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Brandeis University's Community Newspaper — Waltham, Mass.

I pronounce you man and wife

Published: December 2, 2005
Section: Opinions

I pronounce you man and wife.

You, as the man, are still a full-fledged individual with the aspirations, rights, successes and failures that come from individuality. The woman, however, now only exists in terms of you. She is your property, her aspirations are whatever your aspirations are, her rights are what you say they are, and so on.
But we dont say I pronounce you man and wife anymore. It has been replaced, in most cases, by the phrase I pronounce you husband and wife. Its a small changesomething that I hadnt even noticed until I looked into itbut I want to know if it is a meaningful one.

The attacks on political correctness in the campus media have been widespread. In fact, this is one of the most contentious issues in society today. To put this in perspective, the article on political correctness in the Wikipedia is flagged for neutrality. Neither abortion nor the Israel-Palestinian Conflict raise so much controversyand this conflict isnt based on party lines. Kevin Montgomery, one of the most liberal people I know, recently wrote an op-ed for the Hoot arguing that new, gender-neutral terms were irrelevant. Political correctness is not the banner of the left and many on the left would argue that it doesnt matter.

But words do matter. What we say and how we say it (or sometimes dont say it) makes a differencemore than we usually admit. At the start of all our Brandeis careers, the University brought a woman named Maura Cullin in to speak to us. As part of that speech, she asked us to think of words that used the or described things black or white. The list ranged from things like blacklist and Devils food to whitelist and Angels food. The point was to show us that we can encode values in our language and that some of those values can be racist.

This isnt saying that people using the term blacklist today are racist. Far from that! People today have had almost no choice in their use of languageour languages and institutions come pre-defined from previous generations. And sometimes we dont like the institutions of previous generations and we change them. In the short history of the United States, African-Americans are now not only not slaves but legally equal, Women can vote, immigrants arent beaten on the streets. We have changed these institutions because our morality demanded itbecause we couldnt stand for them any more. This process is ongoing. Today Brandeis students are standing up for the rights of people in Darfurbecause their morality demands that, while those in Darfur dont have much, if anything, to do with us and neither we nor our institutions are the source of their suffering, we must help them.

But language has been more stagnant than most of our institutions. This is probably because language doesnt have an immediate, direct effect on things combined with the fact that change can be an annoying hassle. To be completely honest, I even find these changes to be annoying. Take, as an example, the change from chairman to chairperson. It was frustrating. I had to spend the effort to change my speaking patters and even today, after saying chairperson for years, it still causes me added effort because of the extra syllable. Plus, I dont feel chairperson rolls off my tongue as well as chairman does. It is a hassle and many people believe that it is a pointless one.

But these words do matter. While none of us are trying to say that women cant be the leaders of groups, by saying chairman we are institutionalizing a value in our languagethat men are more naturally leaders. The term suggests, Well, men are the most likely entities to be the chair of something, so there is no reason to make the term apply to the few fluke women who might be chairs. Worse is when we dont have terms at all. Take the possessive adjectives his and her. These adjectives ignore the growing alternatively-gendered community we are starting to recognize in our world. Our language finds them of so little value that there isnt even a widely-accepted possessive adjective for them.

Think about your kids as they will grow up in the future. Without a possessive adjective for alternatively-gendered individuals, they will not learn in their early schooling that these people exist. They will know menwho can become things like chairmen. They will know womenwho can become things like housewivesand it will take a lot to convince them later that women can be powerful. They will not know alternatively-gendered peoplewho can become nothingand it will take a lot in their lives to change that if they learn about alternatively-gendered people as an afterthought many years later.

But, as Ive pointed out, we are not the architects of our languages and the blame for a term like chairman can lie with the generations before usthe same generations that gave us slavery, the belief that rape was not possible within marriage, non-universal suffrage, and general intolerance the likes of which are unimaginable to us today. That blame is not ours, but as we move forward we should take these steps to reorient our language to our modern values.

When asked, Alwina Bennett, Assistant Dean of Student Life, says that she is proud to be called politically correct and thanks folks who label her that way. What is wrong with asking people what they want to be called, and respecting their wishes? Language does (and should) evolve. I value precise and accurate languageand truthand believe words are too important to use incorrectly. And as for the political part of the term, I dont even understand what it means;

frankly, the political establishment has rarely represented my beliefs and values, so why should I start to worry now?

And so the phrase I pronounce you man and wife does not directly alter our laws. It does not make men beat their wives. It doesnt ensure discrimination against them. But it does alter our values. It hides away in the back of our heads subtly suggesting that men are more important than womenits insidious;

its unconscious. Its hard to fight because it is so subtleperfectly rational and intelligent people from all sides of the political spectrum can easily dismiss its effects. But the next time you come upon a word, say mankind, think of what word you would create if you were creating the word anew with your morality. Would you create a word referring to the human population that pretended that 50% of it didnt exist (and, therefore, indicating that that 50% wasnt important) or would you try and create a term that was inclusive?