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The Great Person-Hole Cover Debate

2006-09-08 14:18

    I wasn't looking for trouble. What I was looking for, actually, was a little tourist information to help me plan a camping trip to New England.

    But there it was, on the first page of the 1979 edition of the State of Vermont Digest of Fish and Game Laws and Regulations: a special message of welcome from one Edward F. Kehoe, commissioner of the Vermont Fish and Game Department, to the reader and would-be camper, i.e., me.

    This person (i.e., me) is called "the sportsman."

    "We have no ‘sportswomen, sportspersons, sportsboys, or sportsgirls,'" Commissioner Kehoe hastened to explain, obviously anticipating that some of us sportsfeminists might feel a bit overlooked. "But," he added, "we are pleased to report that we do have many great sportsmen who are women, as well as young people of both sexes."

    It's just that the Fish and Game Department is trying to keep things "simple and forthright" and to respect "longstanding tradition." And anyway, we really ought to be flattered, "sportsman" being "a meaningful title being earned by a special kind of dedicated man, woman, or young person, as opposed to just any hunter, fisherman, or trapper."

    I have heard this particular line of reasoning before. In fact, I've heard it so often that I've come to think of it as The Great Person-Hole Cover Debate, since gender (性别) —— neutral manholes are invariably brought into the argument as evidence of the lengths to which humorless, Newspeak-spouting feminists will go to destroy their mother tongue.

    Consternation (惊骇) about woman-handling the language comes from all sides. Sexual conservatives who see the feminist movement as a unisex plot and who long for the good old days of vive la difference, when men were men and women were women, nonetheless do not rally behind the notion that the term "mankind" excludes women.

    But most of the people who choke on expressions like "spokesperson" aren't right-wing misogynists (厌恶女人的人), and this is what troubles me. Like the undoubtedly well-meaning folks at the Vermont Fish and Game Department, they tend to reassure you right up front that they're only trying to keep things "simple" and to follow "tradition," and that some of their best men are women, anyway.

    Usually they wind up warning you, with great sincerity, that you're jeopardizing (危及) the worthy cause of women's rights by focusing on "trivial" side issues. I would like to know how anything that gets people so defensive and resistant can possibly be called "trivial," whatever else it might be.

    The English language is alive and constantly changing. Progress——both scientific and social —— is reflected in our language, or should be.

    Not too long ago, there was a product called "flesh-colored" Band-Aids. The flesh in question was colored Caucasian (白种人)。 Once the civil rights movement pointed out the racism inherent in the name, it was dropped. I cannot imagine reading a thoughtful, well-intentioned company policy statement explaining that while the Band-Aids would continue to be called "flesh-colored" for old time's sake, black and brown people would now be considered honorary whites and were perfectly welcome to use them.

    Most sensitive people manage to describe our national religious traditions as "Judeo-Christian (兼犹太教与基督教的)," even though it takes a few seconds longer to say than "Christian." So why is it such a hardship to say "he or she" instead of "he"?

    I have a modest proposal for anyone who maintains that "he" is just plain easier: since "he" has been the style for several centuries now —— and since it really includes everybody anyway, right? —— it seems only fair to give "she" a turn. Instead of having to ponder over the intricacies of, say, "Congressman" versus "Congress person" versus "Representative," we can simplify things by calling them all "Congresswoman."

    Other clarifications will follow: "a woman's home is her castle……" "a giant step for all womankind"…… "all women are created equal"…… "Fisherwoman's Wharf."……

    And don't be upset by the business letter that begins "Dear Madam," fellas. It means you, too.

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