Tech as Pyramid Scheme
July on WAMTNG

Why Inclusive Language Offends

Bette-MidlerBette Midler recently found herself at the centre of a Twitter firestorm after tweeting out her support for Pamela Paul's New York Times article, "The Far Right and Far Left Agree on One Thing: Women Don't Count" (text available here without paywall). Midler's tweet read:

WOMEN OF THE WORLD! We are being stripped of our rights over our bodies, our lives and even of our name! They don’t call us "women" anymore; they call us "birthing people" or "menstruators", and even "people with vaginas"! Don’t let them erase you! Every human on earth owes you!

Predictably this did not go down well on Twitter, where 'inclusive language' is beyond de rigueur. Those who do not accept the requisite interpretation of inclusivity are subject to cancellation, harassment, and hatred up to and including death threats. Midler is far from the first woman to have expressed concerns about this new terminology, of course, and she won't be the last. But what is it about this kind of 'inclusive language' that causes offense in so many people...?

To put this together requires us to understand the issue from multiple perspectives. Let's start with the circumstances that led to terms like 'birthing people', 'menstruators', or 'people with vaginas'. As perhaps has become widely known, the idea behind these categories is inclusivity. The logic runs as follows: once you acknowledge the existence of trans men, trans women, and non-binary people, you need terms that will include an acknowledgement of their existence. Since many trans men and certain kinds of non-binary person menstruate, have a vagina, and can give birth, these terms apply to people within these categories as well as women conventionally conceived (now termed 'natal' or 'cis' women, according to your prior political commitments). Hence, inclusive, on the basis that more people are included in the category.

A problem immediately appears, since the campaign to include trans women in the category of 'woman' has its own political slogan - 'trans women are women', about which I have rather cryptically offered my assent by observing likewise that 'dwarf planets are planets' (a claim, I should stress, I passionately support). But can you now spot the problem with 'people with vaginas/menstruators/birthing people'...? To anyone not versed in the small print, it seems as if trans women are women, while natal/cis women are 'people with vaginas'... It is hardly surprising that Bette Midler, Pamela Paul, JK Rowling and - let's not be in denial here - untold numbers of other women are rather annoyed that 'women with penises' are to be called 'women' while they themselves are told they are merely 'people with vaginas'.

It's no good trying to defend this as a matter of medical clarity, since 'people with vaginas' could viably be replaced with 'female' in medical discourse, if this traditional reference to biological sex were not now considered verboten. I do appreciate that someone who has chosen to identify as non-binary does not want to be identified as female or any other classical gender term. Still, it is something of a mystery why, given that circumstance, they would be any happier with being called a 'person with a vagina', since the conventional understanding of that sentence remains logically identical to 'female'. So what we have here is a situation where phrases have been invented not for clarity, but to fulfil a specific interpretation of inclusivity, one in which the assumed political desires of the non-binary and trans communities have been placed above those of women in the classical sense of the term.

The root problem here is that the moral value of diversity, which I spent decades campaigning for in the videogames industry (to absolutely zero impact) has been clumsily supplanted with a rather oddly conceived value of inclusivity. Forget the implied unity of the construction 'Diversity, Equity and Inclusion': these are not three complementary moral values at all. Inclusion, at least in the form currently being practiced, is diametrically opposed to diversity. Diversity is about accepting our myriad ways of being in the world, even those we don't understand. This new form of inclusion is about grouping together, and could not be further from the openness to difference that characterises diversity.

Grouping together denies diversity. When you talk about 'people with vaginas' you are grouping trans men, non-binary people, and classical women into a single group regardless of whether any or all of these people want to be grouped in this way. I think it is abundantly clear that there are plenty of women (including Bette Midler) who are offended at being reduced to their biological functions in this manner, and to suggest that they should just shut up and accept it is inevitably and unavoidably offensive. To deny this is to open yourself up to entirely plausible accusations of misogyny, and at this time we are all being offered an absurd choice between transphobia or misogyny - what a dreadful mess!

Perhaps it will help throw some illumination upon this issue to show why attempts to combine diverse groups under a single category always carries a severe risk of offense. We only have to consider in the first case the ludicrous attempt to combine Latinos and Latinas into 'Latinx', purportedly a 'gender-neutral' way of referring to the Hispanic community. But absolutely nobody considers themselves 'Latinx', which is a product of the inclusivity nonsense that once again is manifestly insulting to the people it is attempting to 'include'. To Spanish-speaking community, 'Latino' was already inclusive, being both male and neuter. No clunky new word was required, and certainly not one forced upon them by arrogant English-speakers who were not in any way open to the actual diversity of Latino experiences.

We can take this absurdity further. Imagine combining atheists and theists into a single category called 'God-opinion-holders', or grouping Muslims and Jews as 'pork-avoiders'. For that matter, imagine suggesting we replace 'human' with an alternative description that is dryly factual but blatantly offensive, like 'anus-havers'. Why would anyone want to be called an 'anus-haver'...? Likewise, why would any woman want to be called a 'person with a vagina' when they could instead be called female or a woman? Communities that are demanding the unprecedented social privilege of choosing their own pronouns are in no position to argue that other people ought to accept membership of categories whose names they detest.

This is the not-so-secret secret of the offensiveness of 'inclusive language'. However noble its motivation might be, it plays out as forcing values upon others against their will, and this cultural violence is papered over by claiming that it's 'inclusive' because it focuses attention upon a minority. Yet how inclusive can it be when the assumed political and emotional needs of the few are being used to overrule those of the many...? This entire rhetoric strains the meaning of inclusivity beyond the point of absurdity! If we cannot come together in the peaceful co-existence made possible by a mutual cultural disarmament, we cannot come together at all. No amount of 'inclusive' language is going to do anything but perpetually block the path to peace.

It cannot be avoided any longer: it is implausible to support diversity and also support inclusivity on these kinds of blunt terms. You must choose which of these values matters to you, for you cannot have both. Is it the freedom of the many to express their manifest uniqueness in terms of their own choosing, or the tyranny of the few who would reconfigure language to forcibly include people within offensive categories they do not wish to belong to? Which is it to be: are we humans living in mutual respect of one another's differences? Or are we just oh-so-many anus-havers...?


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Your skill in bringing together the essence of the issue and then infusing it with the absurd had me laughing. So thank you for the laugh and for this piece.
We need to push back against the technocrats of language policing and get back to speaking about others as people and humans. We share much more than what makes us different.

Thanks Chris!
I'm glad I succeed at the humour here - it is such a raw issue for many people, I often feel that laughter is the only tool that can crack the façade. This is another of those topics where the 'left' has its heart in the right place, but as-ever is completely incompetent at determining viable solutions. If we actually wanted a form of inclusiveness that was open to diversity, it would not come from, as you say, "technocrats of language policing".

Actually, what we probably need is not attempts to enforce 'inclusiveness', but new forms of encounter. I do not understand - other than conventional human prejudice - why nobody involved in the recent attempts at trans activism cannot see that the way they are going about their purposes are counter-productive. It was ever thus, of course... but it remains depressing.

Ironically, if we were pursuing a sensible approach to acceptance to trans ways of living, we probably ought to have begun with a theology of trans... which would, in fact, have been very, very easy to conduct. But because the 'left' doesn't see the point in theology, it misses the important point: the very people they need to bring around to accepting trans ways of being can still be influenced by theological imagery.

Perhaps this is why the 60s were able to forge successful movements... the 'left' remained 'spiritual but not religious' and thus still had access to a common language for theological exchange which is no longer available. It is notable than the situation in Selma 1965 rallied by calling upon Christians for support... today, nobody on the 'left' would even think to attempt such a thing. Times have certainly changed; the range of available forms of thought may actually have contracted.

Many thanks for your supportive comment!


One thing that has confused me for years about gendered languages such as Spanish is the gender assignation to asexual objects. Consider "Arena" for sand, or "Paso" for pass. Who decided that the sand was female and the pass was male? It probably seems ordinary and unremarkable for someone who has grown up speaking the language, but it immediately raised questions in my head, and I can't see words like "Casablanca" without now thinking "House(female)white(female)". This is not really a comment on inclusivity, I realise, but more a musing on the role of gender in languages other than English, I suppose!

Hey Ben,
Thanks for this thoughtful tangent! I can only speculate, but in the early days of human language, humanity appears to have lived in a set of strictly gendered realities. This didn't necessarily equate to male power over females (although it often did), and some have argued that in the gendered regime women had more power than they did at various points after the gendered regime begin to break down because, for instance, there were spaces that men were forbidden to enter, tools men were not allowed to use etc.

I note also, that this gendered realm did not correspond to sex either - there were cases were you could have a penis and still be part of the woman's world and vice versa. This is a sideline, though, and shouldn't be equated with contemporary trans identities as such, any more than a gay bar in San Francisco tells you anything much about the Spartan army. We love to project continuity between contemporary social concepts backwards, but this is usually just a sort of historical assimilation... it's often better to look at each case in isolation rather than assuming that contemporary categories can be 'sent back in time'.

Anyway, given the historical precedence for these gendered realities, I would speculate that the assignment of gendered terms to words is a hangover of this original gendered world, where words - like tools and spaces - belonged to one world or another. As this gender regime broke down, giving way for the most part to various forms of patriarchal rule, the gendering of words remained as a linguistic artefact, baked into the language.

Of course, I'm only speculating here - and would love to hear from one of the linguists that occasionally drops into Only a Game!

Thanks for commenting!


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