Monday, July 19, 2004

Is gender language a matter of indifference? (Part 2)

[This is a continuation of a discussion whose last entry is posted in Philosophia Perennis.] Edgar Foster's words are in blue, mine in black:

Foster: We're discussing, at least I thought we were discussing, the use of generic pronouns. Therefore, my contention is that (depending on what one means by "natural") the generic pronoun "he" is no more "natural" than the generic "one." My contention was not that we should neuter common or proper *nouns* in a quest for political correctness or some such agenda. Rather, my argument is that I see no overarching reason why an author should not use "he," "one," or "she" generically as well as "he/she." I certainly am not suggesting that we should make the signifier "God" in Jn 3:16 "One," KAI TO LOIPON.

Blosser: My example ["For One so loved the world that One gave One's only Son that whosoever should believe in One ..."] may not have been a good one. But don't you think that you're trying to duck the issue here? Look: I don't care whether it's "she" or "it" or "one" or "h'or'sh'it" [as a contraction of "he-or-she-or-it"] -- if you try to use ANY of those terms generically and repeat it often enough in a sentence or paragraph, like Putnam did, it's going to just sound loopy. Wouldn't you agree? Perhaps we could, empirically speaking, condition ourselves psychologically to get accustomed to using "she" generically. Perhaps so. But culturally it's not been understood as a generic term, and that's why it's going to sound goofy. Beyond that, of course, is my contention that we SHOULDN'T use it thus. We have a perfectly appropriate term that has functioned in that capacity without any misunderstanding for nearly two millennia. If it's grammatically correct and not semiotically broken, don't try to "fix" it, I say.

Foster: For the record, I prefer to use the generic pronominals "he/she" rather than Putnam's "one," though I'm not averse to employing that generic term either.

Blosser: "One" should do so only if "he" doesn't go ape (and grammatically silly) by (1) repeating the term "one" (it's supposed to stand only in the original subject space, or (2) confusing the generic "he" with the generic "she" (which doesn't work without callingattention to oneself as a "PC" ass [not in Balaam's sense either]!).

Foster: Why do I take this approach when it comes to employing generic pronominals? First, because that is the way that "the Academy" taught me how to write college essays.

Blosser: The orthodox Christian academy has taught you, my Jehovah's Witness friend, that God is not only One but also Triune.  So do you accept that?  Q.E.D.

Foster: Second, the apostle Paul wrote that he made himself a "slave" to all persons, so that he could "gain the most persons" (NWT) in his ministry (1 Cor 9:19-23). I feel the same way. If the utilization of the generic "he" offends a significant segment of the population, why use it? To eschew the singular use of "he" (when it is possible) certainly does not seem unbiblical or unChristian to me. Maybe you have reason to feel differently.

Blosser: You may have a point here. But the message you're going to give people (and certainly the one a Catholic is going to give people -- the scandal of Christ's sacrificial crucifixion) is going to offend anyway, and there's no way around that.

The bigger issue, as far as I'm concerned, is that we are involved in a culture war whose lines are rapidly becoming quite clear. And as far as I can see, the gender issues involved in our society -- from grammar to same-sex partnerships -- are close to the heart of things, like sex generally. (Sex and Holy Communion are two of the most intimately related analogical covenants in Catholic tradition.)

Foster: Finally, since generic pronouns refer to both men and women anyway, what is wrong with making what is implicit more explicit?

Blosser: What's wrong with "making it explicit," as you put it, is that it alters the meaning of the male terms. If I say only "man and woman" or "he and she," then "man" and "he" are no longer signed as generic: and this, in my view, is to take a metaphysical and anthropological position vis-a-vis contemporary feminist/postmodernist ideology.

Foster: I could really care less what the PC movement thinks.

Blosser: Baloney. It seems to me that that is the ONLY reason you'd want to bend with the prevailing winds.  But why should anyone want to do that? 

Foster: My reasons for conscripting "he/she" generica have to do with the Gospel and my view of God's wondrous creature, woman (ISH-SHAH).

Blosser: Oh, c'mon, Edgar! Now you're sounding like Karlstadt in the 16th century, who, in his discourses attendant to his breaking his Catholic vows to marry a Catholic nun who had broken her vows (along with Luther and others), made it sound as thought Protestantism had discovered for the first time the joys of matrimony and sex!  But that's beastly, when we can see that of all the religious traditions it is only the most ancient (the Catholic) that elevated married sex to the level of a Sacrament!

Foster: Does "inclusive language" make women feel more included? It depends on the women in question and their background, both religiously and socially. I certainly know not a few non-JW women who appreciate the generica that I often--but not always-- see fit to employ.

Blosser: Well, I suppose even JW women are influenced by the prevailing "pc" culture, like everyone else. Perhaps that can't be helped. But why one should indulge those prejudices rather than seek to correct them, I can't quite understand. (I suppose that would require you to come to the conviction -- which alone has the power to animate the will -- that the current "pc" usage is inimical to the Christian Faith and Sacramental worldview.)

Foster: This is not about what JWs believe or whether one is culturally dependent or independent, IMO.

Blosser: It's not about the former; it is about the latter, in my opinion.

Foster: The motivating factor for using generica in this case is my desire to avoid perpetuating tempests in teapots. Ergo, the Weltanschauung of yours truly is "be flexible where possible, rigid where necessary." Alternatively, a good Catholic might say: DE GUSTIBUS NON DISPUTANDUM (EST).

Blosser: Yes, I understand; and I agree in principle. However, I've moved to the position in the last year that this is a place where I need to be lex flexible.

Imagine that our language was influenced by contemporary culture to move in the direction of using the term "marriage" for genital-homosexually active partnerships. Imagine that! Would you bow to the trend and call homosexually "married" couples "married"? That's the way we're headed, aren't we. The pressure is already on. I will do my best to resist it, as I will also endeavor to resist the obliteration of the generic use of masuline pronouns, which in my view offers the only accurate reflection of the "nature of things" (the order of Creation, which, as Yoder would say, makes this a "First Article" issue, meaning the first article of the Creed, which pertains to God's creation of all things, not to the second article of Fall/Redemption).

Foster: Sorry if I do not share your concern for what inclusive language might bring in the future. Is there a necessary connection between the literary or lingustic use of "he/she" or "one" and Derridean "absence of presence," or same-sex marriage, etc. At this point in time, I certainly unaware of any evidence supporting a necessary connection (i.e. entailment) between the respecting phenomena hitherto mentioned. This is not to say that a necessary connection might not be discovered one day. But, for JWs, the world has long been in a state of devolution (i.e. going downhill because of perverse practices and heinous ungodliness). Therefore, the call for same-sex marriages or the advocation of anti-foundationalism is only the "latest" form of rebellion against the Creator. As the apostle foretold in the power of the Spirit: "wicked men and impostors will advance from bad to worse, misleading and being misled" (2 Tim 3:13 NWT).

Blosser: I won't call the day or the hour of the Lord's return, since it's not mine to know; and there have been many periods of judgment and revival throughout the history of Israel and the Church, as we know. But it may well be that we are approaching That Day. If that were the case, isn't it even more important that we be circumspect about our following worldly trends, whether they are linguistic or social? The phenomenon of "d-a-t-i-n-g," for example, is something of an abomination, in my view, verging towards a consistent pattern of recreational sex. Whatever became of courtship? It's practically as dead as Nietzsche's God, as far as culture is concerned. Derridian presence/absence is only indirectly related to the issue, though there's a relation: the deconstruction of any metaphysical presence of gender. This is a long quote, but Judith Butler attempts to deconstruct gender thus:

["Here is something like a confession which is meant merely to thematize the impossibility of confession: as a young person, I suffered for a long time, and I suspect many people have, from being told, explicitly or implicitly, that what I "am" is a copy, an imitation, a derivative example, a shadow of the real. Compulsory heterosexuality sets itself up as the original, the true, the authentic; the norm that determines the real implies that "being" a lesbian is always a kind of miming, a vain effort to participate in the phantasmatic plenitude of naturalized heterosexuality which will always and only fail. And yet, I remember quite distinctly when I first read in Esther Newton's Mother Camp: Female Impersonators in America that drag is not an imitation or copy of some prior and true gender; according to Newton, drag enacts the very structure of impersonation by which any gender is assumed. Drag is not the putting on of a gender that belongs properly to some other group, i.e. an act of expropriation or appropriation that assumes that gender is the rightful property of sex, that "masculine" belongs to "male" and "feminine" belongs to "female." There is no "proper" gender, a gender proper to one sex rather than another, which is in some sense that sex's cultural property. Where that notion of the "proper" operates, it is always and only improperly installed as the effect of a compulsory system. Drag constitutes the mundane way in which genders are appropriated, theatricalized, worn, and done; it implies that all gendering is a kind of impersonation and approximation. If this is true, it seems, there is no original or primary gender that drag imitates, but gender is a kind of imitation for which there is no original; in fact, it is a kind of imitation that produces the very notion of the original as an effect and consequence of the imitation itself. In other words, the naturalistic effects of heterosexualized genders are produced through imitative strategies; what they imitate is a phantasmatic ideal of heterosexual identity, one that is produced by the imitation as its effect. In this sense, the "reality" of heterosexual identities is performatively constituted through an imitation that sets itself up as the origin and ground of all imitations. In other words, heterosexuality is always in the process of imitating and approximating its own phantasmatic idealization of itself—and failing. Precisely because it is bound to fail, and yet endeavors to succeed, the project of heterosexuality is propelled into an endless repetition of itself. Indeed, in its efforts to naturalize itself as the original, heterosexuality must be understood as a compulsive and compulsory repetition that can only produce the effect of its own originality; in other words, compulsory heterosexual identities, those ontologically consolidated phantasms of "man" and "woman," are theatrically produced effects that posture as grounds, origins, the normative measure of the real. (Judith Butler, "Imitation and Gender Insubordination," in David H. Richter, ed., The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, 2nd ed. (Boston: Bedford, 1998): 1519-20)."]

This is the kind of self-indulgent hooey that contemporary academe not only lets people get away with, but for which it elevates them to positions of FAME and HONOR! I'm not making the further connections that your questioning calls for at this point, but I assure you of my confidence that they can be made. In a nutshell, what we have here is an extreme expression of atomistic autonomianism (not antinomianism, though related), in open defiance against the thought that God should have made us according to some definite (in this case gendered) nature.

Foster: (1) I believe the ancients were generally mistaken in their views of human nature, especially with respect to their emphasis on the exalted state of males ...

Blosser: I believe the ancients shame us by their overwhelming insight into the fact that, first of all, we actually do have such a thing as a nature. Secondly, whatever their errors (like that of Aristotle) in viewing slaves and women as 'inferior' to free men, I believe their view errs more closely in the direction of the metaphysical-anthropological truths attested to in Scripture than in the direction of our contemporary anti-essentialist atomism.

Foster: (2) I do not believe that the Bible commits us to any particular linguistic convention when it comes to the use of generic pronouns for men and women. That is to say that while God should be called "He" or "Father" and Christ should be accorded the NOMEN "Son," the "biblical worldview" does not seem to commit us to always using "he" generically or "brothers" when we mean "he/she" or "brothers/sisters."

Blosser: First, as you recognize, we both believe that he Bible (I would say "Sacred Tradition," since I don't think the "Bible" "teaches" anything of itself) commits us to a linguistic convention when it comes to referring to God and Jesus Christ.

Second, whether we commit to accepting it, the Bible does in fact employ a traditional pattern of masculine language throughout nearly all of its books. Thus, Paul uses the term "bre-thren," even where today we may wish he had said "brothers and sisters."

Third, the reason why Paul (and others) used the term "brethren" (etc.) is that he simply assumed the traditional view that this generically included any women addressed as well. And I believe this assumption is grounded in a truth that connects #1 and #2 above, even if I can't quite spell that out for you at the moment.

Fourth, while I admit that "brothers and sisters" works just about as well in communicating the messages of Paul's letters, etc., I think that bowing to the cultural pressures in that direction are not necessarily a good or healthy thing, for reasons I've suggested already.

Foster: Granted, God is never called "she" by the Hebrews and I'd never talk about Him with feminine generic pronouns either. Nevertheless, the Bible writers do avail themselves of feminine imagery to describe the Most High God. This indicates that they were aware of the highly metaphorical or imagistic nature of masculine nomenclature for God.

Blosser: Here I would want you to be very cautious in avoiding a Tillichian-type of usage where you refer to "imagery" and "metaphor." For Tillich, if I recall him correctly, "symbols" don't have ontologically real referents. Here Tillich falls within the large nominalistic tradition stemming from the time of Berengar of Tours (ca. 1000) but surfacing decisively in the time William of Ockham (14th century). By contrast, within Catholic tradition symbols and metaphors refer to a reality beyond themselves, even if, as St. Thomas argues, the signification grasped is analogical. (Here, by the way, I'd love it if you had a copy of a book I'm reviewing by Gregory P. Rocca, O.P. (=Dominican), Speaking the Incomprehensible God (The Catholic University of America Press, 2004) because he offers one of the clearest and most sustained arguments against the typical nominalistic misunder-standings by Scotus, Suarez, Cajetan, etc., and nominalistic objections offered by Barth, Pannenberg, William L. Craig, William Alston (the latter two argue that analogical predication can't occur without an element of univocity; whereas Rocca, in my view, soundly trounces their objections).