Pronouns and confusion

Posted: October 3, 2011 by Jender in pronoun confusions

am a tenured male philosopher. A recent post at the What We’re Doing blog on the use of pronouns reminded me of something that happened a couple of years ago. It is fairly trivial compared to some of the stories here, and even humorous, but it does illustrate the subtle effect of language.

Like many philosophers, my papers often contain stories, vignettes, hypothetical scenarios, etc. I make an effort to include both male and female characters (and names other than `Smith’ and `Jones’) in my stories. I wrote one paper that discussed a debate between two philosophical views, which I will call Yism and Zism. The gist of the paper was that problem, as usually presented, was underspecified. If you flesh out the details in some ways, Yism would be correct; if you flesh out the details in other ways, Zism would be correct. I set up the problem by means of a story in which one character was a Yist, and the other a Zist. The Yist was male, and the Zist female. When I sent out the paper, more than one person (both men and women) accused me of sexism: I was defending Yism over Zism, and I made the Yist male. So I changed the genders of the characters. Again I was accused of sexism: I was defending Zism over Yism, and I made the Zist male. So I made them both female, and everyone finally understood what I was saying.

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