I’m reading Carr’s What is History?, an interesting exploration of the philosophy and practice of history, written in 1961. I’m having big trouble with the pronouns. It’s all “mankind” this, “man” that, and “his” the other.
Reading this now just feels WRONG. Every time I hit one of these words my brain rejects it. My brain wants to substitute gender-neutral words and sentence structures.
Of course I know that this usage in theory meant all of us, of whatever gender or none (if such a concept could be acknowledged in the nineteen sixties). And I remember the ructions when this convenient assertion came under challenge in later decades, because the intention never seemed to translate into practice in the real world.
Some authors play with gender pronouns. One example is Ann Leckie’s Ancillary Justice, a book about an artificial intelligence turned human. The protagonist doesn’t really understand gender, so uses feminine pronouns for most individuals, unless there is direct evidence that the individual is male.
People have complained that this makes the story really difficult to read. I didn’t find it so, but I didn’t finish the book either. The pace was slower than I like, and I didn’t care about the characters, perhaps because their gender wasn’t clear? I don’t know. Ancillary Justice is an award winning book, so other readers must have felt differently.
Alexis Hall is another author who plays with language and gender, especially in the wonderful Prosperity series. In Hall’s stories, the characters draw me in, and revelations of their gender add to their interest and complexity rather than defining them.
So why is the history book really annoying, while Leckie’s or Hall’s works are just intriguingly different? I guess because Carr is following a convention without questioning it, a convention that ignores more than half of humanity, while both Leckie and Hall make use of the convention as part of their storytelling.
Language changes around us, and rewrites our brains without us noticing. Recently I needed to write the word “fireman”. A perfectly acceptable word for describing a man, and in the context of what I was writing at the time, appropriate. But my brain complained, and insisted that it wanted to use “firefighter” instead.
I prefer “firefighter” for regular use. I prefer to use language mindfully. I prefer not to exclude people accidentally. And if I want to set a story in a misogynist and backward world where all the firefighters are men, I will use “fireman” instead, and over-ride my twenty-first century brain’s objections. It may take some time, and not a little discomfort.