On genderless language in the U.S. Congress

Kurt Mahlburg
January 4, 2021
Reproduced with Permission

In preparation for the upcoming 117th Congress, House Democrats from the Rules Committee have drafted a rules package that would eliminate all references to gender in the official rules of the nation's Lower House.

The 45-page document will be introduced and voted on when the new Congress assembles later this week.

Under the proposal announced by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, "seamen" becomes "seafarers", "Chairman" is replaced with "Chair", and "Ombudsman" is abbreviated to "Ombuds".

More substantially, all familial terms are to be altered - from father and mother to "parent"; son and daughter to "child"; and brother and sister to "sibling".

Where words previously described extended family relationships, newly-coined terms are introduced. "Sibling's child" is how the draft rules describe a nephew or niece, and "parent's sibling" is used in place of uncle and aunt.

The House Committee on Rules explained that the aim of the package was to "honor all gender identities" and "to ensure we are inclusive of all Members, Delegates, Resident Commissioners and their families - including those who are nonbinary".

The proposed changes were met with widespread criticism online.

"Lockdowns are destroying our economy. Thousands of businesses have permanently closed. Millions of Americans are out of work. Yet @SpeakerPelosi and the Democrats are more worried about eliminating words like 'father' and 'mother'," tweeted Texas Congressman Lance Gooden.

Staten Island's Congresswoman-elect Nicole Malliotakis sent Pelosi a rebuke via Facebook : "Here's a gender neutral word to describe this legislation: ridiculous."

A glaring irony was uncovered by the Daily Caller . "Pelosi, who just announced elimination of gendered family terms in House rules, still has 'mother, grandmother' in her Twitter bio ," quipped one headline from the conservative news outlet.

The debate about gendered and genderless language has been in the public consciousness since at least 2016, when celebrity psychologist Jordan Peterson criticised his own nation of Canada for similar legislative proposals.

But is it a hill worth dying on?

It's significant to see this debate reach the U.S. Congress - the most powerful legislative body in the world's most powerful nation. Moreover, these proposals have been put forward by none other than the House Committee on Rules, known colloquially as the "traffic cop of Congress" for its power over the passage of legislation through the House.

By its nature, lawmaking always requires the careful selection of language - and language is often changed in law to reflect the shifting tides of culture. And it's of course true that transgender and non-binary people are far more accepted by Western societies than at any time in history.

What's unusual about political bodies moving to gender-neutral language, however, is that includes a minority only to exclude the majority.

Gender-neutral terms may be less alienating for those who don't identify as male or female. But for the 99.4 percent of people who are male or female and whose experience of the world reflects this, truth matters too. As MercatorNet's own Michael Cook observes, "it" makes just as strong a metaphysical statement as does "he" and "she".

Speaking for myself, I don't merely have three siblings - I have three sisters. I am a son and a brother and a husband. This matters to me, just as gender matters to the vast majority of people who make up our societies. Gender isn't neutral for most: it is true, real, and substantial.

I agree entirely with the impulse for inclusion, and certainly there are practical ways that we can be more accommodating and caring towards those who feel alienated by mainstream norms.

But having parliamentarians change our language by diktat is not one of them. In democracies, we elect our leaders to represent us - to express and legislate the will of the people. We don't elect them to rewrite our dictionaries or control how we speak.

Language is best understood as a "commons". As Spectator Australia author Nicola Wright describes it , language is "the means by which we communicate truth based on agreed upon meanings for words". And because a culture's language "has been collectively brought into existence by the investment of all the members," she reasons, it is therefore collectively owned. It's not the prerogative of our leaders to force language upon us from the top down.

To control language in this fashion is to undermine truth-seeking: ultimately, it is to change the very way we think and perceive the world. This is "the antithesis of liberty and reason," explains Wright.

For good reason do we invoke George Orwell when we encounter such power-grabs from our leaders. Orwell's 1984 depicted a dystopian society in which language was the ultimate form of power. Oceania was ruled by The Party which had successfully dominated its citizenry by the imposition of a new language known as Newspeak.

The genius of Newspeak, we learn, was to eliminate "wrongthink" and ensure that the people of Oceania had no access to their own cultural memory:

Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.

Orwell was a great writer because he was an astute social critic who understood the role of language. In his renowned essay Politics and the English Language , Orwell explained that "if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought."

For some, referencing Orwell may feel tiresome after years of these debates over language. But he's part of our cultural memory, too. So long as we stay to connected to words from writers like Orwell, we may continue using the words we want to use to say the things we want to say.