You can learn a lot about a society by the things it censors. In 1807, Thomas and and Henrietta Bowdler published a “family” version of Shakespeare from which the Bard’s blasphemy, sex, and violence had been carefully, but not always successfully, excised. Ophelia’s suicide became an accidental drowning, while the various curses and foul language were softened. (One example: “Zounds”, which is frequently lampooned as a equivalent to “heck”, or “darn”, was actually a contraction of the blasphemous “God’s wounds”, referring to the Crucifixion, and therefore about the most offensive thing possible to say.) The idea was to make the work accessible to children (and, let’s face it, women) for whom that sort of content was considered inappropriate.
The Bowdlers would come in for a lot of criticism, if not outright vilification, in the years that followed, but they never meant to actually censor Shakespeare. Their intent was to make it available for a broader audience, the same way that Garth Stein wrote a “young adult” version of his successful racing novel, entitled Racing In The Rain: My Life As A Dog. (The primary “bowdlerization” there is the toning-down of the adult story’s central plot point, a false rape accusation from a teenaged girl that proved to be very controversial with, and triggering for, certain male readers who could never imagine a young woman coming on to, or causing trouble for, a handsome older man, largely because they assume their own repulsiveness to the fairer sex is universal rather than a specific product of their own querulous, creepy personalities and Cheeto-dust-stained, fuggernautical miens.) At no point did Thomas and Henrietta suggest that the availability of Shakespeare be restricted. Rather, they hoped that their efforts would increase interest in, and engagement with, the original work — at the appropriate time, of course.
I’ve never particularly disapproved of censorship on moral grounds, within reason. Rabbit, Run was not materially improved when Knopf changed the phrase “Best bedfriend, done woman” found in the first hardcover edition back to Updike’s original draft of “Best bedfriend, fucked woman” in later paperback reprints. This mild evasion, and many like it, smoothed my childhood’s precocious passage through many an adult-oriented book. It wasn’t always evenhanded. When I was nine years old I found my father’s copy of John Toland’s outstanding The Rising Sun; I finished it understanding the mechanisms of Japanese torture, which were related in gripping detail, much better than I understood the idea of rape, which was mentioned when necessary but always held at a discreet distance. Perhaps it no longer matters in an era where even adults restrict themselves to a diet of young-adult garbage, but there was some benefit in not bombarding children with unrelenting grotesquerie, particularly when the grownups were smart enough to know what was being said between the lines anyway.
Those days are long gone, of course. There is now no sexual practice or perversion so disgusting that we will not cheerfully rub the noses of our children in it, particularly if doing so raises our status in a society that is now far too illiterate to usefully read Shakespeare in the original but which exalts sex-positivity to a degree that would make a fourth-century centurion leaving a vomitorium turn back for another round. Yet there is one bit of sexuality too pungent, too controversial to express in the printed (or HTTPed) page today; namely, the notion that there are two biological sexes and that they may be referred to as such in writing.
A few weeks ago, I was reading something about a new supercar, which I’ll paraphrase like so: “The driver sits behind an elaborate steering wheel. The display shows them blah blah blah.” I had to pause; how many people are driving this thing? Is the display visible to the passenger, who has not been mentioned up to this point but could be reasonably presumed to be in the driver’s immediate vicnity?
Then I remembered that I was reading a “progressive” site that uncritically accepts the modern gospel of genderlessness. This is not to be confused with the other modern gospel of fluid gender, mind you. I once hired a male-to-female transgender writer who expected to be referred to as “she”, an expectation which I had no trouble meeting. Were I discussing this person’s experience with the car in question, I would say that “The driver will find all the controls within her reach.” When discussing the set of all drivers, however, I would say that “The driver will find all the controls within his reach.”
I would do this because I grew up as an educated and literate human being who understands the idea of grammatical gender. The default pronoun for an individual human being is “his”. Not because “he” is automatically a man, but because that is the way our language evolved. True story: The word for “woman” was a “neutral” word until Chaucer’s time or thereabouts; prior to that you could legitimately write a sentence that would translate as “I met a woman, took it home, and fucked it,” much like Jay’s exhortation to Silent Bob regarding alien life in Clerks.
Out of deference to illiterate readers, who swarm across this land like the locusts of Biblical times, I will occasionally use the despicable “his or her” for publication. It is ridiculous, particularly when dealing with something like a race car which despite the enthusiasm of many qualified ladies including my wife remains ninety-eight-percent likely to contain a man and now a woman, but I do it to keep the inbound email to a dull roar.
Unfortunately for all of us, the same education system that can’t teach people how to make change at McDonald’s without injury appears perfectly capable of instilling a form of quick-bake ignorant outrage whenever they encounter “triggers” such as the usage of proper English. As a consequence, the almost impossibly stupid practice of using the plural “them” to indicate a singular “him” is now in wide practice. I do not know who started it, I do not know by whose unholy order it continues, but it is wrong and it should be stopped by any available means up to and including the A-10 Thunderbolt II attack aircraft.
This might seem a rather insignificant thing about which to get upset, but it is important. Precision in language is almost always important, far more so when the language in question is written. Human beings developed precision in written language because it prevents misunderstandings and mistakes. Precision in written expression is what keeps the power on and the water running and the airliners in the sky. It prevents wars and bankruptcies and lawsuits. It cannot be adequately replaced with emojis or GIFs. The more willful violence we do to the available precision of the English language, the more damage we do to the slightly tattered remains of our society.
There’s some irony to be had here. I suspect that the average proponent of “them” would defend his position by lecturing us about how critical it is to not assume gender when discussing drivers, astronauts, or Chief Executive Officers. (Garbagemen, homeless men, murderers, rapists, and dead soldiers are free to remain male by default, of course.) He would then say that losing precision of number — how many people does this driver’s seat really contain? — is less important than establishing freedom from gender. But the original use of “him” and “his” was genderless by default. When I write “The driver will find everything within his reach,” I am using the form specifically to express the meaninglessness of gender in that context. So the people who complain about “gender in text” are trying to disinter a long-buried corpse so they can have the pleasure of violating it. It is ridiculous, which is a word meaning “deserving of ridicule.”
When we sacrifice precision of number to gain imprecision of gender, even when we already had it, we are effectively reducing the resolution of our text, the same way that “pixelating” a face in a digital photo or video permanently and irretrievably reduces the information transmitted to us by that photo or video. If you spoke like that in combat or police work or firefighting, someone would die as a consequence.
In fact, if you want to know just how critical proper gender and number can be to a written work, you need go no farther than the last genre of literature consumed by the bugmen and bugwomen, which is pornography. Go through a “Fifty Shades” book and replace all the pronouns; it becomes a hermaphroditic gangbang. As the kids say nowadays, you can’t fap to that. So when our descendants unearth the evidence of what they will no doubt call the Second Dark Age, they will know by our porn that we weren’t really all that serious about being genderfluid and nondiscriminatory. Their museums of the present day will be very specific on that count, even if all their rebuilt automobiles have two or more people in the driver’s seat. Or is that drivers’ seat? It’s enough to make a fellow want to, er, accidentally drown!