Silk Purses and Sow's Ears: 'Inclusive Language' Comes to Mass

Author: Fr. Patrick Mankowski, S.L.


Consider, if you will, the sad but instructive case of Brother Paulinus Riordan of the Society of Jesus. In the late forties and fifties, Brother Riordan worked in the library of the novitiate of one of the midwestern Jesuit provinces. He could often be seen of a morning, so I've been told, sitting at his desk with a pair of scissors, a pot of glue, several sheets of thick colored paper, and a magnifying glass. His goal -- that is, the Final Cause of his efforts -- was to help preserve the purity of Jesuit novices, an entirely honorable task. His means consisted of snipping tiny bikini bras and panties out of the paper and carefully pasting them in position over the photographs of tribal women that appeared in National Geographic magazine, so that no unwary reader be led astray into unchastity. For the fact of the matter is that, though his work was known and approved by his superiors, Brother Riordan was insane.

Let us turn then to a more contemporary setting: the National Conference of Catholic Bishops. In a memorandum distributed to bishops last summer by the chairman of the Bishops' Committee on Liturgy, the recipients were asked to consider and vote on nine alternative translations of a line in the Nicene Creed. The phrase deemed defective. is currently rendered "and [he] became man." The options listed were these:

1. and became truly human 2. and became a human 3. and became a human being 4. and became one in Being with us 5. and became of one Being with us 6. and took our human nature 7. and assumed our human nature 8. and assumed our humanity 9. and became one of us

What we have here, I shall argue, is the spectacle of roughly 300 grown men with scissors and paste, clumsily trying to install a kind of fig leaf over something they consider unseemly in the Nicene Creed: an occasion of sin -- not impurity, in this instance, but injustice. What they believe they have found in the text, what they find an affront and a scandal, is of course "gender exclusive" language. I intend to demonstrate that their scruples, though as well intentioned as those of Br. Riordan, are no less beside the point.

There is It is undeniably true that one can use speech to urge the consideration that women should be excluded from this or that enterprise, just as one can use speech to demean tomatoes or to insinuate that baritones should have no active role in the social order. But the language in and through which these injustices are advanced can of itself be no more "gender exclusive" than it can be tomatophobic or soprano-centric. The concept of inclusivity (as its partisans would have us understand it) is a phantasm, a category mistake, a chimera buzzing in a vacuum. Exclusion and inclusion have a political valence, but not a linguistic one, and the attempt to pretend otherwise is itself a politically motivated fraud.

If a set A is so treated that subset B is distinguished within it, the label or name given to A will have two meanings (or two uses): first, the general or universal meaning, and second, that of all non-B members of A. Linguists refer to the use of B as "marked" and that of A as "un-marked." For example, if next to the word "pig" we introduce the word "piglet", "piglet" is marked (for size) and "pig" is the unmarked form. Because it is unmarked, "pig" has (along this axis) two meanings: pig in se, and adult pig. In the sentence "I have one pig and eight piglets" the word "pig" means the adult; in the sentence, "I bought three goats and six pigs" we cannot know how many adults and how many piglets made up the purchase. The second example is not an instance of "exclusive language"; no potential piglet is left out of the discourse; "pig" is simply unmarked for size.

Gender contrasts are treated linguistically the same way. When a form marked for gender is introduced, its correlative assumes two uses: the gender alternate to the marked form, and the usage non-specific as to gender (not the same as neuter). Thus we have "poetess", which is marked for gender, next to "poet", unmarked. It is important to stress that the marked/unmarked distinction is entirely independent of the sex or social status of the speaker and even of the surface grammar of the language. We find the feminine as the marked form in languages whose only adult speakers are women. The feminine appears as the marked form in Sumerian, the oldest of all written languages, which has no grammatical gender whatsoever; yet we have unmarked dumu, son or child, versus marked dumu-munus, daughter.

THE POINT OF ALL the foregoing pedantry is this: regardless of the language, regardless of the speaker, regardless of the pertinent semantic axis, the marked/unmarked contrast is ineradicable. To stigmatize on particular operation of this contrast as sexist is as pointless as damning the distinction between odd and even numbers as elitist.

The usage that the US bishops apparently wish to stigmatize is the word "man" employed generically, on the grounds that the generic sense has been lost in contemporary English and hearers today do not feel that women have been included by the use of term. But of course "man" is unmarked not only for gender but for a theoretically infinite number of qualifications. Consider this sentence: "The men and officers of the second battalion will return to winter quarters on Monday." Here the word "man" is being used exclusively (i.e., non- generically), but it means, of course, not "non-females" but "non-officers." The word "man" is not only unmarked for gender but unmarked for military rank. Accordingly, in different sentences it can serve the broader or the narrower function, usually without ambiguity. There are, of course, certain linguistic situations in which it may be difficult to tell which use is intended. For example, in a pub you overhear a stranger say, "Jack's a man in my regiment." Does he mean man/non-officer or generic man? A speaker of even modest skill can ordinarily indicate his meaning clearly.

Now suppose for a moment you're serving as a military chaplain somewhere and have just conducted a Mass in which you recited the Nicene Creed according to the conventional translation. How would you deal with a red-eyed infantry colonel who buttonholes you in the sacristy and complains in a trembling voice that he feels the words, "For us men and for our salvation he came down from heaven", exclude officers from the ambit of divine salvific activity? If you have bought into the standard inclusive-language mindset you're in a tough bind, for according to the mindset it is the listener's subjective impressions that take precedence over standard usage and over the intentions of the speaker. So if you refuse to change the Creed to read, "for us men and officers he came down from heaven," you're at a complete loss to explain your previous concessions to feminist critics. And if you do make the requested change you're incapable of refusing with rational consistency the next madman who feels himself excluded by your language.

I want to stress that the jaws of this logical vice are formed not by contemporary social realities but by the nature of language itself. Thus for every "exclusivist" usage the Thought Police successfully manage to stigmatize, another seven will spontaneously appear in its stead. For example, the US bishops issued a statement which read in part, "the Word of God proclaimed to all nations is by nature inclusive, that is, addressed to all peoples, men and women." Yet by their own reasoning, "men and women" won't quite do. For it could be seen to exclude children and hermaphrodites, who are of themselves entirely human, in need of redemption and addressees of the Word. Yet even the correction, "men, women, children, and those of indeterminate gender" will still leave our colonel sniffling in the narthex, and babies-yet-to-be-born certainly belong to "all the nations," but fit into none of the listed categories. Notice: this proliferation is stark nonsense, but the only objection that can be tendered by the champions of inclusive language -- viz., that the unmarked locution includes the various marked forms -- is one that undercuts their own argument. Either way their project fails; the dilemma is fatal.

The claim is sometimes made that the imposition of "inclusive" language is justified by the fact that language changes over time; words change their meanings, and the proposed diction is simply a tardy recognition of what has already occurred. Well, it is true that the semantic range of a given word is susceptible of change, and it is true that words referring to males and females are as susceptible as any other, and it is true that marked-unmarked contrasts are sometimes redistributed. Thus there is no reason why the particular word "man" could not become a form marked for gender in the future. Yet this only points up the futility of performing the kind of invasive surgery on living language that is demanded by the inclusivist project. (This demand is hard to understand on its own terms; why so much effort to direct us where we can't help going? A surgeon might alter a child's arm so that it attained its adult length, but we would hardly call the process growth.) As new words and new applications continue to be dumped into the active lexicon of a language, they will continue to bud and fructify according to laws of linguistic nature, not according to the strictures of political sensibility. You can see this on any playground; and even in places where political gender-awareness has reached its highest pitch, even in the US divinity schools, a dyed-in-the-wool feminist will run into a room full of women, or women and men, and say, "D'you guys want to order out for a pizza?" The unmarked form can no more be pruned from language than can semantic change itself.

AT THIS POINT in my argument someone may object, "I'm not impressed with linguistic reasoning on this matter. Whatever you say, I know I feel differently now when I hear the word 'man' used generically than I did fifteen years ago, and I think most people of similar background share the same feeling." Now this curious feeling that surrounds certain words is indeed widely shared; but it does not reflect a change in language strictly speaking. Rather it reflects the operation of a supra-linguistic phenomenon called a "taboo". For reasons of religion, superstition, etiquette, and of course politics, certain locutions are stigmatized in certain societies as unpronounceable or unacceptable. Sometimes they are banned entirely; sometimes they are excluded from certain levels of discourse. The word "left" in many cultures, various common words for bodily and sexual functions, words referring to hell and damnation -- all are examples of natural language utterances placed under taboo. On the political level, one of the clearest examples has been given by the sociologist Peter Berger, who said:

"My mother was from Italy and my father was Austrian. As a child I spent a lot of time in Italy. This was in the 1930s, when Italy was of course under Mussolini. Sometime during that period, I forget which year it was, Mussolini made a speech in which he called for a reform of the Italian language. In modern Italian - - as in most Western languages, with the interesting exception of English -- there are two forms of address, depending on whether you are talking to an intimate or to a stranger. For example, and are used in Spanish. In modern Italian tu is the intimate form of address, is the formal address. happens to be the third person [feminine singular]. I do not know the history of this, but it has been a pattern of modern Italian for, I would imagine, some two hundred years. No one paid any attention to this. Even as a child, I knew what one said in Italian. It meant nothing.

"But Mussolini made a speech in which he said that the use of is a sign of effeminacy, a degenerate way of speaking Italian. Since the purpose of the Fascist Revolution was to restore Roman virility to the Italian people, the good Fascist did not say ; the good Fascist said -- from the Latin -- which is the second person plural. From that point on, everyone who used or was conscious of being engaged in a political act.

"Now, in terms of the empirical facts of the Italian language, what Mussolini said was nonsense. But the effect of that speech meant an awful lot, and it was intended to mean an awful lot. Because from that moment on, every time you said in Italy you were making an anti-Fascist gesture, con-sciously or uncon- sciously -- and people made you conscious of it if you were unconscious. And every time you said you were making the linguistic equivalent of the Fascist salute.

"The "funny feeling" which we associate with generic "man" and with other instances of inclusive language is the same twinge of uneasiness that second- person would have prompted in Fascist Italy. The feeling is not a natural response but a conditioned response to the stimulus. We feel it because we have been coached to feel it. We feel it because, like rats repeatedly given a jolt of electric current when they move in a particular way, we have become aware of potential unpleasantness accompanying certain behavior. That is how a taboo works. The Italian who used stigmatized risked Fascist anger; the English speaker who uses stigmatized "man" risks feminist wrath, but the phenomenon is identical. The converse is also applicable. As Berger says, the accommodationist Italian who said voi was giving the equivalent of a fascist salute. The accommodationist bishop in our time who uses "inclusive language" is making a little genuflection, a curtsy, in the direction of feminism.

I HAVE CONCEDED the possibility that the usage of "man" could change in the future in the direction that inclusive language partisans claim that it already has. How would we know when this change has indeed occurred? Only when classes of speakers insulated from taboos or indifferent to them spontaneously employ the new usages, and when cognitive errors spontaneously begin to multiply when the older usage is maintained. For example, when unsupervised schoolchildren speaking on the playground talk about a horror movie in which a mass of protoplasm is metamorphosized into Tom Cruise and they say, "In the last scene, the Blob assumed our human nature and became of one Being with us," then we can be confident semantic change has taken place. Or when an intelligent little girl dives into a tank at Sea-World and is killed, innocently believing that the posted warning "Man-Eating Shark!" did not apply to her because she was female, then we'd have a respectable linguistic case for changing our liturgical language on the grounds that the natural language substrate had shifted already. Such shifts are possible. They are not inevitable.

Perhaps the quandary in which the US bishops find themselves over the translation of is not so surprising after all. There is one and only one obvious and adequate translation of the phrase, and that has been excluded by taboo -- at least, by those taboos the bishops have chosen to take seriously. It is to be expected that there should be nine unsatisfactory circumlocutions in uneasy contention for the job of "man." This is our language's way of telling us that it is in the throes of a nervous breakdown. You can't forbid a language to act according to its nature and then demand that it behave normally. You can't avoid saying certain ordinary words any more than you can avoid stepping on cracks in the sidewalk and not expect the manifold enfeeblements of neurosis. If you come to believe those who tell you that your mother-tongue is wicked, then you either have to find yourself a new tongue, or a new mother. Neither replacement does credit to the innovator; neither enterprise gives honor to the Church.

I CONFESS IT IS SOMEWHAT embarrassing to have to argue for the naturalness of nature, just as it is embarrassing to make the case for the wholesome effects of not putting knitting needles in one's ears. But the fact is that we are being invited, indeed by our bishops, to sit at the table with Br. Riordan and his scissors and paste and -- significantly! -- his magnifying glass, to scrutinize with him the occasions of sin he has diligently identified for us, to acknowledge those lusts buried so deeply within us that we are unaware of their existence, and to paper-over the obsceneness of places where we find no obscenity. Br. Riordan's partisans in the 1950s may have justified his zeal on the grounds that he was so much more pure than the rest of his brethren that he was proportionately more sensitive to the nuances of impurity. I doubt it. And I doubt very much that the champions of inclusive language exist on a higher plane of appreciation and respect for women than the rest of us. In fact, though my experience is obviously limited and I have no hard statistical data on the matter, my own observations suggest that extreme sensitivity to exclusivism occurs in men and women who are radically unbalanced in their ability to treat women as human beings -- as opposed, say, to treating them as means to political ends. When I see self-proclaimed advocates of "gender-inclusivity" deal with those women who vocally resist feminist-inspired changes to liturgical or other language, I do not find in their demeanor the patience, attentiveness, humor, respect, or even elementary human sympathy for the struggles of others that would count as evidence for this Higher Justice they claim to have found.

Surprised? Then try to look at it this way: would you really want your child to have for a babysitter someone who couldn't make it through this month's National Geographic without whiting-out the photos? Would you really want your sister to date someone who couldn't make it through the Sacramentary without whiting-out the pronouns? Exactly.

In sum: inclusive language is a fraud. It may be a pious fraud, although I am inclined to think otherwise. In neither case does it make our thought more precise; in neither case does God's love for us shine more clearly through Sacred Scripture and sacred worship. I applaud the dignity of womanhood as I applaud the virtue of chastity. Yet, as Cardinal Heenan remarked during the last Council, "": I fear the little men with magnifying glasses; I fear the hyper-sensitive reformer with scissors and paste; I fear the experts, even when they bear gifts.

Paul V. Mankowski, S.J., teaches Hebrew at the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. His essays have appeared frequently in First Things and elsewhere, and he is a contributor to The Politics of Prayer: Feminist Language and the Worship of God [Ignatius Press, San Francisco, ed. H. Hitchcock].