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When Linguists Attack

Fed up with the PC domination of the academic linguistics, one professor fights back against the establishment.

12:00 AM, Sep 12, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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THE PERSECUTION OF SCHOLARS for gender bias, on even the flimsiest evidence, has long been a fact of life in academe. Should one professor write, "Mary entered the kitchen," another boils over with feminist indignation, convenes a panel to investigate, and soon the whole campus is sucked into a tedious speakathon on the evils of sexism. But more than just the hobbyhorse of a few discontented radicals, heightened scrutiny for potential offense to preferred political groups has become policy within most disciplines. So it comes as an unexpected pleasure to see the practice of telling scholars what to write and say receive the kind of treatment it deserves.

Along these lines, in 1992, the Linguist Society of America began urging scholars to use androgynous names when writing example sentences. The aim, set in the Linguist Society of America Guideline for Nonsexist Usage, was to get linguists to forgo stereotypes and to "avoid peopling . . . sentences with just one sex." If anything, argued University of Wisconsin linguist Monica Macauley and co-author Colleen Brice five years later in Language, the official journal of the LSA, efforts to steer linguists away from unsavory example sentences needed to be expanded. For a taste of political correctness from its true vintage years, we'll examine their article, "Don't Touch My Projectile." The title is a disingenuous play on the kind of suggestive humor sometimes found in example sentences, which the authors argue needs to be stricken from textbooks.

MACAULEY AND BRICE'S case starts from the illogical premise that much can be learned about present-day bias in example sentences by studying grammar texts from over the last 25 years. Thus do Macauley and Brice construct a sample using texts that had been written before feminism rose to its current commanding heights in academe. And a good deal of their criticism proceeds from this historically skewed sample. For instance, after complaining that women don't appear nearly as often in subject sentences, they try to score an additional complaint from the fact that men appear in a greater variety of jobs in example sentences. Obviously the latter is at least partly a function of the former and not prima facie evidence that textbook writers have narrow views of what jobs women can and cannot hold.

Throughout their piece, Macauley and Brice do much to call their own reasonableness into question. At one point, they complain that men appear more often than women as causal agents in their sample of example sentences. And "in the relatively small number of cases where males are depicted as experiencing emotion, they almost always experience heterosexual affection." In a footnote, the authors write, "Thanks to Siobhan Somerville for pointing out to us that such examples show heterosexist bias as well." Indeed, these textbooks, which go back as far as 1969, should have shown more sensitivity when it comes to the recognition of gay feelings.

When not complaining about women's relations to the means of causality in example sentences, Brice and Macauley complain about the actions associated with women in example sentences, especially those that make women seem bitchy. Verbs like "call, scold, yell, get angry, and shop" are all given the sideways glance, even if they appear in a surprising and empowering sentence like this one: "The woman scolding the policeman is my mother." (Unlike Macauley and Brice, Mom here clearly isn't one to get over-worried about the presence of masculine authority figures.)

Sometimes the efforts to ward off stereotypes become just nonsensical, as when the authors complain that men appear too often with cars and that they are always the ones fixing them. "No females fix cars in any of the ten textbooks, while 53 males do so." According to the Department of Labor, this is not only true of language textbooks: Less than two percent of automobile mechanics are women. Also laughable is the authors' complaint that "males far outnumber females (by a 6-to-1 ratio) as the perpetrators of violence." Indeed, this is another stereotype that happens to be true. Men are responsible for several times more violent felonies than women are. It really is no wonder they should be responsible for more violence in example sentences.

Furthermore, making a practice of having women fixing cars and committing assault in example sentences would only single an author out as tendentious. (Ex: "Ms. Macauley hotwired the car and ran over her assailant, screaming 'Take that you linguistic chauvinist! Who's getting tenure now?'")

With academics like Macauley and Brice making the case for expanded vigilance regarding gender bias and sexual stereotypes in example sentences, no wonder this fantastical policy has come in for a beating. Now the beating--the real beating, from a fellow linguist.

WRITING IN THE Spring 2003 issue of Language, Paul Postal of New York University questions every possible rationale for the LSA's policy and visits many an argument offered by Macauley and Brice. Stating the obvious, Postal begins by noting that political considerations are not central to the mission of LSA or to that of linguists generally.

Then with the most withering sarcasm, Postal attacks the LSA policy for its exclusive focus on one type of offense. "There are many possible sources of offense, for example, those involving personal hygiene or dress habits (both potentially relevant to LSA meetings). Military organization and children's summer camps have codes about such matters. Should the LSA develop recommended lists of soaps and suggestions about how often to use them? Should shorts be banned or ties and brassieres required?"

Next the respected linguist asks why the guidelines don't address obscenity, racial epithets, "characterizations of people in drastically unkind ways," and so on. Good question. "As a consequence of the limitations, for no stated or justified reason, it accords perfectly with LSA policy to fill one's examples with . . . the most vicious hate-spewing, racially, ethnically, religiously, etc., demeaning remarks, but use of 'waitress,' 'chairman,' or generic 'man' puts one beyond the pale."

Almost as troubling to Postal is the threat to free speech represented by the guidelines on nonsexist language. He compares the policy to the law under which former French general Paul Aussaresses was prosecuted for "trying to justify war." The law and its supporters, writes Postal, are "incapable of distinguishing the content of views from the right to express them." But here's the good professor's jaw-breaking punch: "Underlying that incapacity is a dogmatic, total assurance of knowing exactly what things other people should be allowed to say. I believe the same impulse underlies the LSA guideline."

Furthermore, Postal points out, any standard that prohibits certain language because of its' being "offensive to" a certain group or person is necessarily subjective. This opens the door to a ban on words that merely seem offensive. Postal cites the case of a fourth-grade teacher in Hanover County, North Carolina who got in trouble last year for teaching the word "niggardly" during a vocabulary lesson. When a parent protested the racist-sounding word (which of course has nothing to do with African Americans), the teacher was pressured to apologize, received a formal reprimand, and was sent to sensitivity training.

Finally, Postal makes the rather daring argument that even if it were the case that women readers were harmed by female under-representation in example sentences, it still wouldn't justify the LSA's code. Pay special attention to his brilliant argument by analogy: "If some research showed that visually handicapped people are harmed by hearing or reading (in Braille) references to sight, would that justify a code banning 'look,' 'see,' and 'stare'? . . . At best, it would create a potential clash of distinct desirables (avoiding harm vs. freedom of speech; avoiding harm vs. reliance on individual responsibility)."

Rarely does one see an academic go postal like this (sorry, you were probably waiting for some more inventive play on this man's name), but the LSA policy and its defenders are more than deserving of such extraordinary orneriness. During the '90s, intellectual life on college campuses suffered profound harm from the advances of grievance-committee scholarship. Students who should have been arguing the relative merits of great literature and philosophy got caught up in late-night bull sessions about whether to call their female classmates womyn. Such victim-status politics has given scholarship a bad name and detracted from the higher pursuits that are supposed to the mission of higher education. Let's hope Postal's attack spawns many imitators.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.