Male chauvinist language

Giovanni De Sio Cesari


A movement is spreading on both sides of the Atlantic that aims to extensively modify our common language because it is considered sexist, leading to the formation of a way of thinking that discriminates against women, placing them in a secondary position compared to men. For example, according to a recent document from the Municipality of Bologna, one should "not use the words 'man' and 'men' in a universal sense, but prefer, depending on the context, 'human beings,' 'people,' 'population,' or 'women and men,' alternated with 'men and women,' so as not to always place the masculine before the feminine. And furthermore, it is necessary to use the feminine form when the position is occupied by a woman, so use 'mayor' or 'mayoress,' 'councilor' or 'councilwoman,' 'president' or 'presidentess.'"

Often, it is suggested to replace masculine and feminine endings with an asterisk or the so-called schwa (a symbol representing a reversed e) in written language.

Now, language is certainly often an implicit judgment and somehow shapes our way of thinking. For example, if I refer to a woman who has sex with anyone with the term "whore," it is different than if I say she is a liberated woman without inhibitions. Similarly, the term "sex worker" has been proposed instead of "prostitute."

However, it seems to us that in this movement, not only is there an exaggeration introducing a linguistically artificial complication, but ultimately, it is counterproductive in the sense that it ends up discriminating rather than including women.

Let's examine the problem. In common language, a word can mean an infinite number of things depending on the context. It cannot be limited to a single meaning, as is the case, for example, in computer science and generally in scientific language. If I say that you are a "man," depending on the context, it can mean that you are different from animals, that you are male, that you are very virile, that you have weaknesses, that you are strong, that you have consciousness, and whatever else I mean by the model of a man.

Note that for objects, masculine and feminine genders in Italian, as in general in European languages, are purely conventional and do not refer to gender. War is feminine, conflict is masculine, just as pistol is feminine, and rifle is masculine; the sun is masculine, the moon is feminine; no reference to gender, which obviously does not exist in things.

For animals, the species is commonly indicated with random gender: for example, the mosquito is feminine, the spider is masculine. Only sometimes are there terms that indicate gender: the horse and the mare, the dog and the bitch. Often, gender is simply added: male antelope and female antelope.

For humans, the term "man" indicates both the male of the species and the species as a whole, males and females. If I say that only a man can be a father, I indicate a male of the human species; if I say that man is rational, I indicate the entire species, men and women. The same goes for roles: with professors, workers, employees, the category is indicated including both males and females.

Now, it seems to us that distinguishing between man and woman in language means making a differentiation between the two genders, as is done in traditional dancing by saying ladies and gentlemen, because the two sexes in this particular case have different functions. Now, if we distinguish between 'employees' and 'female employees,' professors and 'female professors,' we are indeed making a difference (as in dancing) and not emphasizing equality.

It is not at all true that the term "man" or "professors" discriminates against women; on the contrary, distinguishing between the two sexes creates a difference, an inequality that is intended to be overcome. If men and women are different beings, then why should they ever have the same rights, duties, and functions? If, directing a dance, I speak of "ladies and gentlemen," I mean that they have different functions. If I address "professors and female professors," does it mean that they have different functions?

In conclusion, it seems to us that this insistence on distinguishing between men and women in language not only constitutes a complication that is difficult to sustain but, above all, ends up having the opposite effect of what one intends to pursue.