The strange case of Valeria Jones. Argument over a thoughtful enforcement of a gender-inclusive language
Term Paper 2015 10 Pages
In February 2014, the former catering worker Valeria Jones sued her employer, the Bon Appetit Management Co. in Oregon, United States, after co-workers numerous times referred to her as "female". Jones felt offended by this term since she identified as "gender-neutral" (Andersen 2014). US$ 518,682 were adjudged to Jones as compensation money for "pronoun pain and humiliation" (Owens 2014). This lawsuit1, in which a particular usage of language was punished, demonstrates how quickly the idea of a genderised language can be exaggerated and thus discredited. However, it does not mean that a language which is sensitive towards sex and gender should be abandoned for its realisation might so easily be distorted. An enlightened society is indeed in need of a language that is gender-inclusive. Yet, taking into account the case of Valeria Jones, the inevitable question must arise whether and when such a language should be enforced by law and policy. In the following paragraphs, it is to be shown that a gender-inclusive language has to be enforced (only), when its non-application causes legal consequences by excluding people from rights. In all other cases, common sense is likely to be more thoughtful an adviser. Therefore, this paper is dedicated to the practical aspects of a gender-inclusive language and its realistic implementation. Hopefully, it will have a share in reconciling the still ongoing differences between proponents and opponents of a genderised language.
Before being able to deal properly with the subject at hand, it has to be explained briefly what is actually meant by the term "gender-inclusive language". A gender-inclusive language is a manner of writing and speaking which aims to minimise assumptions about the biological sex or gender of the people referred to (Garner 2009: 831). Although "gender-inclusive language" is often equated with "gender-neutral" and "gender-sensitive", those terms are not used within this paper for some reasons.2 Furthermore "gender-inclusive" must be strictly distinguished from "non-sexist language", a term which ought to be avoided at all costs because "sexist" is a value judgement, which arouses strong emotions and even rejection (Weber 1991: 4) and does not do a favour to sensitizing people to gender-inclusive language . Besides, it underlines a negative goal (something unwanted) instead of stressing a positive one (something wanted).
Respecting the definition that a gender-inclusive language is to minimise assumptions about the biological sex or gender, it has now to be asked why such assumptions are considered problematic at all. On the one hand, assumptions can be misleading. Misleading assumptions entail misunderstandings, oddity, or even a challenge on one's self-conception (Beck 1986) if they are unclear, irrelevant, impolite, or wrong. In all those cases, people might feel personally offended. But even more important is, on the other hand, that assumptions about sex and gender can be discriminating. Such discriminating assumptions are prone to violate the basic principle of equal opportunities within a society, particularly when they occur in written form as in laws or contracts. In this respect, especially the use of generic terms3 and their varieties may rightly regarded as discriminating when they are used to subsume both sexes simply under one sex- or gender-related superordinate concept (Doyle 2010). As long as a legislative text relates to one sex or gender only, the other cannot necessarily claim equal rights by referring on this very text. Following this way of argumentation, it becomes evident that a gender-inclusive language not only aims verbal accuracy, but primarily is to enable all people to benefit equally from the rights which a society has to guarantee. Therefore, as long as assumptions about sex and gender are only misleading, they are simply annoying. Yet as soon as they turn into discrimination, they must be banned.
Considering the remarks in the previous passage, there must be posed the following question: If a gender-inclusive language is to prevent not only from being misleading but especially from being discriminating, why is there still such huge a controversy about such a language? The answer is deeply rooted in the exaggerations with which proponents of a gender-inclusive language overshoot the mark in their argumentation because they put a misleading language on a level with a discriminating language and thus try to enforce a gender-inclusive language in all areas of life. They exaggerate the subject by violating the freedom of expression and thought (Kors/Silvergate 1998), by questioning biological realities (Green 2014), by getting lost in secondary details (Olshefsky 2011), or by playing off women against men (Hoff Sommers 1995: 97). In almost the same manner, opponents dramatize as well. They can be found particularly among linguists (Lovinger 2001: 394-395) and theologians (Marlowe 2001) as well as a great many people who may feel annoyed by suggestions through which a non-gender-inclusive language appears to be regarded immediately as "sexist". Moreover, even moderate supporters of a gender-inclusive language often raise concerns over some proposals which may be indeed too ambitious to be useful (Lynch 2007: 387). This debate demonstrates in very colourful a manner how defensive people respond when someone apparently wants to touch their verbal way of referring to the world. Language represents the freedom of expression and thought and is rightly seen as a human right, which must not be arbitrarily touched by someone.
Taking into consideration the opposition to a gender-inclusive language described in the paragraph above, we must be stating a dilemma: On the one hand, a gender-inclusive language is to guarantee equal human rights to everyone within a society. On the other hand, the freedom of expression has to be considered a human right as well which must not be touched. Does the conclusion at this point have to be that a gender-inclusive language should never be enforced since such enforcement would violate the freedom of expression as a human right? No, this conclusion would be premature. The free speech as a human right can only be guaranteed in a society which principally grants universal human rights in the first place. Without this general acceptance of human rights, no freedom of thought and expression would be imaginable (Nickel 2013). And the human rights must refer to woman and men alike. Without the principle of equality (regardless of decent, origin, sex, race, religion, homeland, or language), no individual human right could be guaranteed. Consequently, a gender-inclusive language must be the language in which human rights are expressed. Thus, the argumentation that the realisation of a gender-inclusive language would violate the freedom of expression must be rejected.
Considering the conclusion drawn in the preceding paragraph, it has to be dealt with the question whether or not the application of a gender-inclusive language should be enforced in all areas of life. It is a fact that the acceptance and guarantee of human rights are the profound principles on which a modern society is based. Therefore, all laws, treaties, regulations, agreements, and decrees in a nation must be in accordance with these principles. Only by this accordance, human beings are capable of living with the certainty of a predictability of legal decisions (Nickel 2013). Hence, the state as the only institution which is able to ensure the rights of all citizens must guarantee, firstly, that the law is in accordance with the human rights and, secondly, that all citizens alike observe the law. However, as long as the laws are respected and kept by the citizens, the state does not have the right at all to interfere in peoples' lives. Only in cases where the law has been violated, the state may and even has to intervene, indeed. Therefore, the application of a gender-inclusive language may only be enforced in those areas of life where the constitution or law has been disobeyed or where the applicable law needs reforming4 to guarantee equal rights to all citizens of the country. With all other areas of life, the state must refrain from interfering.
According to all that has been said so far in this paper, it can already be stated that a gender-inclusive language should be enforced solely when the constitution or law has been violated, or when the constitution or law needs reforming in order to be in accordance with the general principle of human rights. However, there is still a legal limbo with which must be dealt because such legal grey areas are the battlefields in which the dispute over a gender-inclusive language has been culminating. One example of a legal limbo concerns the question whether a gender-inclusive language should be enforced when it comes to job advertisements. In those cases, the concept of free choice (claimed by employers) and the concept of equal opportunity (claimed by employees) are in opposition to each other. While some job advertisements are simply carelessly formulated for the sake of convenience and without the explicit wish to exclude either sex or gender from a particular profession, others indeed refer deliberately to either sex or gender. English professor Delys Snyder from the Brigham Young University acknowledges that language indeed creates limitations and stereotypes. However, she heavily questions any change of concept or language "from impositions and decrees" (Cutler 2015). If the lawgivers enforce a gender-inclusive language in these cases, they only enforce a particular language without really open up equal opportunity. For instance, if clearly a waitress is looked for, the job ad can be changed to "waiter or waitress wanted", but nevertheless all applications by men would be rejected with a flimsy excuse, which no one ever can expose. This example shows that enforcement of a gender-inclusive language often is rather well-intentioned than thoughtful.
1 For further details see Andersen, K. (2014): "'Gender neutral’ employee quits, then sues former bosses for $518,000 because they called her ‘lady’" (www.lifesitenews.com/news/gender-neutral-employee-quits-then-sues-former-bosses-for-518000-because-th). Retrieved 23 January 2015.
2 Although all three terms may refer to the same awareness of writing and speaking, the term "gender-inclusive language" stresses best the goal (the inclusion of all sexes and genders). "Gender-neutral language" rather underlines the way, whereas "gender-sensitive language" does not say anything at all about the goal or way. One can be sensitive towards the concept of gender but be working against it at the same time.
3 This terms is used of a class or group that are not applicable to all its members (Miller/Swift 1980: 11).
4 Good examples of laws which urgently needed reforming were the laws that allowed marital rape and thus denied wives the human right to physical integrity. E.g.: In Germany such law was changed only in 1997
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- Free University of Berlin – Englische Philologie
- Gender-Inclusive Language Language Sprache Gender-neutral Language Valeria Jones Gender Mainstreaming Non-Sexist Language Geschlechtsneutrale Sprache gender Jones Sexismus gegenderte Sprache gendered language