Another view about gender-inclusive language

I am old enough to have been taught that the masculine third person singular was a gender-inclusive form. The issue was raised, and unambiguously answered. There are problems with it, to put it mildly, chief among them that masculine-only is not “gender neutral,” and therefore fails in its manifest purpose. That this was its manifest purpose, however, whatever its degrading latencies, is undeniable.

I had a brace of women’s studies students one year, however, who were deliberately taught that the masculine-only third person pronoun was intentionally not gender-inclusive. These students therefore refused to read an article from the 60s – on music at college parties, for heaven’s sake. I explained the custom of the time, admitted its undeniable irritation, and asked that they make the appropriate allowances, holding their nose if need be. Again they refused, telling me that this was a clear case of intentionally sexist, gender exclusive usage.

I asked where they got this idea. They told me their WS teacher said that the masculine third person singular was never considered gender neutral. I asked if this instructor was old enough to remember this first-hand? No, but she, quote, “just knew.”

At this I exploded, and called her a goddamn liar. They ran to her, and petitioned the chair not to have to read the article (on the basis that it was insulting to them as women). I prepared a simple affidavit, to be distributed and signed by all faculty over 50: “I was taught that third person masculine usage is not gender inclusive.” I said that if a single faculty member signed it, I would resign, and return my salary for the year. That was the end of that.

[and this was written by MW, in a discussion in another forum]

Swedish crisis in the humanities

Har just upptäckt att det pågår en intressant debattartikelserie i Dagens Nyheter, som kallas Humaniorans framtid? Idag var det en bitsk artikel av Ebba Witt-Brattström:

J’accuse! Jag anklagar statsministern för att han som skolminister 1989 i hård och ohederlig kamp med lärarfacken och en rasande opinion genomdrev beslutet att kommunalisera skolan och därigenom avskaffa den enhetliga skolan, likvärdig för alla. Till följd av denna ödesdigra omstrukturalisering av svensk skola har dagens vilsna studenter och doktorander, framtidens forskare, sämre förkunskaper än tidigare generationer och måste ägna en stor del av sin doktorandtid åt att komma i nivå med såväl tidigare svensk som internationell forskning. Som om inte detta dubbelarbete är tillräckligt uppmanas de nu av utbildningsministern att publicera sina avhandlingar direkt på engelska trots att forskningen entydigt visar att man förstår och tänker sämre om man inte skriver på sitt modersmål. Här ansluter jag mig till Janken Myrdal (DN 25/10) som föreslår att forskaren skriver en artikel på engelska som sammanfattar resultaten av den forskning hon/han utfört på god svenska. En förklaring till att den svenska forskningen inte har det inflytande i världen den förtjänar är att forskarna allt oftare skriver direkt på svengelska.

Så därför skriver jag på svenska idag.

Totally aestethic and healthy

What is art? Is it an attitude or a life-style? Or, is it a necessary expression of human experience? Something that can hurt as much as it can heal? How much is personal in artistical expression – and to which limits can an artist’s control over his soul, body and environment be extended? Does the art need to be centered around the artist’s ego, and reflected in the things surrounding her in her life world?

My questions were provoked by a recent visit to a local artist’s studio and home, after I had decided to become more involved in the visual arts, and in the things going on in my neighbourhood, and learn more about painting – something I haven’t tried since school. Maybe that decision was a reaction after I heard some weeks ago about the death of a distant relative – a great painter and wonderful person. I suddenly realized that I had missed the chance to discuss art, life and music (he was also a jazz pianist) with him on the occasions when we have met through the years. It was just the usual social talk, and I always let others ask their naive questions about his pictures, and be content with the obvious answers. There must have been so much more things I could have learned from him. Now I have to learn it on my own (as we all have to, more or less).

So, now I wonder a lot about the mentality of artists, and what they are doing to stay healthy and/or creative. Some work in chaos; others in order. Some live in a mess; other live in a totally aesthetic perfection. My relative was much for order in his studio (and in his entomological collection), but the home decoration (mostly by his artistic wife) was never over-whelmingly perfect; and their focus was not on the methods to get a long and healthy life.

Success can be dangerous, so it takes some modesty and maturity to handle…

Does nothing you do matter if you are female?

An interesting reply by Carolyn Hax, to a somewhat common generalisation. Found at the Washington Post site, in the advice column Tell me about it online discussion today:

RE boys will be boys: Well…if men’s self-worth and societal ‘value’ were predicated on looks and looks only, they’d freak out too.

Carolyn Hax: Is that really how you feel? Like nothing you say or do matters because you’re female? Are you reading this because you think I’m pretty? That is some serious self-loathing you’re carrying around. And I’m saying that not in a what’s-YOUR-problem-way, but in an I’m-worried-about-you way.

Are sea birds (too) becoming too dumb to survive?

After I read an article about a new cure for inherited learning disabilities in mice (a common drug for cholesterol-lowering), I found in another scientific piece of news that birds have cognitive problems, too. These can be traced to environmental change, which has lead to malnutrition in chicks, which increases their stupidity, and lower their chance to survive through adaptions to the changes.

“It has been shown recently that brain size effects behaviour and can even influence population trends, so it would be expected that an increase in stupidity in some species would adversely affect their ability to perform their day-to-day activities.”

Comments: first it seems like they have found a cure for stupidity. That may save the world. If intelligence and plenty of well-functioning creatures was all that was needed to avoid disaster. Then you have to realize how many eco-nurses and brain development doctors it would take to administer the medication to all the mice, cock-roaches, elks, porpoises, herrings, presidents, criminals, musicians, journalists, web designers and athletes whose behaviour would benefit from more reason and less belief. We haven’t the resources necessary for such large-scale projects.


[Leaving room for a discussion I can’t contribute to, since I know too little of the reality behind and around it: why American fundamentalism is divided in incompatible sects, like the 60s and 70s European Marxism – which I know even less about.]

(Strange things happen around me. While I wrote the above, our black cat decided he couldn’t wait any longer for a fresh-smelling litter tray, so he sneaked into the wardrobe for his private business. Again!!! My sailing-shoes were the place of choice this time, but most of the mess missed them by an inch, thankfully.)

Generalising personal pronouns

In a discussion about new music and “avant-garde composers”, some people were defending the use of “he” as the neutral personal pronoun in normal English. I don’t know what is normal in English (it is not my first language), but the reason I pointed out the use of only he and his as a problem in the first place was to see what happened to people’s thinking. I just changed all the “he” to “she” in a post, without comments. Two British gentlemen took it as a provocation. So I had to reply something, which was:

Don’t generalise about the personal, if you can avoid it. I prefer saying he/she/it/they when I speak about avant garde artists, politicians and God. You can’t be sure that the generalised person in question is not a hermaphrodite polar bear, the whole cultural industry, or a computer.

A more serious reply could have been to refer to a neutral article at Wikipedia about gender-neutral pronouns:

I haven’t yet decided which pronoun/re-formulation I prefer to use when I write. Sometimes I write “he”, or alternate with “she”. Sometimes I use the explicit but clumsy “he/she(/it)”, and lately I have started to try the dubious singular “they”. I sense that it is a problem to use only “he” when meaning any human, but in fact I do this quite often, contrary to what my opponents in the recent debate may think! This is what feels most comfortable (even with that nagging sense that it ain’t just right and fair, because it isn’t obviously inclusive language), so when I int’ ids struggle with the political correct, I pretend that we’re each and everyone just one of the boys… However, there is this question of whether I as an enlightened intellectual and compassionate human has a moral duty to always help the less fortunate to think about and understand what they say and mean? (If you get the irony.) Should I be an example in creative and correct use of language, even if I risk to provoke people into conservative reactions? If I don’t want them to feel attacked, but want them to think sensible and with humour about a problem we have no good solution to yet, then I can hardly use the methods associated with senseless militant activists. Whatever. Sigh.

(int’ ids, or, ids inte, is the succinct Swedish expression meaning “can not be bothered to”. Short “i”, as in rinse.)

The normal state of the art(ist)

The frozen leaves –

if you are in the creative soul’s hell, you will see them:

all the mis-told stories, all pathetic poems, all the letters you wrote, all diary pages, all the lecture notes, grocery lists, excuses to your children’s teachers, silly postcards, and – all the music –

cold, still, looking strange, wrong, handled with or without care, and then re-sent – deep frozen.

(Our hell isn’t a warm place. We call it Nifelheim.)

War symphonists

This morning, while I breakfasted on instant coffee (with milk) and a double toast with cheese, I listened to an orchestra piece by a composer friend from UK. He wanted comments about the premiere recording, and help in deciding if the work is suitable to expand into a symphony. As it is now, the piece is in my opinion a kind of colourful ouverture; complete as a short (ca 12 minutes) story about a part of England’s history of wars, but not satisfying without some more development and changes as a symphony movement. The composer has used a recognizable song theme as a nice gimmick – successful in the ouverture version, but in the many repetitions of it it needs to be more disguised to work in the different context of a symphony. I also think the ouverture ending is too much a triumph march à la Star Wars to be convincing in a serious symphony. I know John Williams borrows all his ideas from older masters of symphony, opera and film music writing, but I say what I realize most young listeners today will think, with the references they have to orchestra music being mostly contemporary film scores. (My friend told me later that the obvious reference for him here is Walton’s music). I am not competent enough in the craft of composing and/or analyzing to judge if the material in the ouverture in itself – after proper development of more themes and transitions from it – will suffice to base a whole symphony on. So my idea is to use it as a first movement in a symphony on the extra-musical theme of (British?) war history – with its many aspects of ideology, duty, leadership, collective suffering, and short triumphs.

After listening to this new British music, I put on a cd with a somewhat older symphony on a more recent war theme: the Finnish composer Einar Englund’s first symphony (from 1946). It is not fair to compare the two works, but since I am not interested in using concepts as minor-major-mediocre to label composers, there is no harm in it either. The neo-classic post-Sibelian symphonist Englund can be inspiring for a younger composer, without being dispiritingly impressive – as maybe Prokofiev or Shostakovich are as role models. Englund’s music was a sensation of modernism when it was new – at least in Finland. Now I think it sounds good, but it is audible (the harmony and some of the orchestra tricks) that the work was written in the 1940s, by a young man who was not only just home from years in a horrible war that had interrupted his conservatory training, but also an experienced improviser and jazz/entertainment musician, who surely listened to sounds from other music worlds, outside Finland and the Sibelius Academy. In his second symphony, which has been called “The Blackbird”, his memories from war are told in music, too, and set in a thematic contrast between Nature (the bird song) and Culture (the war sounds). You can read about Englund:

A remark made sometime in the ’50s is still often quoted: “As a composer, Englund is the salt of the earth.” The comment illustrates the key position held by Einar Englund (1916-1999) in postwar Finnish music. The premiere of his First Symphony in 1947 marked a turning-point and heralded a new era in Finnish music. Englund gave voice to a young generation which had survived the war and lost all its illusions, and in so doing he swept away the lingering National Romantic idyll. It was also no mean feat that he succeeded in rejuvenating the symphony, the most highly valued genre of all in the land of Sibelius.

Ever since his breakthrough years, Englund’s style was associated with Neoclassicism, and his music shows affinities with Prokofiev, Shostakovich and Bartók’s late period. His œuvre, stylistically coherent, is dominated by rhythmic drive and a clear, powerful orchestral sound with frequent use of doubling, with a melodic-harmonic thinking peppered with dissonances but founded solidly in tonality. Dense motivic work and thematic thinking underlie his compositions. Englund favoured the established genres symphony, concerto, sonata and also cultivated traditional forms in the individual movements of his works.

Englund was an accomplished pianist, and often moulded his material at the piano. “I play through my material hundreds of times to tes t it for its fatigue point. Only if the musical idea retains its original freshness despite wear is it worth keeping”, he has said. It is not surprising that the efficient use of instruments and unaffected expression were his guiding principles.


The war was generally perceived as the work’s psychological background, echoed in the heavy tread of march rhythms and the desolate melancholy of the slow movement. The composer, however, later rejected the epithet War Symphony, preferring to characterize the work as “the joyous shout of a young man who survived the war”. [Kimmo Korhonen (1995)]