Sherryl Kleinman, a former professor of sociology at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill… reserved a special disapproval for “you guys,” which she considered the “most insidious” of these phrases, and with the help of former students made a small card that anyone could print out and, for instance, leave behind at a restaurant to communicate their dislike of the term to an employee who had used it.
If you want a vision of the future, Winston, imagine professors and students haranguing service-industry employees via passive-aggressive cards left behind at a restaurant table, forever.
In a long and oft-cited essay defending the practice of lecturing the working poor on equality from the comfort of a tenured chair, Kleinman cites Douglas Hofstadter’s “chairwhite” parody piece. Hofstadter, despite or perhaps because of his undeniable brilliance, has spent a lot of effort attempting to attract the approval (or at least the attention) of women via various white-knighting opinion pieces in science magazines. In one of these articles, he writes about “chairwhites” and “policewhites” and “firewhites” in an attempt to point out what he feels is the ludicrousness of having “man” be the default word for “person”. Speaking on the basis of strict logic, Hofstadter is correct, although perhaps not for the reason he would supply if asked.
Really, the whole idea of “white people” is a little nutty; putting all the different European ethnic groups into one bucket is about as ignorant as considering Native Americans and Pakistanis to both be part of some generic “brown people” group. That aside, “white people” account for something like eight percent of humanity. There are two Indians in India for every “white” in the whole world. So if we said “chairwhite” or “policewhite” it would be outright risible because whites are so rare globally, and English is now a global language.
The same is true for “man” as the default word for “human”. Men are born at a slightly higher rate than women globally, although some of that is due to various practices of abortion and post-birth sex selection in certain countries, but by the time you get to puberty men are less common than women and this difference becomes greater across age. The average nursing home is somewhere between two-thirds and three-quarters female. Therefore, if one were to re-engineer English for reasons of logic rather than emotion or laziness, “man” would be the XX chromosome human and “woman” would be the XY, due to rarity.
There is also a biological argument to be made for reversing “man” and “woman”. The XX human is the default model and all you really need to carry on the species; the XY is a modification, and a faulty one at that. Men have less genetic variation than women because the Y chromosome is relatively simple and low-information; that’s why paternity tests are so reliable. To put it in terms my younger male readers can understand, the X chromosome is the “character” and the Y is the “skin” or “theme” you buy for it. We are feature-reduced variants of a complex system, losing our reproductive abilities in favor of a simpler, more impact-resistant construction. If your prehistoric-human camp is attacked by tigers, you put men in the front lines of the battle because we are not as biologically important.
You get the idea. There is no logical basis for assuming XY-maleness or Euro-whiteness in English. We got to this point because the four percent of people on this planet who happen to be “white men” have had an outsized effect on history, science, and art over the past two thousand years or so, for reasons best left outside the scope of this discussion. Kind of like the way the dimensions and specifications of the Schwinn Stingray ended up defining the BMX bike from 1970 to about 1990, because the sport was popularized on Stingrays. Between 1990 and 2020 pretty much all of those old dimensions — the 1/2″ pedal, the large unthreaded bottom bracket, the 7/8″ seatpost and handlebar, that sort of thing — have been eliminated in favor of new standards. As late as 1993 you could swap pretty much any part on a new BMX bike with the equivalent part on a 1969 Stingray. In 2020, nothing but the handgrips would interchange.
Some people, of course, want to retcon English as gender-neutral. Insofar as this reduces the bandwidth of the language, I’m against it. Replacing “he” or “she” with the generic “they” is not only ugly to read, it reduces the available information. It would be like saying “my child” every time I say “my son” now. I’m using the same amount of language to convey less information. Nobody ever hops in a cab and screams “FOLLOW THAT… CONVEYANCE!” What we need is a gender-neutral term for when we don’t know the information to be conveyed. Which we have, to some extent: person. “BigCorp completed its search for a new chairperson last week, announcing that Jane Doe would be the new chairwoman of the board, replacing previous chairman of the board, John Smith.” This leads to neologisms like “fireperson” and “policeperson” which are clunky but otherwise unobjectionable. “John Smith, a fireman at the local station, serves with three other firepeople on the Friday shift, including firewoman Jane Doe.”
So let’s return to Professor Kleinman’s restaurant scenario. Their server (don’t get me started on “server”, a word with “problematic” connotations of its own which has been pressed into unwilling service as a replacement for the apparently-offensive “waiter” and “waitress”) walks up to the table, ready to serve every whim of this privileged group. “Hey, guys!” this person chirps, causing a massive rolling of eyes around the table. What should the server have said? Kleinman suggests “you all” or “folks”, both of which are arguably offensive appropriations, from the Southern “y’all” and the German Volk respectively. Maybe we shouldn’t use Volk to refer to people without German ancestry any more than we should call a Navajo a “Comanche”. There’s also the fact that Volk has been part of other, ah, problematic words. I think the only safe thing to say is “people”.
“Hey, people! What would you like to eat!” Problem solved. Just how much of a problem it was in the first place depends, frankly, on where you are on Maslow’s pyramid of needs at the moment.
As for me, I’m removing “guys” from my vocabulary, same as Professor Kleinman. Not just because I think it marginalizes women, but because I think it also marginalizes men. To be a “guy” is to be not quite a man. We talk about “the guys who play video games all day” but “the men who stormed Omaha Beach”. Like “gross”, another one of my least favorite words, the word “guy” has no place in the speech or writing of modern men. (What place it has in the speech and writing of modern women is, of course, not something on which I claim authority). So I will write about “the men against whom I raced last week” or “the people at the track” or “the ladies of the canyon.”
No doubt this plan of action will occasionally prove inadequate; modern life is full of potential landmines for any such strategy. Earlier this week, as some of you may know, two protestors for the Black Femme March were run over by a driver as they stood on a Seattle freeway. One was killed. The Black Femme protestor who died was a white non-binary person who preferred “they” as a pronoun. The person who ran into the protest was a Black African man from Eritrea, driving a white Jaguar made in Britain by a firm headquartered in India. A bystander talked to a local news station:
“She’s a little white girl,” said Carl Rolle, a black Capitol Hill resident. “And there she is, thinking about other people and somebody ran her over. I haven’t seen that person. I don’t know what that person looks like. But whoever that person was, he committed an act of terror against her person.”
It’s a good thing Carl doesn’t live in Canada or the UK, or he might have just committed a crime right there on television. Guys, it’s gonna be a while before we sort all of this out.
I wrote about a 200SX.