The latest issue of Smithsonian arrived today, in time for my dinner. There are few things more pleasing than reading and eating on a fine summer day, sitting on the back patio with a light breeze blowing and the perfect toasted cheese sandwich, not burned this time, sitting on my plate.
But even a perfect toasted cheese sandwich can have its charms diminished when you find your sex so blithely dismissed in the opening lines of an article that caught your eye:
Seventy-seven thousand years ago, a craftsman sat in a cave in a limestone cliff overlooking the rocky coast of what is now the Indian Ocean…The man picked up a piece of reddish brown stone about three inches long that he – or she, no one knows – had polished. With a stone point, he etched a geometric design in the flat surface – simple crosshatchings framed by two parallel lines with a third line down the middle.
So, it was a craftsman. The man picked up a piece of stone. He had polished it. He etched a geometric design. Okay, this is the kind of exclusive language, When We Say Man We Really Mean You Too, Dear crap we’re all so used to we don’t even see it. But see, there’s that little sop to gender inclusiveness tossed in there – “or she, no one knows”. How cute! No one knows! But really, we do know, don’t we? He did it. It was him. We just had to add that bit in at the last edit to pacify the hairy-legged feminists.
This is almost worst than nothing at all. It says, “could be women – but no one really knows, do they? The safe bet is on men.” It’s the equivalent of saying “the PC police are always watching, so we’d better pretend like there is an actual possibility that we are including women in this discussion, even though we know we’re talking about Man, i.e. men, not women.”
It would have been trivially easy to write those opening lines in a way that really, truly, included men AND women as potentially equal players in this early civilization scenario. Here’s how:
Seventy-seven thousand years ago, a craftworker sat in a cave in a limestone cliff overlooking the rocky coast of what is now the Indian Ocean…The human picked up a piece of reddish brown stone about three inches long that he or she had polished. With a stone point, that early human etched a geometric design in the flat surface – simple crosshatchings framed by two parallel lines with a third line down the middle.
Doesn’t that give you a different feeling? My version is three words shorter, and doesn’t have that awkward “no one knows!” exclamation throwing off the flow of the prose. Science writers, take note please: gender inclusive language can make your writing better.