Sense and Nonsense: Too Sensitive for Words

What needs salvation in our time, after our own souls, is the classical English language. From what does it need saving? From ideological censorship busily changing, crimping, sissifying, and otherwise ruining our great tongue. All of this is occurring in the name of “diversity,” “sensitivity,” and “rights.” It is really censorship, practiced in the highest places, like bureaucracies or universities (if you call such high places).

Words are agreed-on symbols in a given language by which we designate that about which we speak or to what we call attention. If, for example, I say, “That tree is green,” I mean that (a) there is a tree, (b) its leaves are green, and (c) I indicate that tree and not that yonder McDonald’s.

However, if we had a sensitive, introspective tree, embarrassed to be called “green,” I could no longer call it “green.” Its sensitivity determines my adjectives. It prefers to be called, say, “blue,” like the sky. As a free tree, it does not want to be discriminated against by limiting to green the qualitative adjectives to which it can be referred. When autumn leaves turn brown, it resents the implication of “ageism.” Call me green in October!

Words are intended to describe something accurately. The trouble is, not everyone likes to be described accurately. We have words that describe what kind of a being I am, and words that describe how I act. I may not like the “what” I am. I am Japanese, but I want to be Irish. No matter what I do, I keep looking Japanese. People say that I look Japanese. I think my “rights” are violated.

What do I do? Since it pains me not to be called Irish, I get a law passed forbidding anyone to call me Japanese. Indeed, I believe the Belgian courts are now in the business of enforcing universal “rights” throughout the world. Next, suppose that I marry two wives, or become “gay.” I am sensitive on these topics. I insist that I not be called either a “bigamist” or “gay,” both of which, if I want, I have a “right” to be.

Moreover, I have a “right” to be called whatever I want to be called, to be whatever I want to be. Accuracy of description has nothing to do with it. My feelings take precedence over my description. My friends and critics, of course, are somewhat confused about what to say. Soon they realize that my words have little or nothing to do with my reality.

Diane Ravitch, in the Wall Street Journal (February 13, 2004), recounted the extent of “language police” tyranny in our society. Take what happens to that perfectly useful and innocent word “man.” Following investigations by Candace de Russy into New York State policies, Ravitch points out that such words as “‘manhours,’ ‘manpower,’ ‘mankind,’ and ‘manmade’ are regularly deleted. Even ‘penmanship,’ where the guilty three letters are in the middle of the word, is out.” Surely, this rooting out, as Ravitch and de Russy indicate, is silly, but it is more than that. It is a rather advanced form of tyranny.

The word “man” is a perfectly good word in standard English. No substitute for it—the most common one, used as a noun, is the adjective “human,” except that “man” appears here, too—really does what “man” does. The human mind is a wonderful thing. It can have several words for the same idea. The primary meaning of the word “man” is not “male,” a word that can also be applied to horses. The word “man,” in fact, has nothing to do with males or females. It abstracts from the distinction of male and female. If I say, “All men are created equal,” I do not somehow exclude all females from this principle. I explicitly include them in the abstract idea. If someone says when I use the word “man” that I must intend to exclude females from the general principle, the only answer to that accusation is that the objector does not understand logic and, to boot, slanders me.

The word “man” can indeed mean “male.” When it does, it is usually clear from the context. I do not have to go around every two minutes saying that “when I use the word ‘man,’ I mean either males or males and females.” It is clear from the usage. Any problem about using this word is best solved not by rewriting history but by learning logic. Whatever the proper relations of males and females are, they are not solved by destroying or confusing the well-tuned language. We need not be “too sensitive” to use the standard words of our noble language. Its ancient usage is our freedom. It deserves not to be slandered by imposed ideology from whatever source.

  • Fr. James V. Schall

    The Rev. James V. Schall, SJ, (1928-2019) taught government at the University of San Francisco and Georgetown University until his retirement in 2012. Besides being a regular Crisis columnist since 1983, Fr. Schall wrote nearly 50 books and countless articles for magazines and newspapers.

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