Pronoun tantrum in Philosophia Mathematica book review

Thanks to reader R for pointing out the following passage from a recent book review in Philosophia Mathematica, an OUP journal.

“The author constantly uses the pronouns ‘her’ and ‘she’ in a gender-neutral setting. This juvenile affectation seems now to be de rigueur among male academic writers. I wonder if it helps them attract women or if it just makes them feel like cool dudes. Maybe they simply enjoy offending people, pour épater les bourgeois.”

I will not tag the book being reviewed, since it is not the book author’s fault that the reviewer has included this bizarre sexist outburst, nor that the editorial process allowed it to be published.

23 thoughts on “Pronoun tantrum in Philosophia Mathematica book review

  1. FYI, I’ve taken the liberty of writing to the journal editor to point this paragraph out and request that, since it adds nothing of value to the review, it be deleted when the piece is assigned to an issue.

  2. Juvenile affectation? Did an editor actually read this and think, yes, that’s some quality review content right there?

  3. I am disappointed to read this in an OUP journal. OUP has been more or less academic philosophy’s most respected publisher for some time. One would hope to see standards raised by OUP, not lowered.

  4. Embarrassing.

    Maybe this is a good time and place to mention that the American Dialect Society voted singular ‘they’ as their Word of the Year.
    ADS members know, of course, that singular ‘they’ is not new at all. But ‘voters in the Word of the Year proceedings singled out its newer usage as an identifier for someone who may identify as “non-binary” in gender terms.’

    And Ben Zimmer notes that although there have been a number of attempts to introduce unmarked pronouns into English (and other languages), ‘they’ has the advantage of “already being a part of the language.”

  5. This reviewer wrote a critical and uncharitable comment on the motives of those who use ‘she’ for an unknown person, and is therefore being criticized with harsh words.

    Should someone receive equal criticism using the same or similar words if he or she writes a critical and uncharitable comment on the motives of those who use ‘he’ for an unknown person? Because I’ve seen many people criticize the users of singular ‘he’, and there’s been no moral outrage directed against such critics.

  6. Jamie, agreed that it is an excellent time to mention that singular-‘they’ is not new and is the ADS Word of the Year. But I’m dismayed at the exceptional uncharitability expressed by the quoted reviewer, regarding why one might use ‘she’ and ‘her’ in a “gender neutral” setting. “Maybe they just enjoy offending people” is at least amusingly ironic in a passage that seems quite clearly dedicated to offending people.

    Perhaps we ought to run a post explaining, if such an explanation needs to be re-offered in 2016, why an author might deliberately use ‘she’ and ‘her’ in academic writing.

  7. Anonymous– I have never seen or heard criticism of singular ‘he’ that takes the sort of mocking tone used in this book review, even in casual conversation. (Or on blogs, amazingly.) Moreover *it’s a review*– this sort of thing should have been edited out.

  8. JennySaul: so if a reviewer criticizes a book or article for using masculine pronouns in gender-indeterminate cases, and on top of that uses an inflammatory term like ‘sexist’ to describe that practice, that should be edited out of the review also, just as you recommend in this case where the sexes are reversed?

  9. Anon– It depends very much. If the reviewer gives a cogent argument for the presence of sexism and steers clear of irrelevant and unsupported ad hominem attacks and mockery, then there’s no problem with publishing it. But then it would look nothing whatsoever like this review.

    We won’t be publishing any more comments on gender-reversed parallel cases, by the way. They’re never actually going to be parallel due to reasons that will be very familiar to the intended readership of this blog. Those unfamiliar with the reasons for using ‘she’ as gender-neutral pronoun might want to have look at my intro text _Feminism: Issues and Arguments_. Those unfamiliar with the general idea of the situation of men and women in our culture is not parallel should probably do quite a bit of reading around in feminism. The SEP entries are a good place to start.

  10. Hi Jenny, having written the discussion you refer to, let me just clarify one thing: I would have no problems with an editor intervening in such a case, and I wouldn’t take it to be bad censorship. But for several reasons, I preferred to stay neutral on that in my comment (I tried to make that clear by saying that I do not know where to draw the line of what counts as censorship – of course, I have views on that). One reason is that I just didn’t want to be confrontational here. I think it would indeed be very good if now that the damage is already done (the review is published, at least online, and passed the editorial board), the editors use the opportunity to say something about it in retrospect, and hopefully something helpful for the future. And I thought the suggestion might have bigger chances of being heard if it is put in a rather non-confrontational manner (I also sent my post to a member of the editorial team).

  11. Maybe the thinking behind the editorial decision not to intervene was to take a non-paternalistic stance: if the author really wants to write this, let the world know that he is the kind of person who would.

  12. Hold on, some do find the use of ‘she’ in such cases genuinely inappropriate. Its use today is too frequently a speaker/writer’s empty posturing about themselves and their openness, For example, it can sound rather awful when, as the reviewer says, some young man talking in a completely gender neutral context uses ‘she’ to make *himself* appear sensitive when there is nevertheless no connection to his topic and no other ready evidence that he is in fact sensitive. Another example: its’s awful when men use the pronoun ‘she’ to make themselves appear sensitive when there is demonstrable evidence against it, as eg when those same men sit on hiring committees which fail year after year to hire women, or on tenure committees which don’t grant tenure to women. One colleague told me he finds the use of ‘she’ very grating when it’s from any male New Zealand philosopher who had been involved in the nation’s decade of exclusively male hiring. And I certainly can imagine finding the pronoun’s use ‘off’ in, say, a book on logic written by a young man. We don’t need guys thinking that using ‘she’ is some sort of free pass, that its use marks or, worse, extinguishes their social duty. But a lot of guys DO use it this way.

  13. Adriane: it’s worth noting that your cases and reasons seem quite different from those in the review. The review author did not seem to be concerned about whether the book author had a genuine commitment to feminism.

  14. David Gauthier’s Morals By Agreement, published thirty years ago, used a random selection of pronoun genders for sentences in which he wanted an unmarked or generic pronoun. My understanding (I never knew him) is that Gauthier was not particularly sensitive about women’s issues or sexism, but it struck me when I read it that it was a good idea. He credits Clark Glymour with suggesting it.
    Jan Narveson did something similar in his book a couple of years later. I wonder if there was a libertarian connection? Jason Brennan reports that his use of feminine pronouns was treated with hostile and clueless sarcasm at an author-meets-critics session, so that’s another libertarian data point.

    Yesterday at Language Log Mark Liberman quoted an article from The Guardian on a new bra-sizing app:

    The sizing technology works via an iPhone app. To use it, a woman must take two pictures of themselves while wearing a tight fitted top in front of a mirror.

    Hm, yes, well, I leave it to you all to comment on the app! Lieberman was interested in “themselves”, which struck him as an odd choice.

  15. AdrianeRini, I agree with you that some find using “she” in examples or as an inclusive pronoun grating, and I realize one can be annoyed (by many things). An editors can’t prevent reviewers from having feelings or attitudes. But we should all have to do better than this when we write a review in an OUP journal, a book review of the work of a professional who must have worked months if not years on a monograph. The uncharitability of the excerpt above, combined with the trivializing disrespect for what should be known to be a well-established practice of deliberate pronoun reversal, stinks. I do not understand reading the above and thinking that it is not uncharitable to the point of irrelevance to the review. I would think a good journal with a reputable publisher would have set standards regarding the purposes and points of a book review. I can’t imagine the parameters that are met by the kind of snide comments selected. If I’m wrong, if book reviews are for the purposes of tossing out insults like the above, then the rest of us are working way too hard to actually write book reviews with accuracy and constructive criticism.
    Anonymous: A reviewer’s giving reasons for thinking that a pseudo-universal use of “he” may be sexist is not parallel, because reasons. Here is a place to start reading up on those reasons, and after reading the entry, one can move on to reading the works cited, just for starters: http://plato.stanford.edu/entries/feminism-language/

  16. I would like to add to AdrianeRini’s comment that I have seen cases of men using the female pronoun in situations where it is almost like disguising inequality, for example when talking about what a presumably representative millionaire or CEO might do in certain situations. Sometimes this was in male dominated online discussions that were frustratingly insensitive to real gender issues. In those circumstances it does seem hypocritical and dishonest.

    It’s similar in some ways to ‘respectable’ anti- feminism – ‘why do we always have to worry about sex and gender? Why can’t we just treat everyone as individuals?’ (Eg don’t make a fuss about the fact that men get paid more than women.)

    On the other hand, parents’ advice books now tend to alternate male and female pronouns (eg chapter with female pronouns followed by chapter with male pronouns) and though I do think ‘they’ is ok in most cases, it would sound a bit wrong when talking about a baby, perhaps (too impersonal?).

  17. Thanks, Valerie Kay and AdrianeRini. Your remarks about hypocritical or insincere uses of gendered pronouns are well-taken. However, I do think it’s worth emphasizing that the sexism and uncollegiality of the passage in question has essentially nothing to do with expressing reservations about the use of ‘her’ and ‘she’ as gender-neutral pronouns, which could be done with intellectual integrity and scholarly care; or at least, with collegiality. Clearly this was not the author’s intent. Instead the author is concerned only to heap derision on the practice, and chooses to show this derision in ways that include invoking women academics as nothing more than the objects or agents of romantic attraction, and positing that such pronoun use is consistent with at once attracting women while offending people. It would over-dignify these crass slurs to speak of presupposition and implicature.

    So the pronoun use itself is not really the issue, I believe. One can appreciate everything that is unprofessional and bigoted about the passage without taking a view on pronouns. That said, I fully agree that no mere revision of linguistic practice is apt to mitigate gender bias or address inequities if it’s embedded in an otherwise unchanged commitment to manifesting those biases or preserving the inequities. In this respect, linguistic practices are like most anything else. Practices that are thought promising because they can be used effectively as part of a broader good-faith attempt to (in some sense) do better are unpromising, ineffective, maybe even counterproductive, when they are used as mere theatre or as a rationale for doing no better.

  18. Seems to me that if one uses “she” hypocritically, the thing to criticize isn’t the use of the word, but the hypocrisy. In other words, I wouldn’t tell the hypocrite to stop using “she,” I’d tell the hypocrite to change the way she* thinks so that her thinking matches her usage.

    *I couldn’t help it!

  19. Several years ago, I wrote a paper which contained a sentence along the lines “If a parent does X, then she should also do Y”. The sentence was – as context made clear – about parents in general, not mothers specifically. I find “he or she” and “they” both clunky, but using “he” all the time problematic and so regularly alternate between “he” and “she” as a singular pronoun. I can see that this practice might be problematic, for some of the reasons outlined above, but it was well-intentioned! I was amazed when the copy-editor of a fairly prestigious journal returned the proofs to me with “parent” corrected to “mother”. I wrote back, explaining that I meant, “parents” in general, and, in reply, received a very long rant that this was a case of political correctness gone mad, and there was no way he was allowing me to publish this sentence (nor even a “they” for “he or she”); either it was “parents…he” or “mothers…she”. I’m not certain whether this adds much to the useful discussion above, but I have spent years wanting to complain about it!

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