Philosophy Class and the He/ She Conundrum

Berry Springs Park, TX Photo Credit: Doree Weller

Berry Springs Park, TX
Photo Credit: Doree Weller

When I was in college, I took a lot of philosophy courses.  It was primarily because my school had a history requirement that could be fulfilled by philosophy classes.  Now, I hate history (well, I used to), but I’ve always loved philosophy.

I had one particularly philosophy professor more than once.  I don’t remember his name, but I do remember that we butted heads frequently.  You see, he was insistent that in our papers, we use “gender neutral” language, or the dreaded he/ she.  I hated writing he/ she in my papers, and felt it was cumbersome and unnecessary.  I much preferred using “he,” as it was grammatically correct and easier to read.

This professor marked me down in my papers for my use of gender specific language.  I don’t remember if I gave in and wrote it the way he wanted, or if I stayed stubborn.  I do remember arguing about it in class, and that as far as I was concerned, he never gave a compelling argument for why I should use that language.

Language is important, and how we use language definitely influences our thinking.  I try to talk in a positive way, and I think the way I talk to myself and others makes it easier for me to stay positive.  That being said, I think “gender neutral” goes too far.

I don’t want gender neutrality.  I’m okay with being a woman and being part of mankind.  I don’t think it diminishes me in anyway or oppresses me to be part of mankind, and to use the general “he” in formal papers.  I think that gender neutrality is overrated.  I want to be different, not just as a woman, but as a person.  But I don’t think that writing he/ she is going to change the way women are viewed in society.

If I had to take the class today, I would roll my eyes but write the papers the way he wanted me to.  I’m more relaxed about things like that, and I no longer need to be right about everything.  (Yes, friends, you read that correctly.  I no longer need to be right.  Just because I usually am doesn’t mean it’s a necessity.)

It was my job to be open minded about learning, but it was also his job to teach.  If you’re going to teach me, give me a better argument than the party line.  Tell me why gender neutrality is important.  I may not agree, but if you can make a compelling argument, I’ll at least respect what you say.

Looking back, I find it ironic that a philosophy professor got upset because I was trying to argue a philosophical point with him.  The rest of the class found it hilarious, but my professor looked like he was going to pop a blood vessel in his head.

Recently, I’ve seen people switch back and forth between he and she when they write, using them interchangeably.  I find that way more acceptable than he/ she.  Psychology writing preference is just to use plurals, so instead of saying “The way a person uses language shows the way he/ she things,” I would say, “The way people use language shows the way they think.”  Honestly, if my professor had showed me the plural trick, I would have jumped on board with that!  It’s a way around gender neutral language (although “they” still contains “he,” so is it really neutral?).

Where do you weigh in on gender neutral language?

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