Some Thoughts on Prescribing Inclusive, Non-discriminatory Language

by Bernhard Debatin

We are living in a time of linguistic transformation. Yet, this is not because our times might be particularly stormy, even though one could assume that, given the impact of climate crisis, pandemic, increasingly uneven distribution of wealth, and speedy development of disruptive technologies. Rather, the issue is that language is constantly changing. And here, just as in many other areas of society, Ernst Bloch‘s dictum of the synchronicity of the asynchronous holds true. Not only is language changing, the change also occurs in a way that new forms of language will be accepted and familiarized in some areas of society, while it may take much longer in other areas.

There‘s no doubt that this is the case, too, with the question of whether and how gender-sensitive language should be practiced. This is why any debate that simply pits the pros and cons against each other, regardless of how prominent the supporters of each side might be, fails to address the real issue. Fact is: gender-sensitive language has found its way into most areas of society. But it is also true that it is not supported by everybody and that some are even vehemently fighting against any kind of gender-inclusive language.

This resistance is usually justified with three main arguments: First, there is protest against intervening in language because people feel language should not be regulated. Second, gendered language is often dismissed as ugly or cumbersome. And finally, from a quasi value-conservative position, some people conjure up the need for protecting our language.

Starting with the latter, we first need to ask, which language might be meant, as there is no fixed standard form or even original form that we could refer to. Not too long ago, children in Germany were supposed to address their parents with the honorific second and third person plural (»Euch« or »Sie«). And it is not even that long ago that class distinctions had to be communicated by the use of specific titles.

Is that the linguistic form that we‘re supposed to protect? Or might it be what could be called the »pre-gendered« contemporary language? But what distinguishes a (however determined) contemporary language from those before and after? Actually, only habit and preference, but these are both not very convincing justifications.

Also, let‘s not forget that linguistic change is always a reflection of societal change. Patterns of force and power relationships that are deeply entrenched in society are always expressed in language, too. And when those conditions change, language will change as well, even though often with a certain delay, as the synchronicity of the asynchronous applies here, too. The reference to a language that ought to be protected is thus twice problematic: It fails to recognize the historicity of language and it denies the power structure in obsolete linguistic forms.

The allegation that gendered language be ugly or cumbersome has similar flaws. The question of the aesthetics of a language certainly matters, but when it comes to bureaucratic language or nominal style, this concern has not caused the kind of protests that have accompanied the debate about gendered language from its inception. Bureaucratic acronyms and shorthands, such as the German »BAFöG« (a law regulating student loan) or »Hartz 4« (the German labor market and unemployment reform law, named after the committee chairman), are not particularly beautiful. Bureaucratic and technical language also tend to be cumbersome, but they are part of our language and also reflect specific societal realities and practices.

Admittedly, there‘s always a point where such linguistic forms become peculiar or even hard to understand. A great example would be the term »geflügelte Jahresendfigur« (winged end-of-they-year-figurine instead of angel, as a Christmas tree ornament), an ironic neologism crafted to satirize the official language regime in the former German Democratic Republic. And of course, one could find such peculiarities in some attempts to establish gender-neutral language, too, if one only looks long enough. But this should not lead us to treating exceptions as the rule. Beauty and clarity are crucial criteria for the evaluation of language, particularly in journalism, but they must not be absolute exclusion criteria. And that even more so, when double standards are applied: what‘s perfectly acceptable in other areas of language, appears to be forbidden for gender-sensitive language.

Let‘s move on to the issue of intervening in language. First, one has to concede that regulation of and intervention in language and its use are no rarity. Some of it is even legally regulated, including certain aspects of gender-neutral language. Although many German legal texts still predominantly use the generic masculine, the Handbuch der Rechtsförmlichkeit (Handbook of Legal Formalization), edited by the German federal ministry of law, strongly recommends gender-neutral terms for individuals, as well as alternative phrasing and double designations (i.e., explicitly naming the female form, usually indicated by a noun‘s ending with -in). And on the level of the German Länder (States), but also in some areas such as employment laws, there are clearly prescribed linguistic forms in order to prevent gender-specific discrimination. In addition, there are also many informal linguistic conventions in all sorts of areas, such as politics and a variety of societal groups.

And for editors, regardless of whether it‘s a journalistic or academic publication, the question also arises, which style and linguistic rules and norms should be imposed on authors and used when editing texts. Indeed, it is part of the editors‘ privilege that they can set standards and guidelines for the language used in their publication. Consequently, the respective style sheets and editing rules for authors do not only include rules for citation and format of submissions, but also details about which forms of inclusive language are expected. Moreover, editors always intervene in the authors‘ texts, as that is the very nature of editing. The spectrum of such interventions reaches from minimal corrections, such as adjusting punctuation and citation style, and shortening or rearranging of sentences or smoothing stylistic inconsistencies, to changing of unfortunate word choice or ambiguous expressions. The latter would include adjusting a text to gender-neutral linguistic standards.

Opponents of gender-sensitive regulations will now object that editing work should be purely formal, while prescribing gender-sensitive language changes the content and thus would violate the decision autonomy of authors. This objection, however, ignores the fact that editing is never only dealing with »neutral« language that only needs formal editing. Language is never neutral but always also a reflection of societal power relations. For instance, we would also intervene (at least I hope we would!) if an author were constantly using passive constructions. And this would not simply be a formal question of good style (following the rule that active language sounds better), but an issue of content, too: Passive constructions make the agent disappear and therefore veil responsibilities and causes. In Critical Discourse Analysis, this issue is known as actor deletion. Thus, there are first and foremost content-related reasons that speak against the use of passive constructions.

Exactly the same mechanism is at work when it comes to using the generic masculine. This has been studied for decades by now and we will hardly need to get into an argument about that. The suggestion that women are implicitly also meant with the generic masculine is not only a degradation of women to second class status, it is also effectively a de-naming (»Entnennung«), a removal of the woman as a recognizably acting agent from language. Generally, this choice of language genders all actors as male, while female actors only appear if one specifically and only refers to women. In other words, what‘s happening here is gender-specific actor deletion.

In addition, we should also consider that the generic masculine, even if meant to include women, can always be reinterpreted as masculine only, for purposes of power. From German history, we know that this was exactly used during the National Socialism to exclude women from the legal profession. The argument was that term »der Richter« (the generic masculinum for »judge«) clearly referred to a male person. The problem of anything that is implicitly expressed is that it is a tacit allusion only, which can easily be ignored and denied, which then has, as the example of the Nazis shows, massive consequences for the societal reality of women.

All in all, the point here is to make clear that the opponents of gender-sensitive language apply double standards, because the editorial intervention in other cases of author deletion appears to be unproblematic. But when it comes to gender-inclusive language, then the authors‘ decision autonomy is suddenly invoked and the objection that such standards would exclude or discriminate against these authors.

The exclusion argument is particularly interesting. Let‘s remember that the request for gender-neutral language is nothing but the insistence on inclusive language. After all, using the generic masculine means excluding half of the population by making them invisible. This is very effective, because it is deeply rooted in the structure of language, deep enough that it appears quasi-natural and that it can be talked up as the core of language that is worth protecting. As Roland Barthes and others have shown, this naturalization neutralizes and mythologizes power relationships and renders them invisible. Long time ago, the term »structural violence« was introduced for phenomena like this. And the paternalistic apology, »but they are implicitly meant,« only makes this type of violence even more clear.

In light of this, the allegation that prescribing gender-sensitive language is creating an unacceptable regulation because it compels the authors into submission or excludes them, seems almost amusing, but at a minimum paradoxical: After all, insisting on continuing to use exclusive language is justified by stating that prescribing inclusive language were to exclude those who use exclusive language. In addition, this alleged exclusion is rather harmless, as it is easy to remedy, by simply adopting inclusive language.

In the end, this is all about imposing one‘s standards on others, and the question of which imposition is more painful. Are we as editors allowed to impose our standards on the authors, standards they may deem inacceptable? Or, should authors be allowed to impose their gender-exclusive language (and the implied messages) on the editors of a publication and its readers?

At this point, it makes sense to remember what the main issue at hand actually is: After all, the request for gender-inclusive language is not simply some sort of an expression of disapproval or a complaint about bad taste. And it is also not an issue of personal concern. Rather, it is about basic human rights, such as equality and dignity, just as it is the case with sexism in general other forms of exclusive and discriminatory language. The exclusive generic masculine is not merely a stylistic nuisance – instead, it communicates a concept of the human being that paints women as second class, which is hardly reconcilable with the idea of dignity. And it supports a value and power hierarchy that is in opposition to the (still insufficiently realized) equality of women in our society. Making women invisible by means of the generic masculine entrenches and perpetuates these power structures.

For this reason alone, it is not only allowed but also ethically required for editors to create binding standards that prescribe inclusive and non-discriminatory language. Those who believe that this is too much pressure, may be reminded that ultimately, any and every editorial standard exerts some pressure. There could be writers who may want to capitalize every word, or who think that citation rules are superfluous, or who hate the 1996 German spelling reform and would rather follow the standard that was introduced in 1944. Here, too, one could conceptualize editorial standards as an intervention in the authors‘ decision autonomy. And here, too, the editors would obviously draw on the editors‘ privilege, which means that the editors define the standard that is binding for the publication.

Therefore, I hold the view that the imposition of subjugating oneself to the linguistic standards of a publication is, so to speak, part of the language game of publishing. Indeed, it would be absurd if authors were to expect that only their own standard applies. And, of course, it is also always up to the author to publish their works elsewhere. This, too, is usual practice, because authors always have to figure out, which publication is best for their intents and purposes. For example, one needs to know if a particular journal finds enough readers, whether it targets the right audience, whether one likes the orientation of this journal, with regard to both its content and its methodological direction, and not least, whether one agrees with its linguistic standards.

From my point of view, it would not only desirable, but ethically required (as explained above) that our journal Journalism Research adopts an appropriate, binding linguistic standard. This could look like as follows:

We use inclusive language and avoid forms of language that exclude certain groups, make them invisible, or denigrate them. In addition to avoiding racist, sexist, and otherwise discriminating language, this also entails in particular the active usage of gender-sensitive and non-xenophobic language.

This, then, could be operationalized in the following way:

Gender-sensitive language can be realized in a variety of ways, for instance by naming both genders (rather than the generic masculine), by using gender-neutral expressions, the capitalized »I« (which creates a both masculine and generic feminine word, as in »RichterIn«), or gender star or gender gap. We deem insufficient the blanket reference that the usage of (generic) masculine forms includes both genders.

Non-xenophobic language means that discriminating generalizations and stereotyping of specific groups are to be avoided. For instance, naming a person‘s nationality of skin color should have actual informational value. Information that only fosters the formation of prejudice should be avoided, for instance when assuming supremacy due to biological, ethnic, or geographic origin.

This standard offers a broad and flexible framework as a guideline for authors. At the same time, it allows editors to operate with a clear standard. Thus, they don‘t have to face authors‘ protests with every little change of non-inclusive language, which could easily happen if one failed to make these expectations explicit in form of a binding linguistic standard.

A final argument should be considered, too: With the project of this journal Journalism Research, we have embarked on the attempt to provide a bilingual journal in order to overcome linguistic barriers of reception in the Anglo-American market. The usage of inclusive language in Anglo-American academic publications is an unquestioned standard nowadays. A misguided understanding of tolerance toward stubborn opponents of gender-inclusive language would do us no favor with regard to the attempt of overcoming such reception barriers.

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Bernhard Debatin: Some Thoughts on Prescribing Inclusive, Non-discriminatory Language. . In: Journalistik, Vol. 3 (1), 2020, pp. 70-75



First published online

June 2020