Thursday, February 27, 2014


I can happily report that the baby is doing well.  She eats much, which is a helpful sign (and more for me than for her mother, which may or may not be), and she gives evidence of digesting things well, which is good, if less pleasant to handle.  Her lungs, for which we had been concerned because of her early arrival, appear to be in fine form, and her color is much better--she had been fairly jaundiced, and now she is not.  At root, then, her mother and I are happy that things are going as well with the baby as they are; may they continue to do so!

Writing the short report above puts me in mind of pronouns.  (I teach English and deal with 1,500 years of the language at a crack as part of my research.  Such things are often on my mind, and appropriately.)  Those who have been reading will note that references to our daughter before the online announcement of her name are carefully gender-neutral; I have considered the issue of over-sharing about my child, and as part of my worry, I had made a point of restricting certain pieces of knowledge, including the child's physical gender.  (I never went so far as Kathy Witterick and David Stocker, however.)

The task was made more difficult by one of the limitations of modern English: the lack of an animate third-person singular pronoun.  The same phenomenon that drives the use of "they" and "their" and which I and many of my colleagues feel obliged to penalize in academic writing does make for a challenge in referring to persons whose gender is either unimportant (which, really, is true in all circumstances other than finding a sexual partner) or indeterminable.  I have not participated extensively in the arguments about what to deploy instead of the commonly-understood-as-sexist-anymore "neutral" masculine* or the awkward-and-still-potentially-sexist he/she, she/he, or s/he constructions.**  (This leaves aside the issue of how many genders there are, which is not nearly so clear as might be assumed.)  I am aware of several ideas, and each has merit--but each has flaw, as well.

Not least of these is the mismatch between what might be called a more nuanced ethics and social expectations.  Certainly, the demands of surrounding people should not be used as the sole (or perhaps even primary--ad populum, remember) determiner of "right" thinking or behavior, but identity is, to a significant extent, socially constructed; we know who we are (insofar as we know who we are) in no small part because other people tell us, tacitly and explicitly.  My family and I must live in the world until we are called out of it, and that means that we will have to adjust our actions to the needs of others in certain ways--including what words we use.  There is relatively little argument about the restriction of other words in certain contexts--we contest not much the censure (not censorship) of obscenity or of epithet.  There is similarly relatively little complaint about the imposition of certain terms in certain other contexts--that fields use their jargons is expected, and deviation from them produces problems.  That we then conform to prevailing standards of pronoun usage for ourselves and our daughter, then, should occasion no comment.  But neither should we be bound to it as it seems we currently are and likely will continue to be.

*This is dumb, of course, since the biological default is feminine, as I tell my students.  Else, gentlemen, why have you nipples and an X chromosome?

**Potentially sexist because they still privilege one gender; one still comes first.

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