We received the following thoughtful response to Darrow’s post, A Personal Story About Why Words Matter, from our friend, Ryan Davis. Because it was worthy of more than a simple, brief reply, we are posting it here, with Darrow’s reply, for the benefit of all our readers.
As a book editor, I appreciate this discussion. Darrow, you write, “If I want to write clearly, I cannot use a singular term (someone, anyone, et al) with a plural phrase (‘he or she’).” I don’t think that is the case. First, terms like “someone” are not necessarily singular; they can be understood as plural. And second, “he or she” is not plural (as “he and she” is); the word “or” is used to connect alternatives, which are treated as singular. Merriam-Webster has an excellent video about this overall issue here.
Lastly, in the interest of using words carefully, I would caution Dr. Friberg against using phrases like “card-carrying feminists.” One definition of “feminism” in Merriam-Webster is “the belief that men and women should have equal rights and opportunities.” Under this definition, all Christians should be feminists. Further, I do not think that the occasional use of “he or she” is wrong; rather, it may serve to acknowledge that women have not always had equal rights and opportunities as men and that our language may at times reflect this historical reality. If we traditionally refer to a medical doctor as “he” but more readily call a nurse “she,” the “he” used for the doctor is not in fact a generic use of the term—it is a cultural bias.
Ryan, thank you for engaging regarding the importance and meaning of words. Since I do not have the same expertise with words as you and Dr. Friberg, I will defer to the two of you regarding your first comment.
I would like to respond to parts of your second paragraph. You mentioned “one definition of ‘feminism’ in Merriam-Webster.” I am interested in the etymology and shifting definitions of words. You are correct when you write “one definition” and I agree with the implication that many words have multiple meanings. It’s also true that the meanings of words shift over time. Why? Because of the shift in worldview. My friend and long-time colleague, Scott Allen, has treated this well in a short blog series on the changing definition of marriage. Scott shows how the concept of marriage has been redefined as our worldview moved from Judeo-Christianity to modern naturalism. (For a treatment of the same issue related to the word compassion see this and this.)
The same is true with the word feminism. I call myself a feminist. Christ was the first feminist. The issue is not the word, but its definition. The prevailing definition is determined by the prevailing worldview of a culture. But in fact, history has witnessed three broad streams: maternal feminism, modern feminism and now postmodern feminism. Each has been defined by the prevailing worldview of the culture.
Around 150-200 years ago the culture in the United States was informed by the Judeo-Christian worldview. Feminists of the day were “maternal feminists.” Women were considered equal to men and yet different from men. People acknowledged that sexuality was rooted in a transcendent nature: feminine related to sexual female and masculine to sexual male. Men and women fought to change labor laws to get mothers and children out of sweat shops. They fought for a family wage for men so mothers could stay home with their children. These same maternal feminists fought for the emancipation of slaves, and for voting rights for women. They supported a comprehensive agenda to increase justice in American life.
The twentieth century was marked by the rise and impact of the atheistic-materialist worldview, variously called naturalism, Darwinism, secular humanism, et al. This worldview has no transcendent meaning. People found meaning in the marketplace, in money, in material things. Men and women were considered equal with no distinctions. Men were in the marketplace and earned money; women would be equal to men when they were in the marketplace and earned money. Tragically, modern feminism maintained a male-value standard. Women would be equal to men when they became like men. The great equalizer was abortion, which allowed women to be most like men. They could have sex without the “burden” of children.
Today we are increasingly embracing the postmodern, neo-pagan worldview (without entirely leaving the modern worldview, of course). This framework is derived from philosophic monism – all is one. In this mix, the concept of feminism is changing again. Modern feminism eliminated the transcendent nature of feminine and masculine, postmodern feminism seeks to eliminate the biological nature of sex, of male and female. In fact, in postmodernism there is no diversity. There is only unity, only the cosmic oneness. All distinctions disappear. There is no meta-narrative, no right answers. We make up the answers as we go along. Thus we no longer uses the term sex (a physical/biological term) when speaking of male and female, but rather gender, an elastic word open to social adjustment.
With regard to human sexuality and feminism, the aim of postmodernism is androgyny, the end of sexual distinctions. We see this in the modern deconstruction of marriage and the redefinition of marriage as a relationship between two (or more) consenting adults. We see laws being passed giving grammar-school children the privilege of declaring their desired gender, and constructing their life accordingly. We see a concept unthinkable just a generation ago: the “marriage” of two people of the same sex.
So, Ryan, yes, I agree: words—including feminism—have differing definitions. But I suggest the most recent dictionary should not be our authoritative source. We must consider the worldview that is driving these changes in definitions.
Thanks again for your engagement with us in this blog subject. Looking forward to continuing discussions.