Harriet J has a largely brilliant post over at RH Reality Check. In it she makes a passionate plea for famous feminists to stand up to Naomi Wolf’s execrable defense of Julian Assange. (Before we get started, I want to make clear that there is a difference between believing the charges against Julian are politically motivated – which I do – and failing to take the issue of rape seriously). The issue at hand is how we talk about consent, and that is a very important conversation to have. However on reading her post I was jarred by running into the unfamiliar terms “Zhe” and “Hir”. Had Harriet become a lolcat? No, it turns out she was simply using gender neutral terms.
This is a problem.
The English language badly needs gender neutral pronouns, this is true. However Harriet’s use of them in her post were counterproductive for a few reasons:
- She does not use them consistently. This is confusing for the reader.
- To the uninformed they are obstacles to understanding.
The consistency issue is self explanatory. If you are going to make use of new pronouns you need to do so consistently, not haphazardly.
It is the obstacle they create that is crucial. The issues of consent and the Assange case specifically are both hot button issues. Communicating clearly is essential. Given the relative obscureness of gender neutral pronouns (and lacking any introduction), they appear as typos and function as the sort of specialized language one might find in a term paper – jargon. Jargon serves a useful purpose – it can form a mental shortcut of sorts – a method for passing larger amounts of information in a shorter amount of space. However technically specific language is the domain of the specialist – not the layperson. The use of such language alienates potential supporters.
As for her point, it is well made. Naomi Wolf’s comments on rape need to be answered by someone who can concisely convey that there is more to rape than overt physical violence.