Law in Contemporary Society

The Linguistic Push for Gender Inclusion

-- By AndyZheng - 23 Feb 2024


Lia Thomas decided to quit swimming because of the pressure she faced from the public. A significant part of her decision is in response to public sentiment that she should not participate in female athletics. To express this sentiment, countless hateful messages ridicule her gender, using he/him/his pronouns to describe her and justify her win in a NCAA competition as a result of her trans status. The question at the core of the backlash against her is whether society rejects trans women as a category or tarns women competing in women’s sports. However, this is not the question I wish to address. I am interested in how linguistic and social changes interact if we envision a world where people like Lia Thomas would feel safe participating in professional sports that most identify with their gender identity.

Struggle between Linguistic Change and Social Change

Adopting a feminist view of history, language has conventionally been used to reinforce power imbalances and oppress marginalized communities. Language gains its meaning from existing social dynamics that have perpetuated throughout history. This is often rooted in inequality. For example, there is empirical sociological evidence about how women tend to use less powerful language than men because of power imbalance between men and women. They tend to use more qualifiers that demean their statements like “I am not sure but” or “I may be wrong but.” This is understandable because the continuity of language throughout history naturally informs the way we are socialized to use and understand language today. As summarized by Sally McConnell? -Ginet in her work, Words Matter, language both reflects existing social dynamics throughout history and has a tendency to construct and perpetuate history.

However, gender as a construct has been understood differently throughout history. Recently, our understanding of gender and language also evolved to emphasize its performative aspects. Feminist theorist Judith Butler roots gender expression as a social performance rather than a biological inevitability. As Simone de Beauvoir describes gender, “One is not born, but becomes, a woman.” This subverts the idea that gender is a stable identity around which we act. Instead, gender expression is more akin to theater, influenced by the way we internalize “instructions” given to us through observation or instruction. We are both told and shown behaviors associated with a man to solidify our understanding of gender. However, this socialization is not always consistent with an individual’s preferred gender expression. The feminist movement to distinguish sex from gender is critical in explaining the greater presence of gender expression beyond that which is consistent with a person’s sex.

The flexibility and performative nature of gender expression creates an opportunity for language to influence social change around the understanding of gender. The issue at hand is identifying the role that language plays in broadening our understanding of sex and gender and engendering a greater social acceptance of various forms of gender expression. One way forward is reflected in Eddie Ellis’s Open Letter. It urged prison reform advocates to move away from dehumanizing language like “prisoners” to more human language like “people in prison.” This is rooted in an understanding of the power of language in influencing social understandings of people in that community.

Pronouns are not just linguistic markers but also carry social and symbolic significance. In advocating for transgender and gender nonbinary individuals, two options seem plausible: Advocating for the respect for the wide range of pronouns that people prefer, or erasing the use of pronouns altogether. Current trans-rights activists have opted for the first option, raising awareness of pronoun usage and normalizing its ubiquity to highlight its important symbolic meaning. Efforts for institutions to suggest employees to include their pronouns at the end of their signature or integrating pronouns as part of introductions (“Please tell us your name, pronouns, [other relevant info].”). This certainly is informed by ways of thinking like Eddie Ellis’s Open Letter encouraging the use of the more personalizing and validating terminologies.

However, a key distinction that may make this method potentially ineffective is that this effort may hinder the historical trend of the English language to lose its inflections. While I do not postulate over the future development of the English language, scholars have observed this trend of languages losing certain types of inflections. By emphasizing and introducing new pronouns like “fae/faer/faers” and “zie/zim/zir” attempts to change the English language in a potentially unhelpful way. The theory behind this movement is that language should be shaped to include identities that accurately capture the expansive range of gender expression. However, it is in opposition towards the trend of losing inflections.

A potentially more helpful alternative to the current movement is to normalize the use of “they/them/theirs” pronouns for people of all gender identity. This would reduce the need for society to consider gender expression, which could reflect its arbitrariness as a result of social indoctrination. More importantly, this would likely be a more acceptable way of changing social understandings of pronouns. The framework of they/them/theirs pronouns as a placeholder for when someone’s gender expression is unclear is already accepted. The movement towards the normalization of a gender neutral pronoun would be to expand this understanding of gender ambiguity to include all cases of gender expression. This reductionist view of pronouns could be a more productive source of social change because of its consistency with the historical shift in English losing its inflection over time. It is also consistent with the current feminist understanding of gender that highlights its arbitrariness and distinction from sex. By advocating for change within the framework of existing English language usage, the movement to protect gender non-binary folks could potentially be more productively achieved through erasing the distinction in pronouns altogether through replacing all uses of pronouns with a gender neutral alternative of “they/them/theirs.”

While the power of history and social dynamics to influence language is undeniable, language also has the potential to affect social change. By taking advantage of the historical patterns of change in language, advocacy around a shift in language could achieve the social acceptance of the arbitrariness of gender.

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r6 - 25 Apr 2024 - 06:24:09 - AndyZheng
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