Updated: Feb 23
I fussed a little but sat on my hands when I read Sarah Knapton’s report in The Daily Telegraph about how some North American scientists are urging that the words “male” and “female” be phased out of the academic lexicon because they reinforce the idea that sex is binary:
Researchers studying ecology and evolutionary biology should be encouraged to use terms such as “sperm-producing”, “egg-producing” or “XY/XX individual” to avoid “emphasizing hetero-normative views,” experts said.
Other terms deemed problematic include man, woman, mother, father, primitive, advanced, alien, invasive, exotic, non-native and race.
The terms were gathered as part of the Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) Language Project, founded by scientists in the U.S. and Canada who claim some terms are not inclusive and may be harmful. Even Charles Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” concept should no longer be used because it discriminates against people with disabilities and is linked to eugenics, they advised.
Speaking about the term “fitness” — used in biology to signify the success of a species in its habitat — Haley Branch, a doctoral candidate at the University of British Columbia (UBC), said: “The definition is about reproductive output, which doesn’t take into account individuals that don’t produce offspring.”
Hmm. Isn’t that exactly the point of evolution by natural selection? The individuals who never produced offspring might have lived fulfilling and valuable lives, but ultimately, their ill-starred gametes dried, withered and curled up in history’s dead letter box. They don’t figure in the next generation’s accounts book. Return to sender.
The EEB Language Project, which was launched in this month’s Trends in Ecology and Evolution journal, is compiling a repository of words that have been identified by scientists as harmful and is suggesting alternatives. It flagged up the term “citizen science,” saying it could be “harmful to non-citizens,” and suggested using “participant science or community science.”
The term “invasive” or “non-native species” is also deemed to be “xenophobic, anti-immigrant, and militaristic” and could be replaced with “newly arrived” or “nuisance species,” scientists said. They warned that minority researchers experienced “micro-aggressions” from words such as “invasive.”
Scientists also claimed that anti-trans language had been used to describe male snakes that engage in female mimicry, and said phrases such as “sneaky mating strategy” could “normalize problematic male sexual behaviour.”
Dr. Danielle Ignace, of UBC, said the project will be a “living document, as particular words that are harmful and their alternatives can change over time.”
The EEB Language Project said it will “provide resources and support action to reconsider harmful terminology at the levels of individuals, institutions and broader scientific communities.”
We’ll all sleep better tonight knowing that.
I might have muttered a little under my breath while digesting Dr. Sara Dahlen’s editorial in the British Medical Journal titled “Do we need the word ‘woman’ in healthcare?”
Dahlen offers a thoughtful, even-handed approach to how the medical community can endeavour to square the circle by trying to please cisgender women who want to be called women while simultaneously placating the gender-fluid cohort:
The omission of words such as ‘woman’ or ‘mother’ in favour of ‘gender inclusive’ or ‘gender neutral’ terminology tends to signal the clinician’s acknowledgement of a minority group. It is a form of communication aiming to be sensitive to the needs of transgender people, who have an identity or sense of self that is incongruent with their reproductive biology. Transgender patients require medical care appropriate to their bodies, but may not wish to be described by common words that reference their natal sex. Thus, an argument made for gender inclusive terminology might be that because some individuals with the capacity to gestate a child do not identify as women, pregnancy ought not be described solely as a ‘women’s issue.’ Academic publications may adopt gender neutral language for topics in female reproductive health. Examples include: a study protocol on menstruation using ‘people who menstruate’, an update of cervical cancer screening guidelines writing ‘individuals with a cervix’ or an ethics paper exploring elective caesareans during the COVID-19 pandemic writing ‘pregnant person.’ Yet, gender neutral language may be met with resistance when applied to other contexts. …
A deeper concern is whether gender inclusive linguistic changes could have the unintended consequence of making biological sex conceptually less visible and much more difficult to clearly explain in healthcare and medical education. Two distinct gametes and biological roles are identifiable in human sexual reproduction.
The word female traditionally signified a type of reproductive system with a unique structure and function compared with the male. ‘Woman’ in the context of ‘women’s health’ thus suggested that this field of medicine is interested in issues affecting the female biological sex (in a similar way as the root of the word ‘gynaecology’ comes from the Greek word for woman). Both reproductive biology and personal identity, as separate phenomena, are important to medicine and research. Do we need an unambiguous medical word to indicate that uterus-havers, individuals with a cervix and pregnant persons have in common a specific type of reproductive system? In plain language, how should we indicate such persons as biologically distinct from the epididymis-owners, prostate-possessors and seminal fluid producers? How should health educators explain the basic general differences between the bodies of menstruators and ejaculators? Should we have simple terms indicating which persons are more likely to require a pill for erectile dysfunction instead of one for abortion?
I always figured the simple terms “man” and “woman” filled that bill pretty well, but that goes to show what a douchebag ejaculator I am. (Even, I am sorry to say, with half a remaining prostate.) Still, there is no shortage of menstruators, uterus-havers and individuals with a cervix willing to meet gender neutral language with lusty resistance.
This is from Amy Eileen Hamm’s piece (titled Teaching UBC Medical Scholars that Biological Sex is a ‘Colonial Imposition’ and posted on Valentine’s Day, no less) in Quillette, a non-partisan, Australia-based online magazine that relies, according to its self-proclaimed mandate, on “reason, science, and humanism as our guiding values”:
You can study HIV in gay males — but your research sample must include females who have anal sex. You can study health outcomes in new fathers — but only if you agree that some fathers gestated and birthed their offspring. You also can study sexual violence inside of women’s prisons — but you must include those who currently, formerly, or occasionally “identify” as a woman.
Each of these examples reflects actual guidance for researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) Faculty of Medicine, one of Canada’s top medical schools. The document in which they’re contained, Gender & Sex in Methods & Measurement: Research Equity Toolkit, offers a case study in the process by which ideologically-driven pedagogical mandates associated with DEI — diversity, equity, and inclusion — are metastasizing throughout STEM.
There are probably few regular Quillette readers who haven’t already read indictments of overreach in the DEI field — or, as one Harvard Business Review headline writer calls it, “the DEI-Industrial Complex.” At best, dubious DEI practices are merely ineffective. At worst, they’re an outright scam. We’ve been forced (or “voluntold”) to sit through so many DEI seminars and Zoom sessions that we can recite the often-religious-seeming mantras by heart. No, I will not ask a non-white person “where they are from”; yes, I will announce my pronouns every time I step into a room. Hail, Mary, full of grace, they/them is with thee.
Quick non-medical intervention here: As the seminal-fluid-producing (though not, in my defence, nearly as much as when I/me/they was 16) partner of a gorgeous (Hail, Mary, full of gratuitous objectification) offspring generator who happened to be born in India but is in no way an invasive or nuisance species except when she sorts compulsively through my sock and underwear drawer, I/me/they heartily endorse the injunction against asking racialized people (and how is “racialized” kosher — can we still say kosher? — when “race” is verboten?), and by people I mean no offence and am merely denoting featherless bipeds, that is to say, I agree it’s high time to stop asking non-white two footers where they’re (really) from or if they find it a lot colder here than what they’re used to (presumably some subtropical hellhole thousands of klicks from the nearest Tim Hortons, eh?).
We now return you to our ongoing Hamm-fisted takedown:
Like other critics of DEI, I had long assumed that this ideological movement would stop at the gates of medical and engineering schools. After all, it’s one thing to affirm the existence of 37 genders when you’re writing an Intersectional Feminism midterm. It’s another thing when you’re training to become an obstetrician. It’s one thing to insist that “Indigenous ways of knowing” are just as scientifically valid as, well, science, when you’re composing a long-form land acknowledgement. It’s another thing to explicitly denounce the scientific method so that you can make sure no one gets their feelings hurt by the reality of human sexual biology.
A quick medically minded intervention: If Indigenous ways of knowing were just as scientifically valid as, well, science, presumably as many as 100 million people wouldn’t have been killed by diseases imported from Europe within 150 years of Columbus’s landing on Hispaniola. Sweetgrass ceremonies, shaman rattles and, in the case of the Aztecs, propitiatory child sacrifices in honour of the gods, weren’t particularly effective against smallpox, measles, cholera, diphtheria, typhus, malaria, bubonic plague … and also, just to be clear, even Ani DiFranco is only 32 flavours and then some.
But the ideologically constructed fables of progressive activist subcultures are now penetrating even the most important (and formerly) scientifically rigorous disciplines. At UBC, whose Centre for Gender and Sexual Health Equity (CGSHE) produced the above-described “Equity Toolkit,” researchers studying male populations are instructed to expand their outreach to anyone whose identity “resonates with masculinity.”
What does this even mean? Does watching the Super Bowl at Hooters now make you grow a prostate? According to the CGSHE, it’s all very complex, since a person’s masculinity may come and go like a summer breeze: “If your research is interested in men’s sexual risk taking, consider that a prospective participant may have identified as a man last year, but not today, or might identify as a man as well as non-binary. …”
Yesterday I/me/they dreamed I/me/they was a butterfly. Today am I a butterfly dreaming I’m a one-necked, two-spirited giraffe?
… UBC’s insistence on erasing the reality of biological sex will inevitably compromise the ability of researchers to advance public health and save lives: One does not have to be a physician researcher to understand that we cannot effectively study an at-risk population — such as gay males — while being required to gerrymander one’s research sample on the basis of self-identified criteria that have no medical basis. AIDS, cancer, and other diseases that exhibit sex-specific risk factors don’t care about your pronouns. Certainly, one cannot properly study medical risks that track (female) lesbians if one heeds the CGSHE’s admonition not to “assume that lesbian women are people with vulvas who have sex with other people who have vulvas.”
Lesbians do not have penises. Men are not women, nor vice versa. Do we really want to end up with a generation of physicians who pretend—and I pray that it is only pretending—not to know this?
The authors of Gender & Sex in Methods & Measurement presented it as a scientific (or at least science-adjacent) document. Yet despite this conceit, they couldn’t help but lapse into cultish slogans at many points in the text—never more so than in this space-time-continuum-warping flourish at the end:
Sex and gender binaries, along with endosexnormativity, cisnormativity and heteronormativity, are colonial impositions, which are entangled with white, Western and Christian worldviews and then treated as ahistoric, universal truths. One component of decolonizing research praxis is recognizing the complexity of gender, sex, sexuality, etc. and refusing the universalization of binaries and dominant ideologies about these facets of personhood.
Well, as I might have observed once before, alrighty then.
None of this stirred I/me/they to get off the couch (where, for all you/she/he/they know, I/me/mine might have been praxising cisnormative endosexnormativity with cisgusto) until I came across a seemingly unrelated Telegraph story about how Puffin Books has made hundreds of changes to the stories of Roald Dahl to make his characters less grotesque:
Augustus Gloop is no longer fat, Mrs. Twit is not fearfully ugly, and the Oompa-Loompas have gone gender neutral in new editions of Roald Dahl.
The word “fat” has been removed from every book. Augustus Gloop in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory may still look like a ball of dough, but can now only be described as “enormous.”
In the same story, the Oompa-Loompas are no longer “tiny” or “no higher than my knee” but merely small. And where once they were “small men,” they are now “small people.”
Mrs. Twit’s “fearful ugliness” is cut to “ugliness.” The words “black” and “white” have been removed: characters no longer turn “white with fear” and the BFG cannot wear a black cloak.
The Cloud-Men in James and the Giant Peach have become Cloud-People. Matilda reads Jane Austen rather than Rudyard Kipling, and a witch posing as “a cashier in a supermarket” now works as “a top scientist.”
An emphasis on mental health has led to the removal of “crazy” and “mad”, which Dahl used frequently in comic fashion. A mention in Esio Trot of tortoises being “backward,” the joke behind the book’s title, has been excised.
The changes were made by the publisher and the Roald Dahl Story Company, owned by Netflix, with sensitivity readers hired to scrutinize the text.
In some instances, passages not written by Dahl have been added. In The Witches, a paragraph explaining that witches wear wigs ends with the new line: “There are plenty of other reasons why women might wear wigs and there is certainly nothing wrong with that.”
The truth is, I can’t stand Roald Dahl, a rebarbative anti-Semite. I never liked his books and if you know even a little bit about the man (and I use the term loosely), it’s hard not to conclude that he was a toxic dump of masculinity (not the Tom Selleck kind; more William Shatneresque).
But for the love of Pete (Pete being a euphemistic substitution for Jesus fucking Christ), this puritanical expurgation of all elements anywhere that might ever hurt somebody’s feelings somewhere, sometime, any time, in literature, films, television, medicine, the classroom, history, science, journalism, table tennis … in every stinking field of human, all too human, endeavour … it has to stop.
The CGSHE people at UBC and the nice-Nelly sensitivity Roald Dahl readers are the bastard children of Shakespeare eviscerators Thomas Bowdler, his sister Henrietta and those corsetted, cosseted, sex-obsessed Victorians who prudishly covered evocative legs of tables and pianos.
The Bowdlers acted — and their successors are acting — on an ancient impulse. In The Republic, Plato advocates censoring the arts in general, and stories told to children in particular, so that their brains can be filled only with positive images (i.e. images that advance the interests of the state, as defined by the people who run the state). However well intended, it’s a knee-jerk reaction manifestly inimical to freedom and critical thinking.
Authors Salman Rushdie and Michael Shellenberger quickly took to Twitter to denounce the Dahl bowdlerization. Wrote Suzanne Nossel, the CEO of literature and human rights organization PEN America:
The problem with taking license to re-edit classic works is that there is no limiting principle. You start out wanting to replace a word here and a word there, and end up inserting entirely new ideas (as has been done to Dahl’s work).
The same principle applies, I/me/they would argue, with taking license to re-edit the human body in the interests of “woke” ideology.
I/me/they deplore the use of the term “woke” because people on the right seem to think that merely invoking it somehow makes the case for a MAGA-style rollback of all the progress that has been made since the 1960s on civil and gay rights, and especially the hard-fought victories of feminism.
But here’s the thing. Locked into and seemingly intoxicated in a desperate competition to signal their virtuosity at virtue, politically correct busybodies and do-gooders are provoking such a visceral Counter-Reformation among the great majority — even those generally sympathetic to progressive causes — that you’d almost suspect them of being a fifth column planted by evil geniuses like Rupert Murdoch and Roger Stone.
Overreaching, counterproductive, blunderbuss calls for bans on “fighting words” like male and female are manna from heaven (sorry, sperm-producing nutritional supplement from the Mar-a-Lago mother ship) for the Tucker Carlson & Co. rabble-rousing good time boys, whose overriding mandate is to scare the bejeebers out of Middle America about what those radical socialists have in store for their God-fearing but easily misled children.
Transsexuals, the cause of so much anxiety and chest-thumping on both the left and the right, make up 0.003 per cent of the U.S. population. Why is the tail (so to speak) wagging the dog? Hell, I’d settle for being able to listen to CBC Radio for a whole morning without hearing about their perpetual agon with injustice and, in some cases, reality.
Oh, and there’s one other thing.
When I have sex (so far as I can remember), it’s with the woman I love … and anyone who says differently can go fuck themselves (assuming their parts still line up to enable a successful coupling).
Full disclosure: I’d resonate with masculinity (the Liam Neeson kind) if only I still could.