Inclusionary Language

Thinking a thought all the way to the end

The journalist and author Oliver Burkeman (whose book Four Thousand Weeks I highly recommend) made the following comment the other day:

Not long afterwards, I saw this nine-tweet thread from Stonewall UK expounding on the need for inclusionary language around gender, while also throwing their hands up in horror at the problems of confusing sex markers on medical records - as if they had no hand in the mess that has resulted form the conflation of sex and gender.

So I want to illustrate what happens once you start down the road with inclusionary gender language, and where it ends up if you think it all the way through to the end.

Let’s take a truly fictional example and imagine the following sentence needs to be more inclusionary:

“We recommend a prostate check to men over 50”

I know this requires suspension of disbelief since men’s services are never rewritten the way that women’s are, but please just go with it.

The starting logic for inclusionary gender language is that:

  • Man is a “gender” word, not a “sex” word

  • How people identify their gender must be respected (transwomen are women, transmen are men, non-binary people are valid)

  • Referring to sex is invalidating for people whose gender does not “align” with their sex

  • Male people who don’t “identify as men” will be excluded - either from confusion, or from feeling invalidated - if a service refers only to men

So immediately, we see the problem that the term “men” excludes those transwomen with a prostate. Perhaps in a bid to be “kind”, we would reflexively fix this by including transwomen:

“We recommend a prostate check to men and transwomen over 50”

There, nobody is left out now, right? I have even seen people suggest that this single modification is a reasonable compromise. But we have not thought this all the way through - not everybody who has a prostate identifies as a man or a transwoman. For example, there are non-binary people, and in order to include them we should have:

“We recommend a prostate check to men, transwomen and non-binary people over 50”

But “non-binary” people can be either sex, and we want to include all people who have a prostate, regardless of their gender identity. We must avoid referencing sex directly, since this is invalidating, so the only place we can really go is:

“We recommend a prostate check to men, transwomen and non-binary people with a prostate over 50”

This is starting to get clunky - do all the people have to be over 50? Just the non-binary people? Non-binary people who themselves have a prostate that is over 50?

But remember also - transmen are men, and don’t have prostates, and are being incorrectly included, so to respect the identity of all men, really we should say:

“We recommend a prostate check to cisgender men, transwomen and non-binary people with a prostate over 50”

Well that’s no good either is it? Because not everyone identifies as “cisgender”. We have people who are genderfluid, genderqueer, agender:

“We recommend a prostate check to cisgender men, transwomen and non-binary, agender, genderfluid, genderqueer people with a prostate over 50”

But what about people who reject the terminology of “cis” altogether? They are excluded by this language too, and there is no way to include them. Respecting the way people identify is deemed paramount, but there is no word for those who opt-out or disregard this system of gender labelling. How do you include people who are unnamable in your system of naming? The idea that people who don’t adopt one of these labels must be cis regardless of what they say about themselves does not fit, conceptually, with the insistence that how people personally identify is of utmost importance. You would have to have something like:

“We recommend a prostate check to men who reject gender identity terminology, cisgender men, transwomen and non-binary, agender, genderfluid or genderqueer people with a prostate over 50”

It isn’t just a slippery slope - it is actually impossible to include all genders in language like this. Perhaps at this point you might throw your hands up at the ever-expanding list of genders, and focus on the body instead. But since talking about sex directly isn’t acceptable, to be truly inclusive you would have to say:

“We recommend a prostate check to all prostate-havers over 50”

Which is both dehumanising, and opaque to anyone who doesn’t know what a prostate is or whether they have one. We either enumerate every possible gender or end up talking about disembodied organs in a way that is reductive, tautological, and excludes those with limited English. Even then, there are those who would confound this attempt to refer to specific organ-havers, who insist that they have (or don’t have) the requisite organs out of denial of their own sexed bodies.

The problem all comes from the demand that absolutely everyone agree that “man” is a gender word, not a sex word.

If you reject that premise - if you believe that man simply means adult human male, and only that - then none of this is necessary.

You can say that you opt-out of society’s stereotypes, and in that regard terms like non-binary, genderfluid etc are entirely valid labels for gender nonconformity. All of which is fine so long as you don’t also insist that everyone accept the stereotypes you are opting out of are an inherent part of the word “man”. That step presupposes that man is a gender word, not a sex word, and rather than dismantling the societal stereotypes of “manhood”, instead locates them wholly in the word “man”, and makes them unchallengeable.

On the progressive end of this current debate, the argument is between those who think that terms like “man” should be expansive enough to cover all adult human males, and those who think they should not.

“Inclusionary” language works in service of the latter, and masks the fact that a necessary precondition of people being included, is that they have first been excluded, not by society, but by their own belief system.

A service provider offering prostate checks to men didn’t stop considering gender-nonconforming men as “men” and exclude them. It is the reverse. An individual takes a specific, narrow view of what a man is allowed to be, then decides that they are not one by their own understanding, and demands that a service provider accept both of these propositions - that their narrow definition of “man” is correct, and that they, individually are therefore not one any longer. It takes an individual’s desire to be seen and referred to in a certain way interpersonally and demands it be universally recognised as a true categorical shift.

Gender-inclusionary language - under the rubric of kindness - takes a particular belief system as a given, and coercively demands that everybody else believe the same thing, because to fail to do so is unkind, invalidating, exclusionary.

It demands of all of society that they collude in excluding gender-nonconforming men from the category of “man”.

This is why it is a fundamentally regressive worldview.