‘The Power of Language’
Recently I attended a workshop held by my university’s multicultural group entitled that was focused on how language and power/privilege interact. It had the potential to be a great lecture, full of meaningful examples of how language reveals underlying biases and other good stuff. But it wasn’t.
Instead, the discussion devolved into a 20 minute open forum on whether “you guys” was sexist. Yours truly was on team pro-“you guys,” and most of the room was anti-“you guys.”
The reasoning went something like this: addressing a mixed-gender group of people as “you guys” implies that the men are the most important people in the group. It was an argument to some extent by analogy with Spanish, where if there is even one man in a group, it is a grammatical convention to use the masculine plural form of whatever noun you’re using. It’s important to note, there is a female plural form that is used for female-only groups.
But here’s the thing: in English, at least in my dialect of English, “you guys” can refer to a group solely composed of women. So I wanted someone to persuade me that there is some evidence in usage that “you guys” still refers only to men, rather than having evolved into a gender-neutral second-person plural.
Instead, I just heard more bad arguments:
“You shouldn’t use it because now you know it offends people!” But is the offense reasonable? Crickets.
“You wouldn’t use ‘you-gals’ to refer to a group of men!” But would you use “you gals” to refer to any group ever? “Just because we don’t use a word, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t use it!”
And my personal favorite: “It’s just like the word ‘mankind.’ Patriarchy doesn’t value women, and so we use ‘mankind’ when really we mean ‘humankind.'”
I turned around to the person who said that, and told him what a terrible example of systemic sexism in language that was, given that the reason the word is ‘mankind’ and not ‘humankind’ is that the word “man” used to be a gender-neutral term hundreds of years ago, with the sex-specific terms being wifman and werman (female-human and male-human respectively). Wif- turned into ‘wife,’ and wer- can still be found in ‘werewolf.'”
Apparently processing nothing I’d said, this guy (who prefaced every comment with “As a history major…”) replies, “That’s because PATRIARCHY has been around for hundreds of years!” Mind. Blown.
At another point, the speaker said that although “you guys” is sexist for us to use, similar conventions in other languages (e.g., Spanish) were acceptable as long as it was their culture to say things that way. This person next to me raised his hand and asked, “Why is it their culture, but ‘you guys’ isn’t our culture?”
Speaker responded: “Exactly!”
Now you’d think in that big discussion of how it’s so critical to be careful with our language so we don’t harm or offend someone, even unintentionally, that this would generalize to other situations. But the next exchange revealed that this was more about a desire to have the conversational upper-hand, than to make a sincere effort to self-censor harmful language. The speaker showed a video which had the line in it that, “silence is consent.”
Another girl sitting two seats down raised her hand. She was visibly upset. Red-faced. Trembling. She commented, “That line made me think of a rape victim who would hear that, and feel bad, because she stayed silent even though she did not consent.”
The speaker actually replied, “Well, I don’t think they were talking about sexual assault. They just meant that like, silence is consent, or at least silence condones it.”
The girl put her hand down and spent the rest of the workshop fidgeting with a small scrap of paper in her hands.
In workshops like this, it seems like certain topics behave as strange attractors. One time I went to a workshop on bisexuality, but instead of talking about that, the discussion spiraled around the question of how we feel about “queer” vs “LGBT”. Moderation fail! I guess “you guys” is another strange attractor.
It’s times like those that I’m glad I say “y’all” a lot. =P
(fakeblockquote) I turned around to the person who said that, and told him what a terrible example of systemic sexism in language that was, given that the reason the word is ‘mankind’ and not ‘humankind’ is that the word “man” used to be a gender-neutral term hundreds of years ago, with the sex-specific terms being wifman and werman (female-human and male-human respectively). Wif- turned into ‘wife,’ and wer- can still be found in ‘werewolf.’” (/fakeblockquote)
I don’t disagree with your overall premise, but most advocates of directed language change acknowledge things like this but dismiss appeals to eymology or historical usage as valid arguments in discussions of contemporary usage norms. It is (perhaps counterintuitively) a prescriptive argument–it amounts to telling people who feel marginalised by certain usages that their intuitive understanding as native speakers is wrong because it doesn’t conform to the prestige dialect (of the privileged class).
This argument is, however only really compelling in cases where confusion is likely to arise naturally in speech communities (like understanding “man” in its common usage or misinterpreting the now-outdated “niggardly” as an epithet), and not cases where confusion or misapprehension by a native speaker is extremely unlikely (like “history/herstory”).
For example, almost no one today would naturally use the phrase “All men are created equal” to refer to humanity in general if it were not for its very famous model. By contrast, lots and lots of people use and understand “you guys” as gender-neutral, so it can reasonably be defended in descriptivist (and therefore less hierarchical and exclusionary) terms.
Of course, this approach still opens the can of worms of whether reclaimed or antiquated slurs (e.g. use of “gay” to mean “lame”…and “lame” to mean “bad”) are subject to the same treatment in a purely descriptivist level…too bad you guys didn’t get to have that conversation–it’s a lot more interesting.