To PC or Not PC

Let’s talk about grammar.

Wait! Come back! This will be interesting, I promise. It will involve politics and controversy and barely any pop quizzes. Politics and grammar meet – let’s say clash, because I did promise controversy – in the question of pronouns. There’s an old convention in English that, when the sex of a person is unspecified, he is referred to by the male pronoun. This is probably related to the old use of “Man” as a term for all humanity: The male stands in for all.

Not surprisingly, the classic rule of he has fallen out of repute and use. Several new conventions are now fighting for the privilege of replacing it. It’s too early to project a winner, because like Tolstoy’s unhappy families, they’re all flawed in different ways. As speakers and writers of the English language, let’s consider our options.

(Pop quiz: What is a conjunction?)

Some people replace the lone he with the phrase he or she. The benefit of this formulation is that it is inclusive and all-encompassing. The downside is that it’s clunky. He or she has cluttered up many sentences with verbiage that serves no purpose beyond not being politically incorrect. The phrase has produced its own variants: he/she and, better yet, s/he. These updated versions are sleeker and more refined, but severely limited in that they are suited only for the written word. No one could speak them and still appear normal.

(Pop quiz: What is a subjective clause?)

Another common solution is to use the pronoun they in place of he. The clear advantage of this is that it avoids the clunkiness of he or she, and the android weirdness of s slash he. Unfortunately, it is also grammatically incorrect. If they were correct, it would already be used. To replace the singular he with the plural they brings the pronoun into conflict with its noun (or indefinite pronoun, which is functionally the same thing). You could say that everyone has their own opinions, but this is true only of Gollum. Everyone else has his own opinions.

Perhaps the most unique answer to this grammatical quandary comes from Charles Murray, who advocates that female writers use a generic she and male writers use a generic he. This is ingenuous and posseses certain aesthetic qualities of balance and symmetry. If it had been invented by Chaucer, it might have caught on. Such innovations are much more difficult at the language’s current stage of evolution, however, and to decide the use of the pronoun by the sex of the author can rub oddly.

(Pop quiz: What is a dental fricative?)

Now we come, at last, to the final and best solution. Some writers replace he with she – a solution that maintains elegance, simplicity, and grammatical precision. It avoids the pitfalls of other solutions but skirts on the brink of its own: Is the use of this pronoun merely political, bowing to the pressure of those who have taken it into their heads to be offended by he (and just about everything else)? Taking the question as a literary one, the classic he and the modern she are the best answers. But the question is always in danger of becoming political: He or she, to PC or not PC?

How do you grapple with the dilemma in your own literary wanderings? Remember, there is no right answer. But there are several wrong ones.

 

(ANSWER KEY:

  1. The concomitance of two or more events.
  2. The North Pole’s darkest secret.
  3. A clear violation of the Geneva Convention.)

Beside the Point

Not long ago, I was reading a review of a new album, released by a Christian artist who was known for his edginess and is now, perhaps, over the edge. The reviewer said (here I roughly, but accurately, paraphrase) that he had always liked this artist because he used raw words just to rile up evangelicals. And I thought that this was not truly a noble endorsement.

And it’s not because of the words he used, or because people were upset or offended, or because evangelicals were upset or offended (though I do think that, on the long road of learning to love each other as Christ has loved us, not taking positive pleasure in seeing each other offended is one step). As a reason to approve of anything, Look, he offends them! possesses doubtful worth. It seems a superficial judgment at best, an uncharitable motive at worst.

It’s unfortunate, then, that these days, it’s all around us. People have made lucrative careers of giving offense. In Exhibit 1,873 of our current societal dysfunction, certain citizens of this republic value most, in their elected officials, a demonstrated ability to offend their fellow citizens. You don’t have to look far in the broader culture to find the same impulse, to see real appreciation of the writer or artist or celebrity who offends the right people. In art, too, transgressing other people’s boundaries is often taken as a pleasure, and sometimes as an end in itself.

I understand the phenomenon; it’s all human nature, even if not the best part of it. We have all known people so annoying that they almost deserved to be offended. We have all seen boundaries so misdrawn that they deserved to be transgressed. No matter who you are, someone out there has sensibilities that are, by your measure, so hopelessly narrow or warped that they are begging to be offended. This judgment of others’ boundaries and sensibilities must, in some cases, be false. By the same rule of logic, it must, in some cases, be true. So if the sensibilities are narrow and the boundaries are skewed, isn’t there some value in offending them?

No, not intrinsically. It doesn’t follow that, because the boundaries are wrong, the offense is right. In this, as in other disputes, it is not possible that everyone is right, but it is possible that everyone is wrong. One can be politically incorrect by telling the truth, but one can also be politically incorrect by being a jerk; one can violate Victorian sensibilities in art by being better than they would permit, but also by being worse. The idea of offending the right people is tribal and superficial. Beyond the superficiality lies the lack of charity. It’s not charitable to enjoy upsetting or offending other people, nor is it worthy as an aim. What do you really achieve by bothering people?

Offense, as such, has very little meaning; it proves neither right nor wrong. As an insignificant thing, it ought to be incidental to what you are really doing. Tell the truth, or pursue artistic superiority – and perhaps people will be offended and perhaps not, but neither will be the point.