Trabucco: “Escaping” Gendered Language – a Divisive Waste of Time & Energy

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Last semester, at the Rowan University Senate meeting, the Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Committee (DEI) submitted a proposal to the senate seeking to eliminate “language that can be interpreted as sexist or classist from all University policies, documents, and media.” Placing a particular emphasis on the terms freshman, sophomore, junior and senior. 

The DEI justifies this claim with the idea that, as the United States higher education system is descended from the early British higher education system, it is therefore “based on a binary, patriarchal, and classist view of society and education.” Furthermore, they express that Rowans use of the terms “freshman,” “sophomore,” “junior and “senior” to denote undergraduate student class perpetuates this standard, as well as “the use of gendered pronouns and verbs in some University documents and media.” 

In keeping with the ongoing mission of Rowan University to build an inclusive campus community, reflected by such acts as the Preferred Name Policy of 2016, the DEI sees this as the intuitive next step in achieving inclusivity and equity among students. 

This is an unnecessary and divisive proposal that, in practice, would be directly counterintuitive to what it seeks to accomplish. 

First, we must establish that nearly all spoken languages has gendered components modeled after the generally-accepted human gender binary—male and female—and in far greater excess than English. For instance, most nouns in Spanish are either masculine or feminine and the same applies to many verbs in Hindi. The idea of the “discriminatory” aspect of gendered language being unique to the English language, while not directly expressed in the DEI’s proposal, must first be dissolved. 

Secondly, even if the use of gendered terms such as “freshman” originated from a “patriarchal and classist” education structure, the idea that such language perpetuates the ideals of that time and must therefore be eradicated from an established vernacular is a shoddy argument at best. 

We’ve all been hearing these terms for most of our lives. Since then, they’ve become the standard vernacular for most American students, comparable to the numerical structure by which grades one through eight are labeled. The terms “freshman” and “first-year” mean the same thing and hold identical emotional weight; we only use one in place of the other due to years of harmless exposure. 

Regardless of their origin, such terms have lost their harmful power by the dilution of the structures that first conceived and implemented them. Attempting now to correct the “tyrannical and harmful” presence of such language is unnecessary, since that presence has been worn away through time. In other words, there’s no need to cut open an old wound just to bandage it. 

Thirdly, and this is the most important part, I believe that letting any outside party decide the language one can and cannot use to be tyrannical in nature. Consider the DEI’s phrasing of their desired resolution: “language that can be interpreted as sexist or classist” 

The caveat here is the phrase “that can be interpreted.” Here the DEI Committee places the responsibility on the writer to limit their speech as not to potentially offend the sensibilities of the reading party. 

Ideally, any writer representative of a larger body of people would have the common sense and common decency not to intentionally offend their intended recipient with their content. The keyword being intent; I firmly believe that intent makes the crime. I cannot be blamed for the reaction of my audience, nor can the validity of my speech be questioned, unless I specifically set out to achieve a certain kind of reaction. 

But the DEI says nay; the validity of my speech is dependent on how it makes the recipient feel, rather than how it presents objective facts. It doesn’t matter what I’m saying, only that I’m saying it correctly. 

By all accounts, the type of speech used should be left to the discretion of the writer and the body they represent. No outside legislative body should have jurisdiction on what language we use anymore than the government should be able to tell me what books I can and cannot read, regardless of reason. Attempting tochange the language we use is tyrannical. Rather than encouraging personal change in others through example by generating high-quality work that follows their preferred standards, the DEI instead seeks to quickly and quietly renormalize the standards for everyone using legislative pull. 

The continued drive towards inclusivity at Rowan University is admirable, but only to the extent that it remains focused, practical and non-divisive. Creating a problem where none truly exist, especially while other, more destructive problems remain prominent, steers attention away from more important  issues. Don’t ever change the way you speak, act, or think simply because someone else told you to do it. Do it because you discovered the truth that made it the right thing to do.

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