Why Pronouns Might Matter

(Apparently, “He-She” is an “unsung” superhero, according to
At this moment, I’m finishing up my semester’s grading, the sweet taste of summertime licking at my feet. Okay, that might be a really bad mixed metaphor, but then I’ve been grading essays for about eight months straight, and probably need a bit of grace right now. Not to say my students don’t write well: this year, I’ve been delighted again and again by the great work produced by young adults—work that far exceeds most of what I did at their age. I’ve cried over many essays, and not because of the fairly common use of loose for lose, and defiantly for definitely. It’s just that, defiantly, grading can be hard work, and at this point, I’m about ready to loose my mind.
During a recent grading break, I came across this interesting article on the World magazine website. World is a Christian news organization, and I’m somehow on their email distribution list because I teach journalism at a Christian university. So, you know, naturally I’m interested in reading news from a publication that intends to tell the truth with something they call “factual accuracy” and “biblical objectivity.” Because their way of understanding the Bible is completely objective. Of course.
In the article, “What’s in a Pronoun?”,  Janie Cheane takes aim at those who value inclusive language, saying that “social conscience is clobbering style.” Her argument is that in the good ole days, folks used “he” as a generic pronoun, and no one had a problem with it. But these days—god forbid!—some people are using “she” as a generic pronoun, as a way of getting around the complexity of pronoun antecedent agreement. In fact, Cheaney claims, it seems the she-as-generic pronoun is being used more than the he-as-generic pronoun.  The author’s gender doesn’t matter (as if it should?) and even men are using the “she” generic to write things like “When a person reaches an intersection, she must look both ways.”
This use of the female pronoun to work around the English language is a definite problem, Cheaney assures us. You see, the masculine pronoun is intended to be universal, and the feminine pronoun is specific. The Bible tells us so! (Here’s World’s biblical objectivity at work.) Cheaney writes that “The Bible even makes this clear in Genesis 1:27: ‘in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.’” As it this solves the dilemma: apparently, because of this scriptural passage, exclusive language is justified. This argument almost seems a logical fallacy—if I understand correctly what a logical fallacy is, which at this point in my year is doubtful. But it goes something like this: Because the Bible uses male-gendered language, we should too, because if it’s okay for the Bible, it’s okay for us.
The next point in her argument seems especially problematic, as do the comments following the article. Pulling out the old commie threat, Cheaney suggests if we try to use inclusive language, we become as the Bolsheviks, who relied on “Comrade” as a moniker to make everyone appear equal. Ah, yes, the old feminists-are-communist meme. And then, of course, both the author and the commenters blame the stupidity of “political correctness,” that label so easily slapped on to anything that challenges the status quo. As in, “we can disregard anyone who wants to do away with sexist, racist, classist impulses: they’re just trying to be politically correct.”
But I love this comment most of all: “The standard pronouns worked for centuries . . . and even women saw no problem with it.” Ergo, the writer says, we shouldn’t worry about changing things now. I wonder how that logic operates: think of its potential application for other problems: Having surgery without anesthetics worked for centuries . . . and even surgeons saw no problem with it. For centuries, people used horse and buggy . . . and even they saw no problem with it. Only the wealthiest white men had access to literacy for several centuries . . . and those who couldn’t read didn’t have a problem with it.
So, my analogies aren’t perfect—it’s only language we’re talking about, after all—but you get my drift.
And, truth be told, it’s not only language were talking about here.  Those who want to argue that using the masculine pronoun “he” as the generic tend to diminish the power of language to shape our reality.  When we say that “he” always means both men and women, but “she” means something specific, we are commenting on the age-old perception that the masculine is the standard by which we should all live, and that the feminine is other. We are saying that women need to get used to—or, more likely, just accept—the idea that masculine language will be used to describe them; but men will not ever need to accept the idea that they might see themselves in a generic female pronoun. This, of course, reflects broader issues in our culture, in our churches, in our homes: about how we see and understand God, each other, our selves.
Until we come up with a generic pronoun that is neither male or female—or develop a grammatical fix for pronoun/antecedent agreement—I see no problem with sometimes using the masculine pronoun, and sometimes the feminine.  One of my colleagues in the religion department does this regularly during meetings (and so, I assume, during class), using the female pronoun in one sentence of speech, and the male pronoun in the next. Rather than complicating his syntax, I find his willingness to attend to this part of the language a reflection of his compassion, his concern, his thoughtfulness. He understands at a deeper level how important something as small as a pronoun can be in truly reflecting the image of God. He has gained more of my respect because of this small gesture, a respect he defiantly won’t loose any time soon.