doesn’t include everyone.”
  • Changing “landlord/landlady” to “property owner” because the word “lumps a group of people using gender binary language, which doesn’t include everyone.”
  • Changing “manpower” to “workforce, staffing, staff resources, personnel resources” because “this term reinforces male-dominated language.”
  • Changing “preferred pronouns” to “pronouns” because “the word ‘preferred’ suggests that non-binary gender identity is a choice and a preference.”
  • Changing “transgendered” to “transgender” because this “term avoids connections that being transgender is something that is done to a person and/or that some kind of transition is required.”
  • And eliminating any reference to “he,” “she,” or a profession that includes “man”/“woman” in the title (think chair, congress, fire, mail, police).

As said, the list of perceived “harmful” words is extensive, primarily because the words refer to a gender or sex and not everyone is perceived to then be included in the definition.

Let me be clear; no one in our culture should be shamed for who they are. Let me also say, no adult, outside of one engaged in blatant criminal activity, should be attempted to be controlled. Sometimes I think we work way too hard to control others than grow ourselves. It makes me question who we’re really most focused on and how humility does (or doesn’t) enter in.

Hence, in a world then where “you get to be you” and “me be me,” so-to-speak, my sense is a wiser, more effective approach in truly honoring all is not to insist on the elimination of language. We instead honor all by humbling self, which then leads to being skilled in active listening, sensitive to perceived offense, and focused on resilience rather than control.