May 27, 2020
Created seventy-five years ago this October, the United Nations was hailed as “the last, best hope for peace,” a moniker that proved neither true nor possible (though, as I once heard a former Israeli special forces guy put it, “no one ‘monitors’ better”). A recent tweet reveals how the organization’s goal has been expanded to include the ever-elusive “equality.”
“Help create a more equal world,” said the Tweet, “by using gender-neutral language, if you're unsure about someone's gender or are referring to a group.” As part of the “System-Wide Strategy on Gender Parity,” UN employees are being encouraged to speak and write in ways “that [do] not discriminate against a particular sex, social gender or gender identity.”
Of course, some of the strategy suggestions, such as using “humanity” instead of “Mankind” or “police officer” instead of “policeman,” are fine. Others are bit more difficult to understand, such as substituting “representative” for “businessman,” as if those words mean the same thing. And then, there are those suggestions that can only be called linguistic nonsense, attempts at retrofitting established languages to an imaginary, genderless world.
Many European languages, such as Spanish and French, are very “gendered.” Every noun is either male, such as “book” or “hat,” or female, such as “table” or “coronavirus.” All previous attempts, especially in France, to de-gender these languages have gone nowhere, not with everyday speakers nor official language-guardians. As one wag put it, attempts to de-gender the language of love “make it look like algebra.”
In the midst of a global pandemic that has killed a few hundred thousand people, unleashed a global recession, and will likely exacerbate food shortages and political instability around the world, one might wonder how this became a United Nations priority. Well, the secular impulse to recreate the world, and the power of language to do just that, is strong. Those pushing for “gender-neutral” language aren’t as concerned with linguistic sense or what now-dead folks like Victor Hugo thought about life and the world, as they are with ridding the world of gender differentiation.
While, as the guidelines suggest, replacing the words “boyfriend” or “girlfriend” with the word “partner” may seem odd but harmless, using a term associated with business instead of gendered relationship words reveal a significant worldview shift: one in which love, marriage, and family are understood as contractual obligations rather than moral or spiritual ones, and in which people love and marry and mate and have children because “it feels good,” not because these things are good in and of themselves.
Individual languages are the products of a group’s particular history and culture--the Inuit of Greenland will describe weather differently than an Amazonian tribe--but every language reflects certain universal realities. There isn’t a known language without words for “foot” or “hand” or “head.” Though some languages are not as gendered as others, in the sense that not every object is assigned a gender or a gendered article, no language in the world is without words to describe sexual differences. Every language has words for male and female. Though gender roles differ from culture to culture, the underlying biological realities that make male and female remain the same.
The Scripture describe God’s words as creating the universe ex nihilo, out of nothing. As His image bearers, our words also have incredible power, to describe reality and even, in a sense, create. But we don’t create ex nihilo. Our words are confined within the world God created.
Any worldview that denies that the world is a creation of God also sees reality as more pliable than it actually is, and the world as a place we not only inhabit and steward but control. In such a world, there are no words higher than ours, and so we hear folks at the U.N. talk and write as if they can re-create the human person. They cannot. But, then again, the U.N. was never the last, best hope for peace either.