According to the Washington Post, On April 15, 2015, Sweden will add a gender-neutral pronoun to its official dictionary . That pronoun is “hen.” It turns out that the Swedish pronoun for males is “han” and for females is “hon.” So, while it’s unfortunate that it sounds like the english word for a female chicken, “hen” is not that far out there, if you’re speaking Swedish. The Washington Post reports that according to linguistic expert Sofia Malmgård,
“…the gender-neutral term can be used in two ways. “First, if the gender is unknown or not relevant (as in: “If anyone needs to smoke, ‘hen’ may do so outside”). Second, it can be used as a pronoun for inter-gender people (as in: “Kim is neither boy or girl, ‘hen’ is inter-gender”).”
We live in what I call a culture of blur, and this is an example. The culture of blur is an effort to erase boundaries and redefine reality. And this effort targets basic societal structures such as marriage, family, and gender. For example, when a child is born, most people across time and culture have been able to quickly and easily determine the “sex” or “gender” of the child. In the past, a doctor would happily announce the baby’s gender: “It’s a girl!”
The culture of blur is a shift away from the vision of those who see the world in more “either/or” terms. Those who inhabit the culture of blur, on the positive side, are often able to see invisible things others cannot see. On the downside, they are often unable to see distinctions visible to others.
In common usage, these two words (“sex” and “gender”) are practical synonyms, but in certain circles, these two words have come to have distinct connotations. For many, the former is about biology and physiology and the latter is about social constructs and expectations.
In the culture of blur, this happy pronouncement of gender is withheld, even though the biological and physiological distinctions are clear. To announce a child’s gender limits the child’s future possibilities. After all, the pronouncement of physiological truth brings with it too many societal expectations which we are trying to rework.
If by “erasing gender” we mean an attempt to end discrimination against the female of the human species, this is a good thing. Will adding a gender-neutral pronoun work to reshape the human imagination about gender roles? Probably not much. Turkey, according to the Post, also has a gender-neutral pronoun. Nevertheless, the country was only ranked 125th in the 2014 gender equality report of the World Economic Forum. So it may not be effective, but it has good intentions.
But if by “erasing gender” we mean, an attempt to mask difference, then it may be well intentioned but evil. It may make some adults feel better but confuse everyone else (worst of all children). Yes, gender expressions can be varied. Females can be “masculine” and males can be “feminine”. But are not the vast majority of these expressions that run along the spectrum of “feminine to masculine” launched from the basic binary platform of male and female? When we begin our human experience, we are either male or female and that should be celebrated.*
The Shift: from distinguish to blur
Have you heard of the old book Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus? It came out in 1992, sold some 50 million copies, and remained on the bestseller’s lists for over two years. The book’s premise is that most relationship problems between men and women are a result of fundamental psychological differences between the genders.
Key word here: difference.
This book signifies the formerly and widely held point of view: men and women, boys and girls are different. The content of most marriage conferences and seminars I’ve attended have been based on the same premise.*
Not in the culture of blur.
Rather than basic difference, blur sees a spectrum of possibilities for each person. So, rather than categorize a child at birth according to the visible biological truth, let’s let them develop apart from the gender biases that are part of the world and allow them to explore how they fit into the world in a more neutral environment. It prioritizes potential gender “expressions” over the existing binary physiological gender. It underplays physiological gender to the point of making it invisible.
But is propagating an untruth the best way to raise awareness of a truth?
In the past, the basic differences were assumed. Today, in 2015, if you’re going to lead a seminar on dating or marriage, before you can begin to unpack the differences between men and women, you may need to make a case that there is, in fact, such a thing as men and women. If, in fact, there is. I recognize that gender-neutral language is about more than societal expectations for women, but that is where I want to begin. I’ll touch on other issues in a later post.
Sweden and the hen
In Makers of Fire, I include a list of descriptors that point to things that are happening in our world right now. One descriptor, already mentioned above is ERASURE. Another descriptor of the present is SPEED. The Washington Post article tell us,
“Over the last few years, the word ‘hen’ has more and more found its way into the Swedish language,” Malmgård told The Washington Post.
Five years ago, barely anyone in Sweden was aware of the word. The decision to now include ‘hen’ in the authoritative SAOL dictionary is expected to facilitate an even more frequent use of it in everyday conversations.
Five years. How did this happen so quickly? Again, according to the Washington Post article:
According to experts, the ‘hen’-revolution in Sweden has two primary origins: LGBT groups have promoted the pronoun as a way to raise awareness for their cause. However, support for the idea has also come from a more unexpected side: Nurseries, kindergartens and preschools such as Egalia increasingly argue that the pronoun’s usage allows children to grow up without feeling the impact of gender biases. “The public debate over the pronoun actually only started after the publication of the country’s first gender-neutral children’s book”, Lann Hornscheidt, an professor of Scandinavian languages and gender studies at Berlin’s Humboldt University explained.
In terms of speed, I anticipate that the rate of social change, say for example in the concept of marriage, will move quickly from traditional marriage, to 20th century love-based marriage, to gay marriage, to polygynous marriage, to communal marriage, to interspecies marriage, to organic and robotic marriage. Once romantic love became the basis of marriage within a culture, there is very little, aside from some radical disruption, to stop these developments. (Some of you will think, relationships with robots? But, if we are losing the ability to see the distinguish between male and female, why do you believe that we will be able to maintain a distinction between the organic and the synthetic?)
ARE WE A BINARY SPECIES?
And here we reach a point of tension. The Washington Post reports:
To Hornscheidt, the popularity of ‘hen’ has not come as a surprise. “The introduction of a pronoun which challenges binary gender norms has been an important step, following a more thorough debate over the construction of gender within the last 10 years,” he said.
The Berlin-based researcher nevertheless cautions that simply introducing a gender-neutral pronoun in other countries may not be sufficient to fight sexism or gender-biases.
Be sure to take note: this pronoun challenges binary gender norms. These binary gender norms come from at least two sources.
A basic description of binary reality given to us in the poetic truth of scripture is that God created humankind male and female. I am not saying that binary gender norm is true because the Bible says so. I’m saying exactly the opposite. The Bible has this description because that is what we see out there. This leads us to the second source.
The evolutionary wisdom of natural selection brought us to this point. The binary coupling of male and female is how our species survives in nature. Any other couplings are evolutionary deadends. That’s a binary model of human kind.
How important is this? It depends on whether you want clear vision or not. We must challenge and topple ideologies that depreciate the value of the female.
After all, this is the most startling thing about the binary description of humankind in the Genesis chapter one. The male and the female are both essential to the image of God in humankind. There is no hierarchy in this image. If this is what we mean by a binary “gender” norm, then we must champion these kinds of changes in language. Must. This is a global battle and, I am convinced, it is the trajectory of the biblical narrative. This means using language, as in Sweden’s case, to highlight how our social constructs and cultural assumptions may limit the possibilities of women worldwide.
In other words, the difference between men and women may not be the differences we have created. Many of these socially constructed expectations limit the full potential of our girls. At the same time, we must not mask the reality of difference in the binary or we will create an unhealthy future.
Rather than erase the biological platforms we each receive, we must celebrate them.
At the same time, we must recognize the ways in which our assumptions, language, culture, and even biology often create systems that depreciate women, human uniqueness, and radical otherness. The question becomes how do we BOTH topple the global oppression of women and champion their value as women, AND still recognize and celebrate the distinction.
Gender-neutral pronouns are an attempt (however futile) to remove the invisible limitations of expectations, social constructs, and cultural morays, but may be prove just as harmful to our ability to see the reality that is visible.
Strange, isn’t it? We live in a culture that wants us to see invisible realities clearly and at the same time seeks to blind us to visible realities. I wonder if we can be open-eyed to both. My question is, Will Sweden’s experimentation with our children one day be considered abusive, irresponsible, or just a harmless eccentricity? My bigger question is, Will the global human community one day so recognize the valuable and indispensable treasure of the female that it will loudly, proudly, and happily announce, “It’s a girl!”, without suppressing anything and everything that a girl could become?
What do you think?
*I recognize that there are rare cases in which the gender is observably ambiguous. This is the exception that proves the point. *While it’s important, I think, to maintain the difference (singular) between the female and the male and sustain the binary and complementary image of the Genesis narrative (and of nature with regard to the evolution of our species), it is also necessary to acknowledge that the differences (plural) we often see are social constructs. Men and women are not equal in the sense that they are interchangeable. But both are necessary to the image of God in humankind.