Vaguely (at least nominally) related to The Language of Equality, Part I: What Makes an Agent?

I had a great beginning of a conversation last night with Danny, who has also been thinking a lot about the English language as a metaphorical device.  I mean that in the sense that English is the linguistic currency of the world, in many ways: in business it is one of the languages one must speak; technology is Anglophone-centric (consider programming languages); and at the very least, those institutions of higher learning most deeply venerated by most of the people I’ve come into contact with around the world are in the United States or Britain.  In many ways, I feel ambivalent about the English language — it’s an agglomeration of so many different parts, and has fragmented into so many different dialects and local flavors, but it remains an instrument of domination.

Danny talked about how he finds the limits of language so infuriating in his music and poetry.  I can’t speak for him, but I definitely feel the same way — English, as we use it, is a reflection of Anglo-American values, cultural practices, and norms.  The fact that we continue to have arguments about what “postcolonialism” is and means speaks to that, I think — postcolonialism is making an attempt to describe and wrestle with the conditions of the colonized in a traditionally Eurocentric intellectual paradigm.  So, necessarily, it attempts to wrestle with the conditions of the colonized, while negotiating the difficult territory between re-appropriation (of the master’s tools) and inauthenticity (due to its location in the Western academy).

I understand many people’s frustrations with this kind of linguistic juggling.  It often ends up confusing the essence of the arguments, and has the tendency to be pedantic.  Yet it’s very important, especially when confined to a single language, and that language in some ways being emblematic of a history of conquest and oppression, to unravel these issues.  An outright refusal to acknowledge the issues is irresponsible, and a cursory glance will never do it justice.  I am frustrated with my need to examine and problematize English, but maybe what’s worse is that by neglecting to do so, I am at a total loss for words to describe myself, define myself, and defend myself.

(I mean by problematize here the act of twisting, contorting, or disfiguring that which is familiar in order to call attention to something that is integral to the marginalization of an oppressed group, groups, or member(s) of oppressed groups.  To problematize something is to create cognitive dissonance in the interest of affecting change — it is more intentional than merely fucking shit up.)

Since my expertise is in matters of gender identity and expression, I want to explain this in terms of the language we use to describe and define ourselves as gendered members of American society.  To be fair, at the very least English doesn’t codify all nouns into a gendered system the way that Romance languages like French and Spanish do, but the absence of gender-neutral pronouns that are acceptable to use in reference to humans, for instance, is evidence of the limitations of the formalized English language.

(As an ironic aside, I used to consider the gender-neutral pronouns like ze and hir to be acts of pretension rather than audacity.  I am certain what changed my view of this was a better understanding of myself and the study of philosophy of language.)

It is rather controversial to demand that others use gender-neutral pronouns in reference to people.  Generally speaking, this won’t take the form of calling a person it since it is considered offensive and dehumanizing.  I would even contest using they in the singular, because of awkward formations (themself just sounds clunky) and the implication of otherness (as in, “that’s what they do).  I don’t think it’s merely that historically transgender people have not been visible in Anglophone society, it’s also that Anglophone society hasn’t made living outside the gender binary acceptable.

The use of gender-neutral pronouns problematizes English and demands that casual users take note.  They sound awkward at first, but that’s because they’re essentially invented words.  Their awkwardness comes only from their unfamiliarity.  Though the same might be said of the clunky construction themself I mentioned above, themself just gets you editorial red ink, where as ze and hir get the fun questions and raised eyebrows.  In a way, using gender-neutral pronouns is about reclaiming a language that wasn’t designed with binary-flouters in mind.  It’s about carving out a niche in a system that attempts to force invisibility on those who don’t conform.

I’d like to hear more examples of how you (or someone you know) problematizes language.  You’ll get credit when I use your stories in the future, I promise.  But I want to know more.

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