Mankind: All of ‘us’?

History Channel, I forgive you so many things, including Pawn Stars, Bomb Hunters, and Shark Wranglers.  But seriously, titling the new series “Mankind: The Story of All of Us“?  I have limits, and one of them is being told, in 2012, that the term “mankind” is all of us, including women and girls.

At times like these, I soothe my cursing, swearing self by turning to the APA Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language:

The generic use of ‘man’ and ‘he’ (and ‘his’, ‘him’, ‘himself’) is commonly considered gender-neutral. The case against the generic use of these terms does not rest on rare instances in which they refer ambiguously to ‘male’ or ‘human being’. Rather, every occurrence of their generic use is problematic.

First, Janice Moulton persuasively argues, in “The Myth of the Neutral ‘Man'” (in Vetterling-Braggin, 1981, pp. 100-115; revised from Vetterling-Braggin, et al, 1977, pp. 124-37), that ‘he’ and ‘man’ used generically are really not gender-neutral terms at all. (‘Person’ and ‘human’ are genuinely gender-neutral.) As evidence, Moulton offers many examples of statements in which ‘man’ and ‘he’ unambiguously refer to all humanity, rather than to males alone, yet are false, funny, or insulting. For example, “Some men are female” is irredeemably odd, while “Some human beings are female” is fine. Similarly, “Each applicant is to list the name of his husband or wife” is odd; and even using “his spouse” disquiets more than using “his or her spouse.”

Second, empirical evidence supports Moulton’s claim that regardless of the author’s intention the generic ‘man’ is not interpreted gender neutrally. Casey Miller and Kate Swift (1976) cite a study in which college students chose pictures to illustrate chapters of a sociology textbook. Those with chapters entitled “Society,” “Industrial Life,” and “Political Behavior” tended to select pictures of both females and males. However, when the same chapters were named “Social Man,” “Industrial Man,” and “Political Man,” students of both sexes tended to select pictures of males only. With some chapters the differences [between the two groups] reached magnitudes of 30 to 40 percent. The authors concluded, “This is rather convincing evidence that when you use the word man generically, people do tend to think male, and tend not to think female” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 21). This study also finds that the generic ‘man’ leaves out more than women: “As the image of capitalist, playboy, and hard hat are called forth by the word ‘man’, so is the other side of the coin called forth by ‘behavior’ or ‘life’–women, children, minorities, dissent and protest” (Miller and Swift, 1976, p. 23).

Third, using the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ is problematic because it often leads us to omit the distinctive elements of female experience and behavior. For example, a sentence beginning, “If a student is conscientious, he is probably a good . . . ,” will likely be ended with “son”–even though “good son,” “good daughter,” and “good child” connote different things. If the sentence had begun, “A conscientious student is probably a good . . . ,” a likely finale would be “son or daughter” or “child.”

In sum, there are convincing reasons, both empirical and conceptual, for avoiding the generic ‘he’ and ‘man’ and for specifically including females. Hence, it is inadequate to state in an opening footnote that, for the remainder of the letter, article or book, ‘he’ shall stand for ‘he or she’ and ‘man’ for all humanity. What authors intend is not the issue. Good intentions not carried through are not good enough.

22 thoughts on “Mankind: All of ‘us’?

  1. I’m not remotely in favor of using ‘man’ or ‘he’ generically, but I don’t think these arguments are very strong in terms of whether it was ever genuinely semantically gender-neutral. The first argument is basically that, when you know the gender of the person, you would use the correct gendered pronoun or term and not the gender-neutral one. But all that shows is that you don’t use gender-neutral terms when you know the gender of the person. I’m of the generation that grew up never feeling ‘he’ as legitimately applying to women or girls, but ‘man’ always seemed ambiguous to me between “humanity” and “males”. I don’t like the situation where a term that can be purely masculine can also be used to refer to all of humanity, but it’s not because I think it’s not really gender-neutral when being used to refer to all of humanity. It seems to me that it is, in the mouths of those who use it that way. I think the case can be made more easily that there’s an ambiguity in the gender reference of these terms (in the older use that strikes me as not being part of the dialect of English that I learned), and that ambiguity calls to mind maleness in the gender-neutral cases because of the other meaning that isn’t gender-neutral, which leads to pragmatic principles guiding our use of these terms to prevent the occurrence of a gender-neutral usage in the presence of terms indicating gender or when the speaker knows the gender of the person or people being referred to. It strikes me that there is a gender-neutral usage that is indeed semantically gender-neutral, at any rate. French and many other languages use gender endings in ways that don’t correspond to any notion of gender. They simply serve a grammatical purpose. There are plenty of ancient Greek and Latin endings that have grammatical gender not lining up with actual gender (or any gender at all). So these arguments should probably be taken as getting at some social phenomenon other than semantics.

  2. This post got me trying to think of possible counterexamples (cases where the generic “he” are not problematic). How about:

    “If someone is a good nurse, he is probably compassionate and empathetic.”

  3. On “Mankind”, my favorite philosopher had the right thought, I think.

    “To understand mankind, we must understand the words it’s made up of, “Mank” and “ind”. Nobody knows what those words mean, and that’s why mankind is a mystery.”

    (I know that’s not really to the point of the post, and I’m sorry for that, but I can’t help thinking of this whenever I hear someone talk about mankind.)

  4. Jeremy Pierce, you say, “But all that shows is that you don’t use gender-neutral terms when you know the gender of the person.” I agree, that’s what it shows, which is why it is so wrong for the History Channel to refer to all of humankind as “mankind.” In the case of {all of humankind}, the set of all genders is necessarily included. Therefore, we know the gender of the persons so referred.

    I am missing something, perhaps, about why you offer that first criticism? Or is it that the knowledge of the gender of all referents is actually irrelevant for the connotation-related reason you list second, that “‘man’ always seemed ambiguous to me between ‘humanity’ and ‘males'”? But this second point seems question-begging, or maybe I mean question-precluding, since it proceeds from the very point that the policy takes to be disputable, namely, that seeming ambiguity should not be taken for granted.

  5. I should have been more precise. What I meant is that the rule I think is operating is that you don’t use gender-neutrals when speaking of particular people whose gender you know or when speaking of groups that are overwhelmingly non-male. The point of this particular grammatical category seems to be for gender-unspecified people or for groups that include less than an overwhelming majority of non-male people. That strikes me as how they are used, anyway. And the evidence being presented about which situations would never get the use of these expressions seems to me to fit with that rule, not to contradict it.

    At any rate, I don’t think it’s correct anymore. I don’t think English operates with these expressions as gender-neutral at this time, and therefore the current rule is that you don’t use ‘mankind’ at all unless distinguishing the male kind from womankind. But I do think the category of a gender-specific term that can also be used in a gendered way is grammatically coherent and, as far as I can tell, was in fact the case about English during the time of, say, J.R.R. Tolkien. There might certainly be sexist things going on in how it’s heard and what’s assumed, but I think that would be so with any gender-neutral term, not just the ones that also have gendered uses. That it occurs in higher proportion with these might reflect (1) the language has changed, and we really can’t hear the gender-neutral use anymore the way it used to be taken all the time and (2) the ambiguity even during the time this use was going on leads to bleed-over in psychological effects that don’t operate directly on the semantic level. This is at least consistent with all the examples I’m aware of.

  6. Even though I point out to my students that “mankind” is no longer the word of choice in academic philosophical writing, I feel a bit weird about harping on this when I see TOP JOURNALISTS using the damn term all over the place. But seriously, such an ambiguous, slanted, anachronistic term to use when we have “humanity.”

    I wonder if I should just start telling students, “You know who LOVED using the term “mankind”? Hitler.”
    (I have no idea if that’s true or not.)

  7. Sorry to nitpick on an otherwise great post, but this just bugged me to pieces: why use “male” and “female” as nouns? I know it’s becoming vogue to do so (especially to refer to women as such), but traditionally, I think, the terms are only used as nouns when referring to non-human animals (eg, the females of the group, herd, species, etc). Thus, whenever I hear females when referencing women, my immediate association is chattel.

    Thoughts, anyone?

  8. Bets, I find that especially annoying too, but I wonder if the motivation behind it is well-meaning. It’s an attempt to have a term covering women and girls without calling women girls and without adding adulthood to girls, and without calling them guys either (which some women are all right with but some are not, which I can understand). I think it’s also something that originated among people at the high school or college level, where the transition into adulthood leaves all manner of awkwardness in how to refer to people. At least that’s the context where I first saw this transition, and I’ve seen it spread as that generation left college and went out into the real world. Even so, I found it very annoying when I first noticed this trend, and I’m not sure I find it less so now, pretty much for the reasons you give. It’s similar to one of the problems with ‘oriental’ for Asians, which, among other problems, sounds like its supposed to refer to inanimate objects like rugs and vases.

  9. Thanks for the link to Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language. I am sick to death of being referred to as ‘Mrs’ over the phone by representatives of companies who only have my first name and surname. The vast majority of these callers find my reaction irritating and confusing. Some hang up. Some take offence and argue with me and a small minority express enlightenment by saying “Oh, I didn’t realise that!” I live daily hope that this minority will eventually form part of the majority, however, I have to admit that I’m not exactly diplomatic! Here is the content of what I say. ‘Surely I don’t have to be married to buy your product. Why do you assume that I’m married? In doing so, you have assumed that I have signed a legal document with another human being. No doubt, you have also assumed that I am heterosexual since the vast majority of marriages are between men and women. Assuming that I am heterosexual is the same as me assuming that you are gay.’ If they haven’t hung up by now, they often say: “OK, shall I call you ‘Miss’?” My response to this term is to say: ‘I’ve never missed a trick in my life!’ If they still haven’t hung up, I go to the next stage and tell them about the history of the terms ‘Mrs’ and ‘Miss’. ‘Men are referred to as ‘Mr’ from the day they are born to the day they die. The historical meaning of the term ‘Mrs’ (in the Western world) meant that a woman was the property of a man and was no longer available for personal relationships with other men. Not so long ago women couldn’t inherit property and faced similar problems to the Bennett daughters in Pride and Prejudice. The term ‘Miss’ meant that you had been missed out and that you were available. We are now living in the 21st century and 50% of the population is forced to adopt a title which indicates their marital status while the other 50% of the population don’t. The Home Office is currently conducting a consultation into Women’s Equality and Women and Work. Isn’t it about time that part of the Equalities Act included a small section which states that no titles other than the term ‘Ms’ can be used to refer to persons of the female gender. Companies tell me that they refer to all women as ‘Mrs’ in case they cause offence. Well I’m an unmarried woman who is offended every time I am referred to as ‘Mrs’! These companies imply that it is married women who are preventing the use of non-sexist language. They would soon change their tune if millions of women told them that they would no longer buy their product until they informed all their staff about the non-sexist use of language. P.S. I consider this to be more of a sociological/economic issue.

  10. @Bets:

    The use of ‘male’ and ‘female’ as nouns is hardly new or political usage. Consider: “The male of the species.”

    More generally, I really think the point at which using gender-specific terms to reference all humans – in first world countries – is so far distant in acceptability that any TV program presenting the story of humans/humanity as the story of ‘mankind’ deserves to be called out.

  11. I was so happy to see that I was not the only one cussing at the tv when the commercial for this came on….thank you all for reminding me that there ARE other people who notice these things and take issue with them.

  12. The document that you provided a link to states: “Eliminate sexism when addressing persons formally by:
    using ‘Ms’ instead of ‘Miss’ or ‘Mrs.’, even when a woman’s marital status is known.” I’d like to know how many of you (UK) feminist philosophers would like to do something practical to get rid of the titles ‘Miss’ and ‘Mrs’? I contacted the Equality & Human Rights Commission and was told how to go about changing UK legislation in order to bring this about? Apparently they have never been contacted about this issue before.

  13. I’m an ordinary mother, and I am SO angry at the History Channel for condoning the ridiculous use of the term ‘mankind’. I told my clever eight year old daughter that we were to watch a documentary about the history of the worl. As soon as we turned it on, she said, Oh I’m not watching this, My brother can watch it, it is a history OF BOYS and it is FOR BOYS. The term is as infuriatingly outdated and condescending as addressing a woman as Mrs ‘Husband’s Name’. We are not forced to quit our jobs any more, we are ‘allowed’ in to university (and doing quite well, just quietly) and we are ‘allowed’ to borrow money for a business, home, whatever, in our own names. Calling humanity ‘mankind’ is akin to saying that ‘white’ as a term also covers ‘black’. It is offensive and ridiculous. I was stunned that the courtesy of a title change to ‘Humanity’ was not considered. WHY?

  14. Many people misunderstood the origin of the term “man”.
    The fact is, in old English, males were called “werman” and females “wyfman”. “Man” was gender neutral, and has been in use in our language to describe people, in general, since that time.

Comments are closed.