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My Take on the Dawkins Interview at TAM8

Posted by Karl Withakay on July 13, 2010

This past weekend I has the pleasure of attending The Amazing Meeting 8 in Las Vegas with my friend Polite Scott.  It was, of course, amazing.  The keynote speaker was famed British evolutionary biologist, ethologist, and author Richard Dawkins.  Instead of giving a keynote address, Dawkins was interviewed Bob Costas style by JREF president D.J. Grothe.  While I kind of missed a formal keynote address, I enjoyed the interview very much.  I always enjoyed the casual, intimate interview format of Later with Bob Costas; it allowed for a more personal interview, and this interview was very similar.

Although there was much of interest in the interview, sometimes it’s the little things that leave the biggest impact.  My friend Polite Scott, for instance, tweeted the following after the interview:

Enjoyed Richard Dawkins’ session at TAM8, but was even more impressed to learn @DJGrothe is a comic book fan #TAM8

The thing that really caught my attention was Dawkins’ use of personal pronouns for non-specific, gender neutral references.  Depending on how you look at it, the English language is either gender biased or at least gender specific.  In German, for instance, the word sie can mean she, they, or even you (singular or plural), but in English, gender in pronouns implies actual gender.  Consider the following sentence:

Talk to your doctor about what he would choose for his family.

Fifty years ago, if you were addressing a crowd of people, this is how you would have phrased that statement without giving it a second thought, and it wouldn’t have even been seemed that gender biased since most people’s doctors would have been men.  Indeed, most people would still phrase it that way without a second thought.  Since the sexual revolution, there have been a couple of different alternative ways of dealing with gender when using pronouns in non-specific contexts.  One way is to use both masculine and feminine pronouns at the same time as in:

Ask your doctor what he/she would choose for his/her family.

It’s certainly inclusive, but it’s terribly awkward.  Another common choice is to use plural pronouns for non-specific references as in the following:

Ask you doctor what they would choose for their family.

This has always seemed to me to be the more elegant solution, but I admit I have had a hard time following it, mostly due to the influence of my tyrannical high school English teacher who insisted on using masculine pronouns for non-specific references.  (He was and older, conservative teacher at a conservative Lutheran high school )

Dawkins’ interview demonstrated a third option that had never previously occurred to me.  When he used pronouns for non-specific references, Dawkins used feminine pronouns.  He would have phrased the example phrase thusly:

Ask your doctor what she would choose for her family.

At the same time, this phraseology is both inclusive in its own way and thought provoking.   Every time he used a feminine pronoun for a non-specific reference, it made me think of how women might feel when people use masculine pronouns instead.  If you’re an English speaking, Christian, white male in the United States, you might not realize or care how non-inclusive our language and society can be.  On the other hand, sometimes I wonder if this is one of the reasons behind the various English only attitudes in this country.  Maybe some people realize how non-inclusive our country can be, and they don’t want to end up with the short straw at some time in the future.  Maybe they don’t see how it can be any other way other than society being focused on one particular language and culture, and they want to make sure it’s their culture that dominates.

This past weekend in Las Vegas, one man gave a hint to an admittedly receptive (fairly liberal) audience of approximately 1,300 people that maybe it doesn’t always have to be that way.  Think about it the next time you use a pronoun in a non-specific context.


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