We all want solutions — it’s a basic human need. The world is a big, complex place, and we want to deal with its problems in bits and pieces so that we may at least have the satisfaction of solving a part of the problem. But too often such an approach simply doesn’t work. The Michigan Student Assembly and the Daily’s editorial page, in their push to mandate the use of gender-neutral language on campus, have forgotten this timeless lesson.
The idea is simple enough: Proponents say that the pronouns “he” and “she” discriminate against students who do not identify with either. The better approach, they say, is to have the University, its faculty and students use gender-neutral references such as “they” whenever possible. But that solution is so perfunctory that it borders on offensive.
MSA recently passed a resolution to switch to gender-neutral language in the Statement of Student Rights and Responsibilities. The Daily’s editorial page went several steps further, calling for a University-wide policy — one that, alarmingly, would “require professors to more carefully consider their words and avoid using gender-specific language that doesn’t include all students” (He/she/ze, 02/17/2010). The reaction was predictable, with most of the online comments to the Daily’s editorial expressing varying degrees of frustration over political correctness gone wild.
The simplistic political correctness driving the change bothered me as well. But I’m much more concerned that this is yet another instance of a hollow gesture masking a gross lack of commitment to understanding the underlying issue and to taking the costly steps to resolve it.
To make my argument clearer, let’s consider the example of “Don’t ask, Don’t tell.” The policy was instituted in the mid-1990s and sold to us as progress. Gay people could now serve in the military, as long as they pretended not to be gay, which, of course, really means that gay people still cannot serve in the military. Since the policy was instituted, more than 13,000 service members have been discharged because they chose not to pretend.
The stopgap rhetorical change that “Don’t ask, Don’t tell” brought was not only not a solution but actually stands in the way of a true solution today: Every time a proposal to change the policy is brought forth, opponents can simply point to DADT and say it was compromise that is progress enough — while knowing full well that the policy did nothing to change the underlying biases that led to the exclusion of homosexuals in the first place and, in fact, encouraged the view that homosexuals are outsiders who don’t belong.
It is exactly that sort of exoticization and polarization that I fear will result from this simplistic switch to using gender-neutral language.
That women feel excluded by the default use of the pronoun “he” and that transgendered people feel excluded by “he/she” being the only options are undeniable. But these feelings of exclusion are symptoms brought on by the wider problem of discrimination and lack of understanding. A superficial rewriting of the student handbook (proposed by MSA) or even outright censorship of classroom discourse (which is the inevitable outcome of the Daily’s proposal) will do nothing to correct those underlying problems.
Like our hyper-sensitive society, the University is very good at saying all the right things. In the brochures for the University’s various schools, you can read pages upon pages about its commitment to diversity of all forms. And yet the fact remains that the moment I step foot into any of my Law School classes and take a look at the racial composition of the class, it may as well be 1910 as opposed to 2010.
For all its talk about being inclusive to people of all backgrounds because they bring unique experiences to the campus community — rhetoric that was carried all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court in the 2003 cases of Gratz v. Bollinger and Grutter v. Bollinger — this University still had to be threatened, harassed and coerced into meeting the requirements of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 in the Michigan Stadium renovation process.
Be it a race and ethnicity requirement that lacks bite, a Detroit Center that’s closed to all but those with a special card or yet another symposium on this, that and the other thing plaguing inner cities, we’ve had plenty of talk and empty gestures around this campus. Perhaps an institution of such immensity can do no better than a glacial pace. But students should know better than to become enablers.
Imran Syed can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.