Voices of Wrath: When Words Become Weapons

Remember the white boots scam? It happened in the late 1960s, at the height of the Black Power movement. One of the movement theorists, it seems, came up with the idea that the reason white people conventionally wore black and brown shoes was to effect a symbolic degradation of the Negro. By wrapping its feet in dark hides, the race of exploitation and oppression signaled at some profound subliminal level its collective will to keep black people underfoot. Justice, of course, demanded a reversal of past terms of inequity, and a number of black radicals wore white boots as a sign of political awareness and defiance.

And not only radical blacks. White liberals anxious to advertise their sympathy with the cause of freedom and to do penance for the sins of their fathers wrapped Indian headbands around their brows and pulled white boots over their own socks. For a brief shining moment (in faculty lounges and bohemian cafes, at least) it looked as if the imposture were going to work.

It didn’t. At this distance it is impossible to determine whether the deciding factor in the collapse of the hoax was a residual sense of embarrassment or a restored sense of humor, but someone woke to the realization that complicity in historical fraud, no matter how good-willed its motive, failed to diminish but added to the indignity of those he was trying to help.

Demagogues who combine a revolutionary social program with a totalitarian disposition have frequently made use of pseudo-scientific histories to awaken and fuel resentments in the class they wish to emancipate and to shame the rest of the population into passive acquiescence. Typically such histories are esoteric and mystical, in that they seek to explain purported inequities by reference to motives hidden deep within the human psyche—too deep, in fact, to be discovered in the ordinary, exoteric business of historical cause and effect. Only an Enlightened Spirit can have the vision and courage to bring out into the open the real malice latent in the humdrum operations of human existence, operations that the rest of us would be inclined to regard as neutral or innocent. For the demagogue, this ploy has two great advantages: it is strictly speaking not falsifiable (Who can prove that Tom Jefferson’s choice of footwear was not predicated on a desire to dehumanize his slaves?) and it keeps the interpretive key to the past firmly in the palm of the demagogue himself; only the oppressed, when properly coached by their liberators, have the magic spectacles that make visible the evidence of their oppression.

It is clear, then, why language, which is part of the ordinary business of life—and yet whose history, for most of its users, is at once opaque and evocative—has always proved a rich mine for this kind of demagoguery. A particularly instructive example, offered by the sociologist Peter Berger, deserves to be quoted at length:

My mother was from Italy and my father was Austrian. As a child I spent a lot of time in Italy. This was in the 1930s, when Italy was of course under Mussolini. Sometime during that period, I forget which year it was, Mussolini made a speech in which he called for a reform of the Italian language.

In modern Italian—as in most Western languages, with the interesting exception of English—there are two forms of address, depending on whether you are talking to an intimate or to a stranger. For example, tu and usted are used in Spanish. In modern Italian tu is the intimate form of address, lei is the formal address. Lei happens to be third person plural. I do not know the history of this, but it has been a pattern of modern Italian for, I would imagine, some two hundred years. No one paid any attention to this. Even as a child, I knew what one said in Italian. It meant nothing.

But Mussolini made a speech in which he said that the use of lei is a sign of effeminacy, a degenerate way of speaking Italian. Since the purpose of the fascist revolution was to restore Roman virility to the Italian people, the good fascist did not say lei; the good fascist said voi—from the Latin vos, which is the second person plural. From that point on, everyone who used lei or voi was conscious of being engaged in a political act.

Now in terms of the empirical facts of the Italian language, what Mussolini said was nonsense. But the effect of that speech meant an awful lot, and it was intended to mean an awful lot. Because from that moment on, every time you said lei in Italy you were making an anti-fascist gesture, consciously or unconsciously—and people made you conscious of it if you were unconscious. And every time you said voi you were making the linguistic equivalent of the fascist salute.

Mussolini’s genius here deserves its full due. His self-appointed task was to take the vague feelings of defeatism and unhappiness of the Italian people and sharpen their focus until they hardened into deep, seething resentments, resentments strong enough to provide the sense of “empowerment” that would allow them (again, properly coached) to seize power for themselves. His mystical insight allowed him to see and expose the degenerate effeminacy hidden in one use of the pronoun lei. The choice was a deft one, not only because it helped explain national feelings of weakness while increasing paranoia about the influence of the malefactors—our very speech has been corrupted!—but because any genuinely scholarly attempt to put the record straight was bound to appear as the precise kind of effete and devious subterfuge that the Maximum Leader had warned against. Remember too that Mussolini could not on strictly logical grounds be proven wrong, a fact that tame Fascist professors would be sure to exploit.

Would the Italian bishops have done well to rewrite the Scriptures in Fascist language? Would we be proud of our own episcopacy if, in the late ’60s, it had required priests to celebrate Mass in white boots? Such questions are not vacuous, for the Church in the United States is currently faced with the prospect of a new lectionary—the cycle of biblical readings that comprise the Liturgy of the Word at Mass—whose principal change from the earlier lectionary concerns the revision of biblical readings into inclusive language.

“Inclusive language” does not, in the bishops’ parlance, refer to vocabulary or imagery concerning God or the Divine Persons; God will still be “our Father.” According to the Steering Committee responsible for the revision, “English vocabulary has changed so that words which once referred to all human beings are increasingly taken as gender-specific and, consequently, exclusive.” Further, we are told that “urgent pastoral needs override the demand for strict literalism”—the literalism, that is, of translating the masculine pronoun of Greek or Hebrew by its English equivalent. Just what these needs are, or in what sense they are pastoral, is not disclosed.

The truth of the matter is that there is no such thing as inclusive language or exclusive language, any more than there such a thing as an “effeminate” pronoun system. These categories have no linguistic meaning whatsoever, but betray a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of language. The fact that man (along with he and his) refers sometimes to a human being and sometimes to a male human is not, as some believe, a feature specific to English—such as would be avoided by Latin homo or Greek anthropos. The explanation belongs to the structure of logic itself; it is pre-grammatical, more fundamental than any tongue, laid down in the keel of the human brain. It has nothing to do with gender.

If set A is so treated that subset B is distinguished within it, the label or name given to A will have two meanings (or two uses): first, the general or universal meaning, and second, that of all non-B members of A. Linguists refer to the use of B as “marked” and that of A as “unmarked.” For example, if next to the word pig we introduce the word piglet, piglet is marked (for size) and pig is the unmarked form. Because it is unmarked, pig has (along this axis) two meanings: pig in se, and adult pig. In the sentence “I have one pig and eight piglets” the word pig refers to the adult; in the sentence, “I bought three goats and six pigs” we can’t know how many adults and how many piglets made up the purchase. The second example is not an instance of “exclusive language”; no potential piglet is left out of the discourse; “pig” is simply unmarked for size.

Gender contrasts are treated linguistically the same way. When a form marked for gender is introduced, its correlative assumes two uses: the gender alternate to the marked form, and the usage non-specific as to gender (not the same as neuter). Thus we have “poetess,” which is marked for gender, next to “poet,” unmarked. There is a general tendency—not a law—in language gender contrast for the marked form to be the feminine. It is important to stress that the marked/unmarked distinction is entirely independent of the sex or social status of the speaker and even of the surface grammar of the language. The feminine is the marked form in languages whose only adult speakers are women, such as several South Arabian dialects. The feminine is the marked form in Sumerian, the oldest of all written languages, which has no grammatical gender whatsoever; yet it has unmarked dumu, son or child, versus marked dumu-munus, daughter. On the other hand, examples of the reverse treatment are not lacking. For English, think of “duck” (unmarked) versus “drake” (marked), or even “nurse” (unmarked) versus “male nurse” (marked). The point of all the foregoing pedantry is this: regardless of the language, regardless of the speaker, regardless of the pertinent semantic axis, the marked/unmarked contrast is ineradicable. To stigmatize one particular operation of this contrast as sexist is useless—as useless as damning second person lei as un-Fascist or natural leather tones as racist.

Or as useful. For if your goal is to sow resentment where none previously existed, and to expose otherwise undetectable heresy, such anathemas are very handy indeed. They are, in a peculiarly apt sense of the word, shibboleths (see Judges 12:6). They are passwords designed to distinguish the men of Gilead from the Ephraimites, so that the sins of the latter may be made plain. Thus Peter Berger was very perceptive in his remark that to use voi in the Mussolini era was the linguistic equivalent of a Fascist salute. Once conscious of the alternatives, even if he knew the reason for the innovation to be nonsense, the speaker had to make a choice, had to decide whose side to take. The utility of a shibboleth is that it provides no middle ground, no tertium quid; it demands an either/or: complicity or defiance.

There is no such thing as exclusive language, but there are such persons as feminist women, and they have many sympathizers and allies of convenience in positions of great influence. Like the members of the Black Power movement, they are able to point to obvious and undeniable instances of discrimination in society, resentment for which is almost universally agreed to be justified. Like the members of the Black Power movement, they have also had to be coached, through relentless repetition, into spying injustice in places no sane person ever dreamed it existed. Indeed, for the revolutionary leader, the more cryptic the purported oppression the better, since the psychic disruption of the follower (resulting from the mental contortions necessary to convince himself of the truth of the Leader’s vision) makes him less resistant to other parts of the revolutionary program—innovations to which common sense might suggest doubts or hesitations. And, of course, the more arcane the supposed injustice, the more elaborate and unconvincing its refutation. All scholarly defenses of common sense seem pompous and contrived; all are bound to increase the very hostility they seek to allay. For feminists, the exclusive language hoax is an agit-prop bonanza.

As Karl Popper has demonstrated, one of the signs of the explanatory bankruptcy of any theory is a situation in which any and all possible states of affairs provide evidence for the truth of said theory. Such a hypothesis will not correspond to reality but will simply reflect the private obsessions of the theorist. Few of us, perhaps, will doubt that, if voi had been the ordinary second person pronoun in his time, Mussolini would have found traces of degeneracy in this very word or in some other aspect of the language. It is rage in the face of the status quo that matters; its source is of secondary import. By the same token, does anyone believe that if the reverse of the actual situation obtained in English—if “woman” were the unmarked generic and “man” the marked form—that feminists would not find injustice in this too? The ground-breaking article would be called, “A Word of Her Own,” and I could write it myself.

The claim is sometimes made that the imposition of inclusive language is justified by the fact that language changes over time; words shift their meanings, and the proposed diction is simply a tardy recognition of what has already occurred. Well, it is true that the semantic range of a given word is susceptible of change, and words referring to males and females are as susceptible as any other. Yet this only points up the futility of performing the kind of surgery on living language that is demanded by the inclusivist project. (This demand is hard to understand on its own terms; why so much effort to direct us where we can’t help going? A surgeon might alter a child’s arm so that it attained its adult length, but we would hardly call the operation growth.) As new words and new applications continue to be dumped into the active lexicon of a language, they will continue to bud and fructify according to linguistic laws of nature, not according to the strictures of inclusivism. You can see this on any playground, and even in places where political gender-awareness has reached its highest pitch—even, say, in the student lounges of Wellesley College, where a dyed-in-the-wool feminist will run into a room full of women, or women and men, and say, “D’you guys want to order out for a pizza?” The unmarked form can no more be pruned from language than can semantic change itself.

The stock objection to this argument is: “But some women really do feel left out by the word men.” No doubt. So too, there are freshmen every autumn who really do buy a copy of The Apology of Socrates and wonder, Why did Socrates have to say he’s sorry? Yet we don’t conclude that Plato had two meanings here; we say some students don’t know what Plato meant: usage is meaning, and to privilege the hearer’s semantics over the speaker’s is madness. For example, the bishops’ committee quoted above says, “the Word of God proclaimed to all nations is by nature inclusive, that is, addressed to all peoples, men and women.” Yet, by their own reasoning, “men and women” won’t quite do, for it excludes children and hermaphrodites, who are themselves entirely human, in need of redemption, and addressees of the Word. Even “men, women, children, and those of indeterminate gender” is inadequate, because someone, some¬ time, might well hear “children” and infer that it excludes infants. Notice: this proliferation is stark nonsense, but the only objection that can be tendered by the champions of inclusive language—namely, that the unmarked locution includes the various marked forms—is one that precisely invalidates their own claim. They can’t have it both ways; the dilemma is fatal.

Recasting the lectionary into inclusive language does not open the Scriptures to those for whom they had been previously closed. It is a curtsy in the direction of feminism, a small genuflection meant to signal ideological sympathy and nothing else; it is way of announcing, We too are Gileadites in good standing. On the other hand, perhaps it is proper that bishops do bend the knee to the regnant ideology of the era, or at least of the beau monde of each epoch. Perhaps there was an Italian Fascist who sincerely found the Church’s language insufficiently virile, and who would have allowed himself to be evangelized if the episcopacy had indulged him in the matter of pronouns. Perhaps such a minor act of complicity, even if one is innocent of the accusation in virtue of which it is demanded, would have gained a soul that was otherwise lost.

I, for one, am not convinced. I remain an Ephraimite. Confessing to injustices we have not committed can only deaden us to those we have. Surely there is enough genuine wickedness of which we are guilty, and which deserves to be remedied, without feigning remorse for sins we can’t see, even after reflection. Deus non eget meo mendacio, said Augustine, “God does not need my lie,” and this is preeminently true of the Church’s pastoral effort. If I can only appease my accuser by an act of dishonesty or a soothing falsehood, I have failed in my pastoral responsibility. I have, moreover, blinded myself to my brother’s real need. Isn’t it odd, to put it mildly, that those who hunger and thirst for justice should cry more loudly for proper pronouns than proper health care? Isn’t it striking that they seem fuelled more by hatred of the status quo than by love of neighbor? And isn’t it plausible, in the last analysis, that what they really want from the Church is not reparation, but revolution?

Paul Mankowski


Paul Mankowski, SJ, is a scholar of Scripture and Hebrew from the Pontifical Biblical Institute in Rome. He has published widely in the field of philology, including his book Akkadian Loanwords in Biblical Hebrew. He received a BA from the University of Chicago, an MA in classics and philosophy from Oxford, and a PhD in Semitic philology from Harvard.

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