By Professor José del Valle
I have been studying linguistic debates for years, and I guess it was just a matter of time until one would break out in my own backyard. It finally did, on January 16, when administrative and teaching staff at the City University of New York´s Graduate Center received a memorandum from the Office of the Provost and Senior Vice President. The memo informed us of new letter-writing guidelines that eliminated “the use of gendered salutations and references in correspondence to students, prospective students, and third parties.” In other words, they declared their commitment to avoid “Mr./Mrs./Ms.” as well as gender-marked pronouns in written exchanges with the above-mentioned addressees. It was presented in the spirit of the preferred-name practice – a practice, widely adopted nationwide, whereby students, faculty or staff may choose to be addressed by a name other than their legal one – and as part of an “ongoing effort to ensure a respectful, welcoming, and gender-inclusive learning environment at the GC and to accommodate properly the diverse population of current and prospective students.”
Unsurprisingly, the measure was picked up by some in the media and the news eventually gained significant traction. In Fox News, for example, Gretchen Carlson covered the episode through an interview with Judge Andrew Napolitano, a frequent guest. They did not break in any significant way with the typical forms of pushback that this type of linguistic choice tends to trigger among conservatives. However, the standard ridiculing of the new guidelines was done in a somewhat backhanded manner (mostly through Gretchen’s body language and mocking intonation), and the conversation focused instead on the legal dimension of the issue. In a nutshell, they chose to issue a warning that, if punitive measures were to be taken for non-compliance (punitive measures with which, by the way, the memo did not threaten in any shape or form), the institution would see itself in breach of the First Amendment: “While the university can drop Mr. or Ms. in its official documents, it cannot punish or coerce or instruct its employees or the students from using Mr. or Ms. because they have a First Amendment right to do so,” said the judge. In general, commentators chose the conventional route dismissing the new guidelines as silly left-wing political correctness and unacceptable linguistic authoritarianism. In response to questions from the press, a spokesperson for the institution confirmed the non-compulsory nature of the guidelines and reiterated their link to the spirit of the preferred-name practice.
The episode fits nicely within a well-known type of linguistic debate that results from a particular form of verbal hygiene (an illuminating term developed by British sociolinguist Deborah Cameron in her 1995 book of the same title). A new linguistic usage is tactically promoted within a broader strategy to push forward an egalitarian cause; in this case, gender equality, acceptance of gender non-conformity and gender-neutral decision-making at the institutional level. Typically, pushback from conservative forces ensues, and an effort is made to portray the agents behind the new norm as puppets at the service of the “looney left” and its culture wars. It is worth highlighting that the predictable conservative pushback – almost a knee-jerk reaction to any sign of a progressive cause’s forward movement – will unfold with the complicity of people – even faculty who might define themselves as liberals – who may agree or not with the alleged silliness of it all but get overly upset due to their perception of the memo’s prescriptive thrust.
Why? Why liberal pushback against a liberal cause? Because the memo – intentionally or not – brings to the surface the fact that the language we so nonchalantly use is political. When we address people as “Mr.”, “Mrs.” or “Ms.” we do it in a social context in which concepts such as male, female, gay or transgender are relevant to understanding who is included and who is excluded from certain spaces (just think of same-sex marriage). In the case at hand, the decision to put forward a new option for addressing interlocutors in writing forces us to face the fact that, when addressing someone, we are actually choosing to use language in a particular way and that our choice may very well have political implications. Of course, many would rather be left in peace feeling that the way they write or speak is innocent and the linguistic norms with which they so faithfully comply are nothing but a neutral and transparent system of communication. But the fact remains that language is social practice, that it is variable and that it is unavoidably embedded in the political life of institutions and countries.
In sum, it is not surprising that conservative commentators would react to The Graduate Center’s initiative; it is not surprising – in a political climate hostile to public universities – that they would take the opportunity to attack a proud and powerful public university such as CUNY; and it is not surprising that, in the process, they would appeal to common-sense ideas about language, often fierce enemies of social change. Whether the recommended guidelines will be adopted or not throughout the Graduate Center remains to be seen (it will ultimately rest on multiple individual choices). But that should not be the measure of the initiative’s success. In as much as it forces us to face language’s involvement in structural inequality (which it has already done), it is a worthy and commendable move. And if it makes us the target of The Wall Street Journal and Fox News, we must be doing something right.
José del Valle teaches Hispanic Studies and Linguistics at CUNY’s Graduate Center