There’s a provocative letter in a recent issue of the London Review of Books, in which a correspondent writes of ‘the fantasy of gender’. I must admit that, accustomed as I am nowadays to all manner of distortions of commonly accepted reality, this took me aback. But she (I take the liberty of using the old-fashioned pronoun) cites a pronouncement that ‘inconvenience is the force that makes one shift a little while processing the world.’ 

My problem here is that, as I understand it, language is a mechanism designed to minimise inconvenience in our dealings with one another. It can, of course, be employed to disrupt or confuse, but that is surely a specialised usage that may be effective when such disruption is proclaimed, as in poetry or drama. When it’s concealed, when the intention is to mislead or influence without the reader or listener being aware of that intention, we are confronting propaganda pure and simple.  

Like much of the ‘inconvenience’ that ultra-politicised contemporary debate likes to create in making us – the users of English – ‘shift’ our opinions, the problem with the term ‘gender’, as with countless other words, is that it has a generally understood meaning, and that unmooring it from that meaning tends to render it useless. ‘Gender’ has already been allowed to take over from the word ‘sex’ in denoting whether individuals are male or female (I presume because ‘sex’ has become a synonym merely for the erotic); and we are now being encouraged to question whether the two words (‘gender’ and ‘sex’) are in fact interchangeable. More than that, it’s suggested that they are irrelevant.  The very act of assigning an identity, ‘male’ or ‘female’, to an individual is arrogant and unjustifiable (because the individual in question may not choose to agree with the identity offered by nature or society). 

Readers will recall the recent case of a school-teacher becoming aggressively angry because a child in her care asserted the value of being clear as to the meaning of common expressions. We are entitled to ask, what was her justification in trying to ‘shift a little’ in ‘processing’ that tiny corner of the world? How did her behaviour relate to the business of educating, as opposed to indoctrinating? 

My response would be that, whatever justification an adult finds in altering language to suit a personal interpretation of reality, children need to be given a clear framework of meaning in which to ‘process’ the world they are still learning to understand. There’s a clear parallel with moral instruction, where it’s generally recognised that children need unambiguous guidance as to right and wrong. If a meaning different from that which is generally accepted is ‘forced’ on the still growing mind, that constitutes indoctrination, and will certainly create bewilderment. 

Some believe strongly that indoctrination is not only desirable but necessary: for my part, I would endorse an understanding of words as vehicles of sense that may on occasion be used ambiguously or flexibly. But I can’t bring myself to approve a free-for-all in which words mean, as Humpty Dumpty boasted, what the speaker chooses them to mean, independent of common usage. That way madness lies. Alice saw that quite clearly, and I have little doubt that some people are only too happy to encourage that eventuality. 

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