There have been a number of very well written blogs on care, justice, and forgiveness recently and I feel that as important as these subjects are, there isn’t much I could add to the discussion that hasn’t already been said. Therefore I thought I would write on an unrelated, but hopefully still pertinent topic that often comes up when I am writing papers: namely, those situations in which I must choose a gender for the pronouns that I am using. For example, when writing about a generalized student in my philosophy of education paper I had to choose between simply “he” or “she,” or the more inclusive but certainly more awkward “he or she.”
It’s definitely prime paper writing season here at Rhodes so hopefully others have been thinking about this as well. The internal debate that I often have, and maybe others do as well, is between style, which favors picking a single pronoun and sticking with it, and the desire to be inclusive, which mandates that I treat both genders equally. More often than not, I end up erring on the side of inclusiveness, but I always feel that this inevitably interrupts the flow of my writing, especially when I must write “he or she” multiple times in a single sentence.
This awkwardness seems particularly evident when I consider the work of accomplished writers. As a history and philosophy double major I spend most of my time reading books and essays written by men who have been dead for centuries or even millennia. These writers, as was the style of their time, often refer to humanity as “mankind” and to people as “men.” Granted, such terminology is clearly the product of the sexism of the age in which it originated, but even so, it has a certain rhetorical appeal. There seems to be something more grand and moving to Neil Armstrong’s declaration of “one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” than there would be had he said, “one small step for a human, one giant leap for humankind.” In my opinion, the appeal of this outdated terminology comes precisely from the fact that it is outdated; it recalls the work of the great writers and orators of history, which we admire for obvious reasons.
Still, recognizing the sexism inherent in such language, I strive to make my writing as gender neutral as possible. I am very curious, however, to see how others on the blog deal with this problem.