The illusion of inclusion

My blog and I have been in the news this week. After the Woman’s Hour presenter Jane Garvey complained about the use of ‘hi guys’ as a greeting for mixed-sex groups , a number of news outlets picked up the story, and several of them linked to this 2016 blog post in which I explained why I don’t think ‘hi guys’ excludes women.

This made me briefly very popular with bookers for talk radio, where language peeves of all kinds are the gift that keeps on giving, as is any public difference of opinion between two feminists. But other reactions were less positive. On Twitter I had people telling me to ‘stop invisibilising women’ and suggesting that instead of defending ‘guys’ I should be using my influence to promote other, more inclusive address terms.

Sadly (or maybe not), I don’t have that kind of influence. Changes in everyday usage are very much a bottom-up rather than a top-down thing: linguists can describe and try to explain what’s going on, but what they say will rarely if ever affect the overall direction of travel. What I was hoping to influence when I decided to start this blog was not the language itself so much as the way feminists think and talk about linguistic issues. And in that spirit, I want to revisit the issue at the centre of the argument about ‘guys’: inclusiveness.

Feminists (and other progressive types) talk a lot about ‘inclusive language’, and it’s generally assumed that we’re in favour of it. But what exactly is it? What makes a word or an expression ‘inclusive’? And are feminists’ purposes always best served by inclusive terms?

Back in the 1970s and 1980s, feminists criticising conventional usage rarely talked about ‘inclusive’ (or its antonym, ‘exclusionary’) language: we talked much more about ‘sexist’ and ‘non-sexist’ language. As the issue became more mainstream, other terms came into use which were seen as less overtly political and thus more palatable to people of moderate liberal opinions. Many included the word ‘gender’: it became common for institutions to formulate policies and guidelines about ‘gender equal’, ‘gender free’ or ‘gender fair’ language.

The concept of ‘inclusive language’ has become popular more recently, and it represents a further move away from the original feminist critique of sexism. ‘Inclusiveness’ is much more general concept: guidelines on ‘inclusive language’ may address concerns about the linguistic representation not only of women, but also of other marginalised groups like ethnic minorities, disabled people and LGBT people. And while most feminists would probably see this broadening as a good thing in principle, some (myself included) might argue that in defining the problem as ‘inclusion versus exclusion’ we have both narrowed the scope of the earlier analysis of sexism and lost some of its more radical insights.

The non-inclusiveness (or as we used to say, ‘androcentrism’) of conventional ‘he/man’ language was a significant concern in early feminist analyses of sexist language, but it was by no means the only problem feminists drew attention to. Many forms of sexist language did not discriminate against women by excluding them or making them invisible, but rather by over-representing them in distinctive and demeaning ways (consider, for instance, how many words are available in English to objectify/infantilise women—‘chicks’, ‘babes’, ‘blondes’—or express sexualised contempt for them—‘bitch’, ‘slut’, ‘whore’). Even when the issue did concern something we might now call ‘exclusionary’, such as the use of masculine generic pronouns, the older feminist analysis was (as I’ll explain later on) rather different from the one we tend to get now.

So, what is the current analysis? What do feminists mean when they say a word or expression is ‘not inclusive’? Typically, their objection is based on one or more of the following observations:

  1. That the word is formally masculine rather than gender-neutral/unmarked;
  2. That the word originated as a sex-specific term denoting or describing men;
  3. That standard dictionaries describe the word as referring exclusively or primarily to men.

In English (as opposed to languages that make more extensive use of grammatical gender distinctions), particular weight tends to be given to (1). ‘Inclusiveness’ is seen to require the use of ‘neutral’ terms, words which have no overt gender-marking. Jane Garvey, for instance, suggested ‘people’ as an inclusive substitute for ‘guys’. ‘People’ does not invite any of the objections listed above: it is formally unmarked for gender and its dictionary definition makes no reference to sex (according to the Oxford dictionary it denotes ‘human beings in general or considered collectively’). This lack of specificity has also made ‘people’ a popular choice in another context where the goal is to eliminate ‘exclusionary’ language–it’s a common replacement for ‘women’ in expressions which are intended to be trans-inclusive, like ‘pregnant people’.

In this new paradigm, the prevailing assumption could be summarised as ‘gender-neutral = inclusive = good’ and ‘gender-specific = exclusionary = bad’. But I’m going to argue that in practice it’s not that simple. If we turn our attention from the surface forms and dictionary definitions of words to the details of how they’re used in everyday life, it will soon become apparent that neutral terms are not always inclusive, and inclusive terms are not always neutral.

You don’t have to look far to find examples of formally gender-neutral terms being used in ways which are covertly gendered. Here’s a case in point, taken from a report in the Sunday Times:

The lack of vitality is aggravated by the fact that there are so few able-bodied young adults around. They have all gone off to work or look for work, leaving behind the old, the disabled, the women and the children.

The phrase ‘able-bodied young adults’ does logically exclude most of the groups  described as ‘left behind’: old people aren’t young, disabled people aren’t able-bodied, children aren’t adults. But what logic accounts for the presence of women on this list? The noun ‘adults’, like ‘people’, is formally unmarked for gender: in theory the category of ‘able-bodied young adults’ encompasses both male and female individuals. But in this context, clearly, the writer is using the neutral term ‘adults’ to convey the sex-specific meaning ‘male adults’.

A common variation on the same theme can be seen in these examples:

We cannot tolerate attacks on the wife of an American citizen

A 45-year old man has been charged with assaulting his next-door neighbour’s wife

Saxophone-playing vicar’s wife is the C of E’s first woman bishop

What we’re looking at here is a subcategory of sexism which featured prominently in early feminist critiques. In each example a woman is described as a ‘wife’, despite the fact that she herself is also a member of the category to which the speaker or writer assigns her husband. The woman in the first example was a US citizen, the second lived next door to her attacker, and the third was an Anglican priest–if she hadn’t been she would not have been eligible to become a bishop. The ‘wife’ references are thus superfluous from a purely informational standpoint; the work they do is ideological, reflecting and recycling the belief that women exist and must be seen primarily in relation to men rather than as individuals in their own right.

One by-product of this (still fairly common) pattern of representation is that the nouns denoting categories other than ‘wife’—in these examples, ‘citizen’, ‘neighbour’ and ‘vicar’—become covertly gendered (i.e., masculine). This has nothing to do with the characteristics of the words themselves: they are all formally unmarked for gender, and dictionary definitions would not restrict their reference to men. You might argue that ‘vicar’ is more likely to refer to a man because until recently only men were permitted to occupy that role; but that’s not an argument you could make about the other two. There would be nothing unusual or jarring about a sentence like ‘Sue has applied to become a British citizen’, or ‘my neighbour asked if I could feed her cat while she’s away’. On the criteria I listed earlier, these are perfectly inclusive terms. So, how do we explain the prevalence of patently non-inclusive uses like the ones in my examples?

The feminist writer and theorist Monique Wittig once observed that

…there are not two genders. There is only one, the feminine…For the masculine is not the masculine but the general.

One obvious example of this is the way formally masculine terms get used as generics (as with the use of ‘man’ to mean the human species). But Wittig’s point is also illustrated by the opposite phenomenon, the treatment of apparently generic, formally neutral terms as if they only referred to men. The examples I’ve reproduced—all cases where the writer or speaker’s own words make clear that the reference to ‘adults’ or ‘citizens’ is in fact a reference to male adults/citizens—are only the tip of the iceberg. Even when a writer or speaker does intend a formally neutral term to be inclusive, hearers and readers may still interpret it as sex-specific.

This is a manifestation of the ‘default male’ principle. It’s not that we don’t know that ‘adult’ and ‘neighbour’ might in theory refer to a person of either sex, but in practice, if the person’s sex is not specified, we are liable to default to a male reading. This tendency is most marked where formally gender-neutral words are strongly associated with maleness for historical and social reasons (e.g. ‘soldier’), but it is also apparent with words that have no such associations (e.g. ‘neighbour’). If nothing in the context suggests a female referent, we will tend to visualise a male one.

The evidence from actual usage, then, suggests that merely replacing gender-marked with gender-neutral terms does not guarantee inclusiveness. Conversely—and this takes us back to the argument about ‘guys’—the use of masculine terms does not guarantee that women will be, or feel, excluded. Just as neutral terms can be gendered, gender-marked terms can be de-gendered in use.

‘Guys’ is a case in point. It clearly originated as a sex-specific term: lexicographers agree that the original ‘guy’, who gave his name first to men of low and ragged appearance and later to men in general, was Guy Fawkes, the 17th century Gunpowder Plotter whose likeness is burned in effigy on English bonfires each November. But lexicographers also agree that ‘guy’ is no longer uniformly sex-specific. The plural form, ‘guys’, has become gender-inclusive in one subset of its functions—when it is used as a vocative, as in ‘hi guys’, or more broadly to address people in the second person, as in ‘what are you guys doing tonight?’

This de-gendering hasn’t (yet) spread to all the word’s forms and functions. Though some younger speakers might disagree, for me third-person references, both singular and plural (‘that guy over there’, ‘those guys we saw in the coffee shop’) can only be interpreted as masculine. But that doesn’t undermine the claim that ‘guys’ as a second-person address term is perceived by those who use it as gender-inclusive. Shifts in the meaning of a term very often affect some of its uses before others.

‘Guys’ isn’t the only English address term which is undergoing this shift. As I explained in my earlier post, ‘dude’ in the US is increasingly being used by and to women as well as men; in Australia, ‘mate’ (which, though not formally masculine, has historically had strongly male connotations) appears to be following a similar path; in Ireland, ‘lads’ is commonly used as a collective and gender-inclusive address term.

Research suggests that the key factor driving this trend is the uptake of the terms by young women, who are not just passively accepting them in mixed-sex talk, but actively using them in interactions with each other. In the case of ‘dude’, for instance, a study of college students in Pittsburgh found that its most frequent users were, as expected, men talking to other men, but the next-most frequent users were women talking to other women. Overall, I find the evidence quite compelling that these masculine address terms really have been de-gendered for younger speakers. If young women didn’t think they were being addressed when they heard ‘hi, guys’ or ‘listen, lads’, it’s possible they would put up with it from their male friends, but less likely they would adopt it enthusiastically in all-female interactions.

But what’s behind the enthusiasm? Some feminists see it as evidence of internalised sexism, a need to be accepted or approved of by men that leads young women to ‘talk male’, or at least accommodate to male linguistic preferences, in mixed peer-groups. To me this is unconvincing, not least because it overlooks the point that women aren’t just using the terms in mixed groups. It also discounts their own understanding of the terms: women under 30 consistently tell researchers that they regard ‘guys’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’ as inclusive terms, available equally to address both sexes.

The explanation I prefer (and which I laid out in more detail in my earlier post) can be related to Monique Wittig’s assertion that ‘the masculine is not the masculine but the general’. I would argue that women are appropriating ‘guys’ and its ilk, not to be seen as masculine, but to be included in the category of ‘the general’. They are adopting these address terms to express the same attitudes and feelings men have traditionally used them to express, like camaraderie, solidarity and ‘mateship’. The fact that these attitudes and feelings have historically been associated with men does not mean they are inherently male (any more than historically male-dominated endeavours like science and sport are inherently male). Rather they are part of the repertoire of human attitudes and feelings.

The desire of women to be included in the general category of humans, rather than confined to a subcategory of ‘feminine’ (aka Other and lesser) beings, has often led them to reject female-specific terms. In the case of occupational labels, for instance, they have rejected marked forms like ‘authoress’ and ‘lady doctor’ and demanded to be referred to instead with the unmarked forms ‘author’ and ‘doctor’. This has never prompted accusations of ‘aping men’ or ‘making women invisible’.

‘Of course not’, I hear you say: ‘the two cases are quite different. A woman who prefers “author” to “authoress” isn’t giving herself a male label like “guys”, she’s just swapping an unnecessary and demeaning gender-marked term for something neutral and inclusive’. But if you take the long view, that difference disappears.  .

Words like ‘author’ and ‘doctor’ may always have been (in English) formally unmarked,  but they were not always ‘neutral’ and ‘inclusive’. For much of their history they were sex-specific, applied to men and not to women. To the extent that they have now become inclusive, that’s a historical achievement; they were made inclusive by the efforts of the women who laid claim to them and used them and demanded that others should use them too. That is also what is happening now with address term like ‘guys’, ‘lads’, ‘dude’ and ‘mate’. Women are laying claim to them and their meanings are changing as a result. It’s possible that in a hundred years’ time only language historians and etymology buffs will know that the ‘guys’ in ‘hi guys’ once meant ‘men’.

But I said ‘to the extent that they have now become inclusive’ because even today, as I’ve already pointed out, it can’t be assumed that generic references to ‘the author’ or ‘a doctor’ will automatically be interpreted as including women. In fact, there are no words which cannot be used or understood in a non-inclusive way: even ‘people’ can be covertly gendered (usually in line with the default male principle, though I did once overhear a woman saying she wouldn’t want a rattan coffee table because ‘people might snag their panty-hose’). Where the neutral/inclusive term is the same term that refers specifically to men (a common pattern in many languages, as Monique Wittig points out), there will always be room for doubt about whether women are really included. In that respect, ‘guys’ is no better and no worse than ‘adult’ and ‘citizen’ and ‘doctor’. None of these terms makes women visible as women, and all of them are liable to be interpreted as masculine by default.

The problem of sexism in language isn’t caused by a lack of inclusive terminology. It’s a structural problem, the product of assumptions and habits of thought which have seeped into our culture and our language over centuries, and which would colour the use of any set of terms we might come up with. If we want our language to produce more than the illusion of inclusion, what we really need to change is not our vocabulary, but our ingrained and largely unconscious habit of treating men as the prototypical humans.

‘Language changes, deal with it’

Last October the writer Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett told her followers on Twitter how her boyfriend had reacted to her new Georgia O’Keeffe print—by complaining that ‘you’ve put a big vagina on our wall’. Then she added:

Ten points for the first pedant who tweets me “it’s a vulva”. Language changes, deal with it.

As you’ll know if you read my post lamenting the state of most people’s female genital vocabulary, when it comes to ‘vagina’ and ‘vulva’ my feminist heart is with the pedants. But in my linguist’s head I know that Cosslett is right. The meaning of a word is its use in the language. If enough people understand a word to mean X, then X is what it means.

Even pedants, if pressed, will generally acknowledge that language changes, and that the meanings of words are no exception. ‘Silly’ no longer means ‘holy’. ‘Vagina’ no longer means ‘sheath’. But there’s still a strong folk-belief that change (along with its precursor, variation) is undesirable, dysfunctional, a threat to communication. If words mean different things to different people, and if their meanings are constantly shifting, how can we understand each other, or have rational, meaningful dialogue?

In modern liberal democracies there’s a particular fear that the tendency for meaning to change as words are used will be exploited deliberately by the powerful and the unscrupulous. If we don’t stand firm, we’ll be at the mercy of dictators who use language not to communicate, but to obfuscate and manipulate. Since Trump and his gang took office, there’s been a deluge of commentary on this theme. You can hardly open a newspaper or scroll through Facebook without encountering some new complaint about the ‘abuse’ or ‘perversion’ of language.

The case that’s attracted most attention so far is Kellyanne Conway’s use of the phrase ‘alternative facts’, referring to the false claims made by the White House press secretary about how many people attended Trump’s inauguration. Conway’s lame attempt to defend the indefensible prompted scores of commentators to accuse her of trying to redefine the meaning of the word ‘fact’. In the words of one Huffington Post contributor:

Alternative facts are not facts. They are untruths. They are LIES. Here, look, Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what a fact is: “A fact is a piece of information presented as having objective reality”.

Merriam-Webster’s intervention (tweeting out the definition of ‘fact’) was widely applauded: the Guardian even hailed the birth of a new superhero, ‘Dictionary Guy’, fighting lies and demagoguery by simply restating the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. Other critics invoked Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, with his absurd delusions of semantic grandeur (‘when I use a word, it means whatever I choose it to mean’), or compared Conway’s rhetoric to George Orwell’s fictional Newspeak, a language designed not merely to restrict the public utterance of inconvenient truths, but to stifle dissent at source by making it literally unthinkable.

The criticism aimed at Conway was richly deserved (ditto the ridicule, in the form of jokes like ‘I’m not drunk, officer, I’m alternative sober’). But there’s a problem with the ‘basic idea that words have non-negotiable meanings’. They don’t. If they did, their meanings would never change, and there would never be any argument about them.

It’s true, of course, that some words provoke more argument than others. I’ve never witnessed a heated debate about the meaning of ‘cat’ or ‘trombone’. By contrast, I imagine that most people reading this have at some time been involved in an argument about the meaning of ‘feminism’, or ‘sexism’, or any number of other ‘hot-button’ terms, from ‘abortion’ to ‘Zionism’, which people with opposing political views define in different and conflicting ways. As the linguist Philip Seargeant recently observed, ‘disputing the meanings of words is always part of political debate’. And it isn’t just the ‘hot-button’ terms:  one current court case, about the the right of parents to take their children on holiday during the school term, has involved hours of legal argument about what ‘regular’ means. Wherever there are conflicts of interest, there will also be conflicts about the meanings of key terms.

Insisting that ‘words have non-negotiable meanings’–and that your meaning is the true meaning whereas your opponent’s is a ‘perversion of language’–is a time-honoured rhetorical move in arguments about disputed terms. But it’s a move that tends to favour  conservatives, because it’s most effective when deployed in defence of an older usage against a newer one. And typically what’s behind that defence is not just resistance to linguistic change, but opposition to whatever social change has produced a new way of using words.

When I first read the complaint about ‘alternative facts’ which I quoted earlier from the Huffington Post, I had a feeling of déjà vu, as if I’d seen it somewhere before. Eventually I realised what it reminded me of:

A same-sex marriage is not a marriage. It’s a parody of a marriage. It’s GROTESQUE. Here, the dictionary kindly sent you a definition of what marriage is. ‘Marriage is the union of a man and a woman’.

This phraseology is mine, but I didn’t invent the argument. Opponents of marriage equality really did say all these things. They repeatedly invoked the non-negotiable meaning of the word ‘marriage’ as a reason why the law could not be changed, citing the dictionary almost as often as the Bible.

If you’re as old as I am you may also remember when conservatives routinely appealed to the ‘real’ meanings of words to resist feminist demands for non-sexist or gender-inclusive terminology (‘etymologically, “man” just means “person”’), and to protest against the ‘hijacking’ of ‘gay’ (‘don’t let sexual deviants deprive us of a word which—according to my dictionary—means “cheerful or brightly coloured”’). These doughty defenders of the language were also fond of invoking Orwell: they rarely missed an opportunity to equate the linguistic innovations they labelled ‘political correctness gone mad’ with Newspeak, or to describe the ‘PC brigade’ as a new thought police, intent on eliminating not just the words they found offensive, but any worldview opposed to their own.

For decades, the argument that words have non-negotiable meanings has been used by the Right as a stick to beat the Left with. Feminists, anti-racists and campaigners for LGBT rights have all been accused of perverting language and destroying meaning. Now it’s the Left that levels these charges against the Right. Of course it’s important–and urgent–to  resist the new regime in the US, and the rise of the far right elsewhere. But is using the Right’s own (bad) arguments the best way to go about it?

You might answer that question with another: what is the alternative? Am I suggesting we should just shrug our shoulders, and say ‘language changes, deal with it’? The short answer to that is ‘no’. We do have to deal with the fact that language changes–meaning is always in the process of being negotiated–but we should also remember that this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. The things which can influence the way words are used, and therefore what people will take them to mean, include social changes, technological changes, and–sometimes–political interventions.

As a concrete historical example, consider the word ‘rape’. The earliest meaning of ‘rape’ recorded in the Oxford English Dictionary is ‘the act of taking by force, especially the seizure of property by violent means’. It subsequently developed a more specialised use, referring specifically to the taking of women by force: it was applied to the practice of bride abduction, as well as to sexual assaults committed without the intention to marry the victim. The framing of rape as a crime, in either case, was still about taking what did not belong to you: a woman could not be raped by her husband (or in the case of an enslaved woman, her master), since he was already her legal owner.

There are still places in the world where rape is treated as a crime of property, but in the part of the world where I live this has changed. Today, English law defines ‘rape’ as an act of penile penetration to which consent has not been given (or to which it cannot validly be given because the person concerned is underage or incapacitated). There are still, as we know, many arguments (and myths) about what constitutes consent, but it’s generally agreed that consent is what’s at issue. And while this shift in the meaning of ‘rape’ reflects a long term historical shift, both in attitudes to violence and in the legal status of women, it also reflects the more specific influence of feminist campaigns, which explicitly challenged the definitions found both in expert (e.g. legal) sources and in everyday talk.

Another form of political intervention that can influence the way words are used involves appropriating your opponent’s words, reinflecting them to express a meaning that’s at odds with the original intention, and circulating the result as widely as possible. The ‘alternative X’ jokes mentioned earlier, which ridicule Kellyanne Conway’s attempt to rebrand lies as ‘alternative facts’, are one example; another is the way some of the government agencies Trump has gagged have adopted ‘alt’, as in ‘alt-right’, in naming the unofficial social media accounts they’ve set up in defiance of the gag (for instance, the National Park Service’s new Twitter handle is @AltNatParSer).

Most recently there’s been a feminist intervention, reacting to reports that women working for the Trump administration had been ordered to ‘dress like women’. The illustration at the top of the post is an example of the most common response: posting photos of yourself, or other women, wearing anything from a tux to a spacesuit. Other responses employed words to undermine the intended meaning (‘dress in a feminine manner’) by refusing to accept its sexist premise (‘there’s a certain way women should dress’) and recasting it as a vacuous tautology. Several tweets offered step-by-step instructions like (1) Be a woman. (2) Put on any clothes you like. (3) That’s it.

This kind of ‘rapid response’ intervention differs from a campaign to change the way people understand the word ‘rape’. The stakes are lower, and the effects will be more limited. It’s unlikely, for instance, that being ridiculed on Twitter will make the people responsible for the ‘dress like a woman’ edict feel obliged to reverse their policy (though I do think humour has its uses when you’re dealing with people this self-regarding–they’d almost certainly prefer fear and anger, which make them feel powerful, to mockery and disrespect). But the trick is to keep doing it: keep contesting the credibility of what they say, keep disputing their assumptions and their logic, keep showing that there’s more than one way to define what’s ‘alternative’ or what it means to ‘dress like a woman’. Keep puncturing the illusion–because it is an illusion–that the powerful, like Humpty Dumpty, can just decide what words will mean for everyone.

Feminism has a long history of trying to change the way words are used. We’ve invented new words and we’ve redefined old ones. We’ve argued about what words mean, both with our opponents and among ourselves. Arguments about meaning–and attempts to influence it–play a role in every kind of politics. If that’s an abuse of language, then all of us are guilty.

 

A matter of opinion

I feel like opinion pieces on the state of the language are getting more annoying all the time.

If you’re wondering where that came from, the answer is that I’ve just read a New York Times opinion piece published this weekend, in which the history professor Molly Worthen complains that young people preface everything they say with ‘I feel like’.

[They] don’t think, believe or reckon. They “feel like.” Listen for this phrase and you’ll hear it everywhere, inside and outside politics. This reflex to hedge every statement as a feeling or a hunch is most common among millennials. But I hear it almost as often among Generation Xers and my own colleagues in academia. As in so many things, the young are early carriers of a broad cultural contagion.

The contagion she’s talking about is relativism: we no longer deal in facts or principles, only personal feelings which brook no argument or disagreement. Also—although this might seem to be in tension with the first, ‘no arguing with my feelz’ point—we’re not willing to commit to our beliefs because we’re worried about causing offence. According to a student Worthen quotes, saying ‘I feel like X’ is ‘an effort to make our ideas more palatable to the other person’.

The student has a point. Hedging–using linguistic devices that reduce the strength of your commitment to a proposition—is often done for purposes of politeness, or in other words to make whatever you’re saying or doing ‘more palatable to the other person’. That’s why we often write something long-winded and tentative like ‘I was just wondering if you’d got my email’ rather than the blunter, slightly accusatory ‘did you get my email?’ Or respond to a caller we don’t know with ‘I think you’ve got the wrong number’ rather than just ‘wrong number!’

This is normal linguistic behaviour, and you might think it’s preferable to showing no consideration for anyone else’s feelings. But people who write opinion pieces on language (or give ‘expert’ advice on language) have got it into their heads that hedging is the enemy of effective communication. According to them, it’s clutter. It’s ‘weak’.  It detracts from your message and undermines your authority. And–not coincidentally–it’s the particular vice of women.

Opinion pieces on this subject invariably feature women who’ve seen the light and repented of their sins. They’ve cut down on ‘just‘ and taken ‘sorry‘ in hand. In Molly Worthen’s column there’s another quote from a student who’s trying to cure herself of ‘feel like’:

I’ve tried to check myself when I say that. I think it probably demeans the substance of what I’m trying to say.

In 2013, Jezebel ran a piece entitled ‘Ladies, what’s up with the “I feel like” verbal tic?’ The writer begins with a confession: she’s searched for the phrase ‘I feel like’ in her Gmail inbox, and been overwhelmed by the number of results. Her correspondence is full of sentences like, ‘I feel like I look too meek in my profile picture’. Or, ‘I feel like I’m being unhelpful’. She comments:

We are feeling so many feelings, and we are very aware that we are feeling these feelings.

Ah yes, feelings. As everyone knows, women are emotional creatures who talk endlessly about their feelings–whereas men by implication converse in a mixture of syllogisms and statistics. The writer suggests that ‘I feel like’ sounds ‘indulgent, verging on narcissistic’;

when I say “I feel like” I feel like (ha) a touchy-feely liberal girl who learned to talk about her feelings in school.

It’s this self-indulgent touchy-feeliness that bothers Molly Worthen. She downplays the association with women, saying that men in her classrooms also say ‘I feel like’ all the time. But she continually invokes the opposition between thinking and feeling, reason and emotion, which in western thought, as many feminists have pointed out, is gendered through and through. As Genevieve Lloyd puts it, ‘rationality has been conceived as transcendence of the feminine‘.

Worthen’s argument that we’ve become too touchy-feely rests largely on an observation about the contemporary use of words–that ‘feel like’ is now preferred to ‘think’–and on closer inspection this is linguistically naive. The phrase ‘I think’, which she takes to be both completely different from and self-evidently preferable to ‘I feel like’, actually does the same job: it too can be used as a hedge. So can other verbs of knowing or sensing, like ‘believe’, ‘understand’, ‘guess’, ‘imagine’, ‘see’, ‘hear’. We often use them to indicate that something we’re saying might be speculative, provisional, open to doubt or disagreement. (‘She’ll be 90 this year, I believe’. ‘I imagine you’ll want to put this on the agenda’.)  And then there’s ‘seem’, as in ‘it seems to me…’. It may sound a touch more formal, more the sort of thing a middle-aged academic would say, but otherwise, how exactly is prefacing a point with ‘it seems to me’ any different from beginning it with ‘I feel like’?

I suspect Worthen’s preference for ‘think’ reflects the simple idea that the core meaning of ‘think’ is about cognition whereas the core meaning of ‘feel (like)’ is about emotion. At one point she worries that ‘the more common “I feel like” becomes, the less importance we may attach to its literal meaning’. But that ship sailed long ago: when they’re used in the way she’s talking about, the sense-perception verbs ‘feel’, ‘see’ and ‘hear’ are metaphors for more complex cognitive processes. If you tell someone ‘I see what you mean’, you haven’t literally ‘seen’ anything, you have grasped the import of something. Similarly, many uses of ‘feel’ carry little or no trace of either the ‘touch’ or the ’emotion’ senses of the word–they are metaphors for inferring or judging (‘Members of the jury, you may feel that the prosecution’s evidence…’)

The Jezebel piece included various quotes from women repeating the same folk-theory about ‘I feel like’ privileging emotion over reason and inoffensiveness over rigorous argument.

It takes the teeth out of any argument you make and makes it okay for you to be wrong. Like you don’t have to stand by your opinion because it came from a temporary, emotional place. I use it a lot when I don’t want to offend anyone.

I feel like is used for girls to tentatively express their opinion in a nonthreatening way, in a way that can either be added on to or diminished depending on how the other person reacts to it.

Is it, in fact, for girls? The writer of the Jezebel piece contacted the linguist and blogger Mark Liberman to ask whether it was true that ‘I feel like’ is used mostly by women and millennials. Using data from a corpus of telephone conversations, Liberman found that the the short answer is ‘yes’: younger speakers use ‘I feel like’ more than older ones, and female speakers use it more than male ones. However, the gender gap is probably explained by something I’ve mentioned on this blog before—the tendency for young women to be linguistic trendsetters, adopting innovative ways of speaking before their male age-peers. If something really is a trend, the men will eventually catch up.

The alternative explanation—that women use ‘I feel like’ more because it’s a hedge and women hedge more—was not supported by the telephone corpus data, which suggest that men hedge just as much as women, they just use different linguistic forms to do it. For instance, men use ‘I guess’ more often than women. (Though not ‘I think’, where it’s the women who are slightly ahead.)

Most people are small-c conservatives when it comes to language: they rarely hail new usages with delight, and often spend decades denouncing them as abominations. What bothers me about this isn’t the reaction itself, it’s the accompanying tendency to construct elaborate justifications for it. Instead of just saying ‘I find this way of speaking annoying’, pundits insist that it’s a symptom of some larger social disease. Vocal fry is a sign that young women are throwing away all the gains of the last 50 years. ‘I feel like’ threatens the foundations of democracy because it’s ‘a means of avoiding rigorous debate’.

This is overblown nonsense, and it also has the effect of making the most innovative language-users, young people and especially young women, into objects of relentless criticism–and not only of their speech, but sometimes also of their character. Criticism which they internalize, as is illustrated in some of the quotes I’ve reproduced. When young women are worried that the way they express themselves demeans them, when they’re berating themselves for being ‘indulgent verging on narcissistic’, it might be time for the people who write this stuff to consider keeping their opinions to themselves.