Why we should not use gendered pronouns

An argument against gendered pronouns; criticism welcome

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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#21  Postby Thommo » Oct 02, 2014 6:38 pm

Pebble wrote:The problem identified is real, the solution off target. Information can be used to monitor a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed. So reducing language to a bland genderless goo would provide opportunities for unobserved sexual bias.
You do not get racial equality by getting racists to pretend they are colour blind, rather by making discrimination socially unacceptable.


And yet racial slurs have been condemned and get a tiny fraction of the use they once did. Changing language very much played a part in changing attitudes towards racism, I don't think it acts strictly as a monitor with no impact. The lines between thought and deed are not so well drawn.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#22  Postby Pebble » Oct 02, 2014 6:44 pm

Thommo wrote:
Pebble wrote:The problem identified is real, the solution off target. Information can be used to monitor a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed. So reducing language to a bland genderless goo would provide opportunities for unobserved sexual bias.
You do not get racial equality by getting racists to pretend they are colour blind, rather by making discrimination socially unacceptable.


And yet racial slurs have been condemned and get a tiny fraction of the use they once did. Changing language very much played a part in changing attitudes towards racism, I don't think it acts strictly as a monitor with no impact. The lines between thought and deed are not so well drawn.


I have not recommended the use of sexual slurs! As far as I know it is still permissible to observe peoples racial origin and use it in conversation, simply not acceptable to use it for the purpose of offense. I know some would like to go much further and suggest all use of 'race' is offensive, fortunately these language police remain a minority.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#23  Postby Jake » Oct 02, 2014 6:46 pm

I've removed the P.S. because it appears people were too fixated on the examples I gave there and used them as an excuse to ignore the actual argument. However, they did serve some function, as they have already revealed the undue importance a few of you place upon gender.

hackenslash wrote:Just one question:

What's information?

For the purpose of this debate, I'd define it as facts about or properties of a person or thing.

Pulsar wrote:
Jake wrote:They were loud.

They were annoying.

They were cowardly.

They were strong.

They were fat.

They were skinny.

Who were loud? Who were annoying? Who were cowardly? Who were strong? Who were fat? Who were skinny?

"They" refers to an individual person, as I stated in my original post. Don't tell me you actually didn't understand this.

Pulsar wrote:
Jake wrote:See how all of the emphasis is placed on the subjects' relevant characteristics and no unfair associations between gender and other characteristics are suggested? The subjects are treated as people rather than as genders, and the desired amount of information is communicated.

Bullshit. You eliminated information about the subjects, making your statements vague and meaningless. These "unfair associations between gender and other characteristics" are in your head. You should do something about these prejudices of yours instead of projecting them onto others.

You are the perfect example of the consequences of gendered pronouns. You assert that statements are "meaningless" without gender, implying that you characterize people based only upon their genders, rather than upon characteristics relevant to the context.

babel wrote:
1. Language's purpose is to convey as much information as possible. This is untrue. Language's purpose is to provide as much control as possible over information output. If one wishes to conceal information, language should provide mechanisms for successful concealing of information or outright deception. A gay person who has not yet come out to their parents may wish to conceal their partner's gender from their parents in order to avoid revealing the same-sex status of their relationship, yet referring to their partner without using gendered pronouns would act as an immediate red-flag to the gay person's parents. But if we as a society used gender-neutral pronouns by default, the issue of gender would likely never be raised, and the gay person could talk to their parents about their partner without revealing their partner's gender or appearing suspicious. This situation is only one example in which default use of gender-neutral pronouns would actually increase language's function as a tool for controlling information output.
This, to me, sounds like you are attempting to solve one problem by camouflage. The issue in this lies with the social prejudice vis a vis homosexuality. People shouldn't feel the need to conceal their partner's gender (especially for their parents)
The gender neutral pronouns won't change a thing about the reluctance in the closet gay people experience to come out. I would actually argue the opposite. Hiding it by omitting the gender of their partner tries to hide that 'unpleasant fact' from those holding bigoted opinions on such relationships.

With regards to your examples: I find them poorly chosen, since none of the female examples is positive, unlike for the male examples. I wonder where these associations occur.

My example has nothing to do with solving the problem of homophobia. I was giving an example of how one individual in one specific situation could use gender-neutral pronouns to conceal information. I'm not claiming gender-neutral pronouns would defeat homophobia, only that they would increase the functionality of language as a tool for controlling information output. I could have used any example in which someone would want to conceal gender. I did not choose a gay-related example in order to connect this issue to gay rights.

babel wrote:
Jake wrote:1. The communication of gender through pronouns does not serve any vital linguistic function. A subject can still act without a gender and an object can still be acted upon without a gender. Gender is no more vital to one's role within linguistic structure than are any number of other properties such as race, religion, hair color, height, weight, etc. If one's gender becomes relevant within a certain context, one's gender can be intentionally specified just as one's race can be intentionally specified should it become relevant. Therefore gendered pronouns serve no vital purpose; we could communicate effectively without them.
But for all these other descriptors, there's no pronoun available, so it requires to add complexity to your sentence to specify. For gender, thanks to the gender specific pronouns, you can easily include that information without much effort.
Furthermore, this argument boils down to "I don't think gender information is that important".
First of all: I disagree, which is just as much valid as your argument that it isn't.

Yes, but we have no problem with supplying information about people without using pronouns. We could easily do the same for gender.

My argument doesn't "boil down" to anything. It stands as it is, in all of its nuanced complexity. I acknowledge that genders are important in some contexts, but using gendered pronouns implies they are relevant in all contexts. You've simply stated your own opinion with no argument to back it up. You seem to imply that gender is always relevant in all contexts. If you want to support this assertion or a similar assertion, you're going to need an actual argument of your own.

Second: your disagreeing with yourself. For it to be unimportant or irrelevant information, you seem to attach an awful lot of associations and importance to it.

I don't mean this as an insult, but this statement is as ridiculous as the assertion that atheists should not care about religion or attach importance to it simply because they don't believe in God. I can point out the consequences and implications of using gendered pronouns, while simultaneously asserting that we should not attach undue importance to gender. There is no contradiction or disagreement there. My point is that gendered pronouns create unfair associations and importance within our brains, and that we should eliminate these pronouns to avoid creating these associations.

The_Metatron wrote:No, the subjects have been made into vague blobs of unknown numbers of people, instead of the more clear sentences that describe individuals.

Pop on over to A+. They revel in this shit. Or he does. Or zur does, or some stupid shit.

Your argument seems to be with the use of the singular they pronoun, not with the use of gender-neutral pronouns in general. Your comments would be more appropriate in my Linguistics thread.

Steve wrote:What gender are you, Jake?

I am a straight, white male. About as privileged as one can get. Why do you ask?

laklak wrote:Language evolved gender specific pronouns because they were more useful than non-specific ones. "He is strong" or "she is strong" conveys more information than "they is strong" or "ze is strong". We already have non-specific pronouns for cases that warrant them. If someone chooses to use "they" as opposed to "he" or "she" that's their prerogative; however, I see that as frankly ridiculous under most circumstances. It's like looking at a black guy and a white guy and saying "the dude with the red shirt" instead of "the white guy". Gender is an identifying characteristic, just as skin color, hair color (or lack thereof) or eye color are. Recognizing gender does not make one a tool of the patriarchy. There is a difference between saying "she is weak" and "all women are weak". One is specific and may or may not be correct, the other is an incorrect generalization.

As I stated in my OP, the purpose of language is not to convey as much information as possible whether the speaker/writer likes it or not, but rather to provide as much control over information output as possible. Your example in which we distinguish between two men based upon their races doesn't apply to this debate. It's fine to distinguish between two people based on some arbitrary physical characteristic because it's convenient. What would not be fine would be creating a set of pronouns based upon race in order to characterize someone based upon their race in literally every single context, implying race is always important in any given situation. And I realize there is a difference between saying all women are weak and saying she is weak, but as I've already stated repeatedly, humans are inductive and inferential creatures and will attach undue importance to irrelevant/extra information, especially if that information is repeated over and over and over, as gendered pronouns are. Part of accounting for our tendency to over-infer is eliminating unnecessary/irrelevant information from language.

Also, this has very little to do with "the patriarchy" and much more to do with avoiding unnecessarily characterizing people based upon gender. I see this as harmful toward everyone, including males.

laklak wrote:
Jake wrote:It appears the speaker is associating the gender of each pronoun with the corresponding characteristic. The women seem to be judged for being loud, annoying, or fat, as women. The men seem to be judged for being cowardly or skinny, as men, or they seem to be commended for being strong, as men. These gendered pronouns create unnecessary and irrelevant associations in our minds and imply the speaker considers the subjects' genders relevant to the subjects' other characteristics. Now read the same statements after each gendered pronoun has been replaced with the singular "they" (one of English's only gender-neutral pronouns).


Maybe to you, but IMO you're over-thinking it. "Seem to be" doesn't mean "are", that's something going on in your mind. If someone says "she's really stupid" I don't associate stupidity with the class noun "woman" anymore than I associate it with "canine" if someone points to a dog and says "he's really stupid". By definition a pronoun is a word that substitutes for a noun or noun phrase, it can be singular or plural. You'll note that in English gendered pronouns are singular, non-gendered are plural (except for the singular "it"). When you say "he" or "she" or "his" or "hers" you're identifying a specific individual, not a group. If you use "they", "us", "them", "you" (pl), you are identifying a group of non-gendered objects.

Of course a few individual examples will not create a strong or even noticeable (for some people) association immediately, but the point is that we use gender to characterize almost every single person we talk about, so after a while the associations are inevitably created within our minds. Again, the logical implication of characterizing someone by their gender is that their gender is somehow relevant to the context, and our brains pick up on this.

Thommo wrote:I'm actually quite sympathetic towards this argument. We do have a lot of societal conditioning towards treating men and women differently, which in both directions leads towards harmful stereotypes - just look at the activity we get in numerous threads about women's and men's rights.

An interesting example of how in-group and out-group pronouns and descriptors can work is to look at the perception of a religious or racial words like negro or kaffur take on negative qualities and even spawn bastardized terms that are explicitly derogatory.

The biggest counterarguments for me are firstly that people like gender roles and positive stereotypes, so they will not want to change based on negative stereotypes and the fact that goals of gender equality are almost certain to be unachieved with such a change when forenames are still gender based (my name is Paul, you won't be hiding my gender via use of a pronoun, for example).

Incidentally I do not agree that statements such as "She was loud." cause any association in my mind with women as a whole and "being loud", she is a singular pronoun after all.

I was hoping someone would raise the issue of gendered names. I do see them as a bit of problem, but I believe they will eventually fade away as people begin to think about gendered language more seriously. Eliminating gendered pronouns would be a huge step toward the ultimate goal of eliminating unnecessarily gendered language. I believe gendered names would follow.

And you may not notice the associations created through use of gendered pronouns, but many people do, especially since gendered pronouns are used everywhere. Given this is a forum for rational people, I would expect far fewer people here to be susceptible to gender-based prejudice than in the real world.

Pebble wrote:The problem identified is real, the solution off target. Information can be used to monitor a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed. So reducing language to a bland genderless goo would provide opportunities for unobserved sexual bias.
You do not get racial equality by getting racists to pretend they are colour blind, rather by making discrimination socially unacceptable.

The problem I've identified, and the problem that you seem to be acknowledging, is that gendered pronouns create gender/sexual bias, so I don't see how eliminating these pronouns is "off target". People form associations and generalizations based on the language they speak and hear. Fixing the language helps eliminate unfair associations and generalizations. Again, please read my entire argument.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#24  Postby Thommo » Oct 02, 2014 6:50 pm

Pebble wrote:I have not recommended the use of sexual slurs! As far as I know it is still permissible to observe peoples racial origin and use it in conversation, simply not acceptable to use it for the purpose of offense. I know some would like to go much further and suggest all use of 'race' is offensive, fortunately these language police remain a minority.


Someone who dots their speech with "negro" or "boy" (neither of which are offensive words in themselves) comes across in a particular way and that both reflects and forms part of the way they think. It's much harder to make racial discrimination socially unacceptable when the very tools of language and its common use reinforce racial differences. It's not that much of a leap to say the same could be true for gender.

As for whether language becomes bland goo I would only say that as a native English speaker I do not find French with its two genders for objects or German with three to be intrinsically more exciting or less gooey. Maybe that's just personal taste, but for me the objection seems spurious.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#25  Postby Pebble » Oct 02, 2014 6:53 pm

Thommo wrote:
Pebble wrote:I have not recommended the use of sexual slurs! As far as I know it is still permissible to observe peoples racial origin and use it in conversation, simply not acceptable to use it for the purpose of offense. I know some would like to go much further and suggest all use of 'race' is offensive, fortunately these language police remain a minority.


Someone who dots their speech with "negro" or "boy" (neither of which are offensive words in themselves) comes across in a particular way and that both reflects and forms part of the way they think. It's much harder to make racial discrimination socially unacceptable when the very tools of language and its common use reinforce racial differences. It's not that much of a leap to say the same could be true for gender.

As for whether language becomes bland goo I would only say that as a native English speaker I do not find French with its two genders for objects or German with three to be intrinsically more exciting or less gooey. Maybe that's just personal taste, but for me the objection seems spurious.


I suppose I would see bimbo or 'girl' as the corollary of negro and 'boy' - not simply the use of gender pronouns.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#26  Postby Clive Durdle » Oct 02, 2014 6:55 pm

Is anyone suggesting he or she should never be used/ Or that "they" is fine for general use as a singular?
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#27  Postby Clive Durdle » Oct 02, 2014 6:56 pm

Who's "she"? The cat's mother?
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#28  Postby I'm With Stupid » Oct 02, 2014 6:57 pm

Language is descriptive, not prescriptive. You're not going to change people's attitudes just because you change the language. Look at the long list of terms for disability.

Lame/crippled > handicapped >disabled > differently abled.
Lunatic > mentally ill.
Idiot/imbecile/moron/cretin > spastic > mentally retarded > learning difficulties.

At some point, you have to address the attitudes of society towards these issues that result in every one of these terms becoming an insult, rather than simply attempting to engineer the language to use new terms.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#29  Postby laklak » Oct 02, 2014 6:57 pm

Oldthinkers unbellyfeel ungenderspeak.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#30  Postby Clive Durdle » Oct 02, 2014 7:03 pm

On language and disability things are changing for the better. Spaz, crip, gimp, mong are now not acceptable. "Disabled people" is slowly becoming normal as newspaper editors use their guides.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#31  Postby Pebble » Oct 02, 2014 7:08 pm

Jake wrote:

Pebble wrote:The problem identified is real, the solution off target. Information can be used to monitor a problem that would otherwise go unnoticed. So reducing language to a bland genderless goo would provide opportunities for unobserved sexual bias.
You do not get racial equality by getting racists to pretend they are colour blind, rather by making discrimination socially unacceptable.

The problem I've identified, and the problem that you seem to be acknowledging, is that gendered pronouns create gender/sexual bias, so I don't see how eliminating these pronouns is "off target". People form associations and generalizations based on the language they speak and hear. Fixing the language helps eliminate unfair associations and generalizations. Again, please read my entire argument.


On what basis do you make the incorrect assumption that I did not read the entire argument. That I found it unconvincing and unworthy of line by line rebuttal at this point in the thread is not evidence that I did not read it.

I have not argued that people do not generalize, simply that you solution addresses only a tangential issue. Recognition and use of gender is not the problem, gender bias is the problem. Generalization will occur with or without these pronouns. So associations between female sex and lack of physical strength, inability to hold alcohol, solve mathematical problems etc - those are the issues, not the use of pronouns per se.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#32  Postby I'm With Stupid » Oct 02, 2014 7:24 pm

Clive Durdle wrote:On language and disability things are changing for the better. Spaz, crip, gimp, mong are now not acceptable. "Disabled people" is slowly becoming normal as newspaper editors use their guides.

That's the point though. Those words became unacceptable, so people used the new words as insults instead. It's not that long since retarded was the PC term. Now it's something that can get you into a lot of trouble. You could potentially make the argument that a change in language facilitates a change in attitudes, but I'm not sure how true that is, because of the long line of previous attempts.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#33  Postby Beatsong » Oct 02, 2014 7:57 pm

Totally agree with the OP. I fuckin hate the fact that we don't have a proper gender-neutral pronoun, I always have.

laklak wrote:Language evolved gender specific pronouns because they were more useful than non-specific ones. "He is strong" or "she is strong" conveys more information than "they is strong" or "ze is strong".


But that is only an advantage when the information being conveyed is accurate and relevant. "More information" is not better per se. "More information that is accurate and relevant, and less that is irrelevant or misleading" is what we look for in language.

If I'm in a classroom with 30 kids, another adult walks in and I say "he's misbehaving again", you could be technically correct that using "he" instead of a gender-neutral pronoun narrows it down to the male half of the class. But that doesn't really help. If I can't assume the other person knows who I'm talking about, I really need to say "David's misbehaving again". Much more so when we're using these words in a context that only narrows them down to half of the entire human race.

Much more importantly though, there are occasions when the gender specificity of the pronoun is positively misleading. For example when a writer is referring to an abstract person representing people in general. As in "the average person, when writing his Christmas list, only thinks of himself and not what others need. He is not worthy of Santa's generosity". This is actively misleading because it suggests that maleness is an "average" characteristic of people.

Sure, we could say "the average person, when writing their Christmas list, only thinks of themselves and not what others need. They are not worthy of Santa's generosity". But this is an unsatisfying kludge, because it confuses "they" as a gender-neutral singular pronoun, with "they" in its original meaning as a plural pronoun. Who in this case is not worthy of Santa's generosity, the average person, or the "others" that he isn't thinking of? (whom he would then be perfectly justified in not thinking of, since they are so undeserving :) ).

All the suggestion of "they" as a gender-neutral pronoun does is admit that we DO need one, but insist that for some reason we should be happy to make do with an inelegant, unclear and confusing one.

Then you get those non-fiction writers these days who try to get around it by alternating "he" and "she". "The average American, when writing his Christmas list, only thinks about himself. By contrast, the average Japanese begins by considering the needs of her family". This is even more bizarre. Is maleness average in America, but femaleness average in Japan? Or is it just that men are all selfish bastards who don't think of others at Christmas, and women not?

I must admit, gender-skeptical and equality minded as I am, I always cringe a little when I read non fiction books doing that. The "she" always stands out as a self-conscious attempt to be PC. And it doesn't actually express the desired point, which is the LACK of gender-specificity in statements about AVERAGE people or PEOPLE GENERALLY, anyway.

There's no getting round it: our language is structured around the assumption that the basic, default person is male. The human race is "MANkind". Men do stuff, and it gets written about. Oh... and there's also those peripheral, somewhat defective almost-men that need to be specified now and then, the women.

It's no great shame to our culture specifically - AFAIK the same is true of every language in the world (which makes sense, given the ubiquity of male-dominant sexism in human history when languages were developing). But it just doesn't work, for those of us who want to express, hear and read information about PEOPLE where gender is irrelevant or misleading, in the 21st century.

It's time to move on.

We already have non-specific pronouns for cases that warrant them. If someone chooses to use "they" as opposed to "he" or "she" that's their prerogative; however, I see that as frankly ridiculous under most circumstances. It's like looking at a black guy and a white guy and saying "the dude with the red shirt" instead of "the white guy".


What's ridiculous about that?

Gender is an identifying characteristic, just as skin color, hair color (or lack thereof) or eye color are. Recognizing gender does not make one a tool of the patriarchy.


It does when gender is irrelevant. That's the whole point of patriarchy: the idea that gender is relevant to things that it really isn't.

Most importantly though lak, your argument doesn't follow unless we we're advocating banning gender-specific pronouns (which I'm certainly not). But adding a gender-neutral pronoun as an OPTION is not going to stop anyone from using "he" or "she" when they want to, and when the information conveyed by them IS accurate and relevant.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#34  Postby Evolving » Oct 02, 2014 8:24 pm

:clap:

Ironically, I feel that it is less of an issue in languages where grammatical gender is pandemic (certainly the languages that I know: German, Italian, French), because as a user of that language you are comfortable with the idea that grammatical gender is a mere grammatical convention. In German, for instance, "Person" is feminine. "Geisel" (hostage) is feminine. "Mitglied" (member) is neuter. "Mädchen" (girl) is neuter. So you would say, for instance, "the hostage pleaded for her life", even if the hostage is male; "the girl put on its dress" (which, by chance, is the same word as "his dress").
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#35  Postby Evolving » Oct 02, 2014 8:28 pm

Though I admit that, colloquially, it would be very tempting to say "das Mädchen zog ihr Kleid an" (her dress), even though it is grammatically an abomination.
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#36  Postby Clive Durdle » Oct 02, 2014 8:41 pm

French has tu and vous. English has you for both. There is no law about using they for singular he and she!
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#37  Postby Evolving » Oct 02, 2014 8:53 pm

Not totally sure that I follow your point, but "vous" can be singular, if you're being formal. Italian does the same (lei), and so does German (Sie). So why shouldn't "they" have the ability to be singular too?
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#38  Postby Beatsong » Oct 02, 2014 9:17 pm

Clive Durdle wrote:French has tu and vous. English has you for both. There is no law about using they for singular he and she!


You is unlikely to have the same problem of confusion as I said about they, because when you address someone in the second person you can only be addressing one person (or group of people) at a time. Whereas when talking about people in the third person you could be talking about many individuals or groups.

However I admit that my problem with they as third person singular pronoun is more to do with it being inelegant and just not feeling right, than actual confusion as per my example. It just often sounds wrong, to me.

"My teacher is coming to the party with their partner".

"I offered to pay the plumber by cheque, but they'd only accept cash".

"Who's her best friend, and what does she like about them?"

I dunno, I feel a jarring between the singularity of the person and the pronoun that I can't help hearing as a plural. :think:
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#39  Postby Clive Durdle » Oct 02, 2014 9:55 pm

I think your examples are only things you just get used to through use! Thinking about this I have probably been doing that for several years - I am not sure anyone notices!
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Re: Why we should not use gendered pronouns

#40  Postby Boyle » Oct 02, 2014 9:56 pm

I'm With Stupid wrote:Language is descriptive, not prescriptive. You're not going to change people's attitudes just because you change the language.

Why not? Language use informs our subjective interpretation of the world. If I say I got into a fight with you, and you say we merely had a disagreement, who is right? What will onlookers take away from my statement and what will they take away from yours? If I talk about immigrants only in terms of them being metaphorical rats in need of extermination, what associations will people sympathetic to my statements associate immigrants with? Will this have any effect on how immigrants may be treated?

If you went through your entire life hearing women referred to as sluts and weak, what associations are made when you see a woman being sexual or a man being submissive? Is he girly? Words are what we think with. The words you know are the words you use. The words most used by you and around you are the words you primarily associate with specific objects in the world. Your mind isn't formed by some vacuum; it's formed by environmental and genetic conditions.
I'm With Stupid wrote:Look at the long list of terms for disability.

Lame/crippled > handicapped >disabled > differently abled.
Lunatic > mentally ill.
Idiot/imbecile/moron/cretin > spastic > mentally retarded > learning difficulties.

At some point, you have to address the attitudes of society towards these issues that result in every one of these terms becoming an insult, rather than simply attempting to engineer the language to use new terms.

Yes, it's true that words get cycled out over time as some are used as insults. What's the point? The only way I can see this being analogous is if you consider some gendered pronoun to be a slur, and that cycling it out won't change the meaning, only the mechanics.
Boyle
 
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