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Re: sexist language in debian instructions/documentation

on Mon, 02 Aug 2004 08:58:05PM -0700, Patty Langasek insinuated:
> On Mon, Aug 02, 2004 at 04:02:58PM -0400, Nori Heikkinen wrote:
> > i'm with you on this one, wholeheartedly.  it's a pet cause of
> > mine.  unfortunately, a lot of male geeks i know don't see it the
> > same way i do, and have dismissed me as all kinds of raving,
> > polemicist, and crazy because of it.  the most recent was with a
> > debian developer (who also happens to be an ex of mine, making it
> > all the more infuriating) who just doesn't see the problem because
> > he's never been on the receiving end of discrimination, refuses to
> > acknowledge that it exists, and therefore refuses to change his
> > language.
> I'm a female geek and disagree wholeheartedly. He/his has
> historically been a generic way to refer to people, and
> concentrating on the fact that it also implies 'male' seems to go a
> little overboard. To me, there really is no good alternative unless
> you change everything to plural (they, them, their) since grammar
> /does/ matter, or make these documentations ridiculously cumbersome
> - he or she, his or her, etc.
> I for one am not willing to sacrifice proper grammar or readability
> in official documentation for political correctness. 

I'm all for grammar, but language changes.  You're ignoring the fact
that while "they" may seem cumbersome to you, it doesn't to others,
and is becoming less so day by day.

(I've heard, on this list and in other places, that using
"they"/"them"/"theirs" as a 3rd-person, gender-neutral pronoun dates
back to the 16- or 1700s, but I can't dig up credible references right
now.  I'll work on that.)

> This, to me, isn't a change that needs to be made as long as people
> see a simple, generic pronoun as just that - a simple, *generic*
> pronoun.

Language influences, and is influenced by, thought.  That's the basis
of the weak version of the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis of linguistics,
a.k.a. linguistic determinism.  (Note that the strong version -- that
language makes thought possible; that no thought was possible before
language -- has been largely discredited, and that's _not_ the version
to which I refer.)

> There is so much more that we need to be concentrating on, rewriting
> documentation because we're offended at generic pronouns seems, to
> me, to be an unecessary diversion from The Important Stuff.

Well, there certainly is something to be said for Picking One's
Battles.  However, I feel that this is one of the battles that should
be picked.  You're right, it's a small issue, in terms of blatant
discrimination.  However, it's precisely because of that that it's so
insidious.  When we say and write "he"/"him"/"his" when in fact we're
referring to a person of unknown gender, we imply that this person is
male.  Other links that have been quoted on this list cite studies
that show that the word "man" actually conjures images of men and not
women; I read this to imply that, by extension, the use of a
masculine pronoun would do the same.  I think this is a pretty
obvious conclusion -- or does another study need to be done to prove
this, too?  And another one for the word "chairman"?  And another for
... you get the point.

http://www.ai.mit.edu/people/ellens/Gender/pap/node42.html#milwor, as
referenced in

Yes, I realize that this battle does not directly address the things
you refer to as the Important Stuff (by which I'm assuming you mean
point-blank sexist comments and other things that drive women away
from computing/geeking/IT/Debian), but I see it as fundamental to
addressing all of them.


    .~.      nori @ sccs.swarthmore.edu
    /V\  http://www.sccs.swarthmore.edu/~nori
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