The 20-something Solution

You all have talked much lately of the generation divisions, but today I saw one that is not, I suspect, what most of you were thinking about. In the midst of one of our endless workshops on grading freshman English papers, we were divided into groups to compare grading techniques. This was generally meant to encourage us to grade in a more similar manner – given that some of the sample papers we were given were graded with 40 point differences, probably we do need some standardization.

Well, I complained in passing that years ago, at my first go-around of college teaching, students were constantly telling me that “one does this” and “one does that.” A fellow teacher of approximately my age groaned about the “pompous one.” They don’t do that so much, now – McWhorter & countless others have noted the informalizing of American writing. Getting rid of the “one” is a small silver lining in that particular cloud.

The recurrent problem today is some form of “they is” – though they aren’t that stupid. The problem is that they are uncomfortable saying “he” or “she” any more, so they end up with some vague plural subject and a singular verb or they use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. A young whippersnapper in our group (otherwise made up of four boomers – and a 40 something whose husband is a Russian Orthodox minister so that probably doesn’t make her typical) informed me that “he/she” was important – that many young girls had told him they felt uneasy with philosophical texts that used the word “he”. Really, I replied. So, the other boomer launches off into an anecdote about a guy who was “mentoring” her years ago. His only comment in terms of “needs improvement” was that she used words like “man” and far too much of the pronoun “he.” (That particular mentor – an old colleague of my husband’s – was not particularly respectful of women students nor his wife. Does that surprise?)

And here we have a young guy surrounded by mature women, none of whom feel he has much of a case. Like English is the most sexist language, I exclaim. The third boomer teaches languages and snorts out loud. That number isn’t important & gender is strikes me as a screwed up priority.

I look at him and he is clearly distressed. So, I say, well, you were trying to be thoughtful of the women who surround you. And he said, no, he was distressed because clearly we didn’t understand what modern research said. I thought, yeah, sure. And he started quoting Levi-Strauss; I read him when I was about this guy’s age – which means I’ve come damn close to living two of his life times since.

But this goes to the heart of two things I feel strongly as a teacher: one is that we need to move people away from thinking about how they feel and into how they think; our modes of thought, I believe, are often gendered. (I’m about the only person on here, for instance, who almost always leads with a personal anecdote; Helen & I are about the only women who post regularly.) On the other hand, since the truth is, after all, the truth, I figure men & women thinking arrive at the same place eventually. That’s why I can meander around & most of the rest of you cut straight to the core. But we understand each other. (Because, of course, we are right.)

Implying that the mode is the important thing or that truths are always relative seems to me to cut us off at the knees when we are trying to teach a corpus of old but still alive literature. Oedipus still works because human nature hasn’t changed all that much in 2500 years; reading Lolita in Tehran is exciting because, well, human nature is not that different geographically. The old questions – most predominantly, what is human nature – are always there, always to be puzzled about, never answerable but always worth thinking about. And if you aren’t moved by Jonathan Edwards’ metaphor of honey or Edward Taylor’s vision of communion, you are leading a sad & narrow life. That doesn’t mean that many of us find the theology of the Puritans all that attractive – but we understand them, understand the power of their passions. We understand because we, too, are human; we, too, have the same needs.

But, he replied (not to my much more hazily put response, of course – that’s why I like writing a post: I can clean up my thinking & get rid of all the vague bullshit): But what you are saying is that you want to impose your universals on others – the question is always, then, whose universals are you talking about? The priest’s wife softly (more polite than I) snorted. She muttered something about the definition of “universals” & I said on a mundane level, at least, we had those Pinker describes. Of course, this was not a concept he understood – well, maybe, incest, he admitted. I started to reply, but the woman next to me put her hand on my thigh.

He turned away and the meeting was a unified whole, returning to grading papers. (We all agree comma splices are bad – well, they do; mostly I don’t notice.) Later, I asked her if that hand was a sign of disagreement. She laughed & said, no, but I’ve tried it before. With those theory people, it’s a stone wall. Of course, the whole belief in a marketplace assumes various values.

No, in that particular conversation (and I suspect in many more), the boomers quote both more contemporary research & older works; the twenty-somethings read the assigned theories of fifty years ago & not all that much lit. Some boomers have sought different theories & keep rereading the old texts, because they have noticed the theories of their own day didn’t always explain well, were inadequate analyses & paltry consolations. We have begun to buy into ideas that work – and in some cases worked for thousands of years. Experience taught us what it always does.

And because, well, the boomers got into this whole thing because they think literature is alive & that writing is thinking – and both work toward a greater understanding of not only who we are as a person but who we are as a people.

How can a twenty-something, with such a vision, look at “Reconciliation” and find the power of “My enemy is dead, a man as divine as myself is dead.” Losing that is losing something quite profound.

Reading Lincoln or Whitman, they are likely to echo what someone of my generation told me lately: If they believed such things and still went to war, they must have been hypocrites. No, of course, they believed such things and so they went to war: A slave, too, was divine. An Iraqi, too, is divine. And a world in which that divinity is respected is one in which children are not turned into suicide bombers & bat mitzvahs are not blown up. It is respect for that child in a suicide belt & the woman in a burkha, as well, indeed, as those child victims. For, we sense that a belief that sees in the other that spark is one that respects the other. And so we saw the Israelis slowly talk the retarded boy out of his suicide belt, slowly rescue him from the fate planned for him by his “tribe”: this was that respect in action.

17 thoughts on “The 20-something Solution”

  1. “Getting rid of the “one” is a small silver lining in that particular cloud.

    The recurrent problem today is some form of “they is” – though they aren’t that stupid. The problem is that they are uncomfortable saying “he” or “she” any more, so they end up with some vague plural subject and a singular verb or they use a plural pronoun to refer to a singular noun. ”

    Ginny, doesn’t the pronoun “one” neatly and succinctly deliver us from the “gender” problem?

    (I must admit I’d never have considered using it some 25 years – perhaps the brilliance of Bill Buckley has rubbed off on me since that time.)

  2. The thing is, English already has a perfectly good gender-neutral third person pronoun. Yet, for some reason, teachers always nixed “it” when I used it that way. Pity.

  3. This was what I was thinking about when I referred to segments. The GenXer (or was it Gen Y) was in a completely different segment form you or I, he was in with the hippieds and 30s radicals I saw at that Arlo Guthrie / Pete Seeger concert years ago.

  4. “He” is gender-neutral when used as a third-person indefinite pronoun. At least it used to be, back when students actually knew how to read and write. The situation today seems hopeless. (Yeah, language evolves, but why should ours evolve toward bureaucratese?)

    These gender-neutral people are such unimaginative blockheads. What happens when they encounter a language that really does have gendered words? You would think, if they are so bothered about “he,” that French or Spanish would drive them bananas. Yet that is not the case.

    If one is looking for cultural sins there are many cultures that provide better pickings than ours. IIRC (and maybe someone who knows better will correct me), one of the Arabic words which may be used to refer to a black person is “abeed,” which also means slave. That linguistic usage, in a culture where slavery still exists on the margins, it seems to me is a bit more fraught than is the use of “he” in a society where more than half of the undergraduates, law- and med-school students and not a few of the soldiers are female.

  5. My guess is that “they are” will eventually be understood to refer to either singular or plural, and “they”, “them”, and “their” will also be understood as singular or plural, depending on context. USing “he/she” or similar constructions will survive only in certain political subcultures. We seem to prefer violating rules of number to making ideologically-based distinction. The historical example is the gradual loss of “thee-thou” and its replacement by the plural and formal “you”, except among Quakers. Most people today don’t realize that Quakers say “thee” to be egalitarian; perhaps in the future saying “he or she” instead of “they” will just be a linguistic peculiarity.

  6. Vague plural sujects? Alack! Even the pure Chicago Boyz hath felt the taint!

    “…the average person as a capable and competent manger of their own risk/responsibilities…”
    –Shannon Love

    “While it’s possible for someone to kill another with one blow from their bare hand…”
    –James R. Rummel

  7. Vague plural sujects? Alack! Even the pure Chicago Boyz hath felt the taint!

    Hey, no one enforces uniformity here. Would you want it otherwise?

  8. Whoa… James and Shannon are PC 20-somethings!

    You know, call me an “unimaginative blockhead” but I find myself slipping into forms of “they is” all the time. It’s so easy especially with “their” just like in the quotes above. I don’t do it to be PC, I don’t even think about it. Forms of “they is” just sound natural to me.

    And here’s another thing… I’ve never, even heard people insist on forms of “they is” for PC reassons unlike some other words. It’s just happening. I think America just wanted a gender neutral 3rd person singular, which, by the way “one” wouldn’t help with, that’s just a formal 2nd person singular.

  9. When I moved South, I found myself immediately picking up “You all” – it covered a need I’d felt (though not consciously) for a good plural you. The thee & thou covered a real need – either informal or singular versus formal or plural. Of course, since You all is generally not considered standard, it becomes at once informal and general.

  10. Chel,

    I’m not calling you a blockhead. The blockheads are the people who insist that use of “he” as an indefinite personal pronoun indicates hostility to women.

  11. Subject-verb agreement helps make English a more useful language by increasing the redundancy of every sentence. We need redundancy because in real-world speech speakers drop words from sentences and listeners miss words. Up to 10% of all words people believe they speak and hear are actually missing. The redundant elements in the language help prevent miscommunications. The information theorist Claude Shannon once calculated that 40% of English grammar served as redundancy making it the most redundant of all human languages. Subject-verb agreement helps make the number of a sentence’s objects clear.

    The his/hers/their conundrum presents a conflict between two communication needs: (1) The need to express then number of objects and (2) the need to express the unknown gender of the object. Basically, we have to chose between accurately communicating the number of objects or accurately communicating their gender. English speakers cannot, at this time, grammatically do both.

    Using ‘he/his” as a gender neural pronoun doesn’t solve the problem. Psychologist have shown that using “he” makes the listener/reader far more likely to conceive of the object as male than as female. This raises the possibility of significant miscommunication. Reading the sentence, “Someone left his box of tampons on the counter.” causes a mental pause at the very least.

    I find the conflict between the two needs highly annoying. In the sentence that culture-in-decline quotes above I needed to communicate that I considered competent decision making a universal attribute of all individuals. Using “his” would reinforce the concept of the individual but would undermine the concept of universality. So, I split the difference.

    We use standardized grammar to avoid miscommunication. The need to feel we have accurately conveyed the indeterminate gender of the object repeatedly tempts us to use “their” in the singular.

  12. chel,

    “James and Shannon are PC 20-somethings!

    20-something? I wish!

    By the way, if “PC” doesn’t stand for “Player Character” or “Personal Computer” you and I are going to have “issues.”

  13. I did not know that psychologists had found that the he/she makes people think in terms of gender – but I did know it did that to me.

    The example two of us boomers thought of immediately was Spock. When we had our children, he had just begun (having caught a lot of flack) to start alternating paragraphs with he/she. It was really annoying. Often each paragraph was meant to indicate another, slightly later, developmental stage – but alternating made the reader think, well, girls do this and boys do this and girls do this. His message was blurred and we were seeing sex differences where there were none.

    As I was arguing, such schemes did do what some feminists wanted us to do: make us constantly aware of gender, constantly self-conscious, constantly looking for ways that we are “different”–and generally “oppressed.” Certainly, it didn’t emphasize the rather larger number of ways in which our girls would be like our boys. (And heaven forbid we discuss those differences in anything but a politicized way.)

  14. As an interesting aside to all this, I’ve noticed that the people who write baby advice columns and books have discarded he and opted against using they in favor of referring to any theoretical baby as she. Or at least they were a few years ago, I have no need to consult them now. But I remember reading such columns and being both bemused and rather miffed since my baby was a boy.

  15. Something like that is also done with photos and drawings. The obvious example is the modern children’s book in which remarkably many illustrations show women driving trucks, flying planes and so forth.

    Or look at a recent illustrated dictionary. I have a dictionary (received as a gift, BTW) from the early ’90s that makes a point of using photos of women to illustrate terms such as “weightlifting.”

Comments are closed.