Posted by: Fabius Bile | January 26, 2010

Language: Liberation or Opression? (Hint, its the “O” one)

When we began our discussion in class on the use of different language in the novel Women on the Edge of Time by Marge Piercy, I hadn’t really yetformed an opinion as to weather the use of “Per” rather than “he” or “she” was a liberating or oppressing change in language. To be honest, I hadn’t given it much thought, as it seemed to me to be a minor detail within this future world, almost as minor as robots being in existence is to some novels. However, as the class discussions seemed to be increasingly one sided, I began to look at how this change in terminology could become oppressive, weather or not I was just playing devil’s advocate is somewhat unclear to me at the time, but now I stand by my conclusion, that the way the language had changed was in fact a negative effect.

Why? Because the removal of these terms may remove some effective bias (which I honestly have a difficult time seeing in the first place), but they also remove a part of our identity. Within the novel, these people identify themselves by what they are best at. I find this to be well, dull actually. It would be like me identifying myself as the ultimate Mario Kart 64 player. Not only would it be completely false, but it is such a small thing to attach to myself and say “this is who I am, the best Mario Kart player ever!”. I realize this is a dramatization, but how fulfilling is it to say “I identify myself as a painter, or a nurse or a …”. This just attributes you to one action. Just. One. I know some people may have single track minds, but I prefer to identify myself as a multitude of things. Know what one of those things is? Male. I am a “he”. Taking that away from me, is taking away part of how I define myself.  While I like to think I have individualistic thought, I’m sure that there are others who view their gender as part of their identity.

In fact, to prove such a thing, go call someone on the street who is obviously female a he (or obviously male a she) to their face preferably. Generally when you do something like that, it makes someone quite mad. Why? Because they identify themselves with their gender. To me, it is almost akin to walking up and referring to me as an animal. You just don’t do that.

So overall, I feel that the changes in language were not liberating at all, unless by liberating we mean “liberating individuals of ways to identify themselves”. I won’t even get in to the whole loss of the words father and mother, as that goes into a whole other level of loss of identity. Overall, these changes do nothing more that remove ways to identify ones self within society. And me? Well I’d say that’s pretty oppressive.



  1. While listening to the class conversation about whether or not the removal of “him/her” was a good thing; I decided, like you, that it was not liberating for people. Like you stated in your blog, we identify ourselves with certain things and as a woman I would like to have the chance to have children, that is my right and a machine should not be making my children for me. I have to say I did not think about having someone on the street call me “he”, but it does drive me absolutely insane to have someone call me “dude”. I am not a male; dude is not a description that fits me. I am glad you brought up that point because that is something that I overlooked while reading.

  2. Dear Fabius, your blog drew out some interesting (and “lol” worthy points.) I too found myself becoming disappointed as the characters in the story lost their gendered “he/she” indentities and became “pers”. Also, I found myself a bit depressed as Luciente determined that people’s identitiy were defined by that one shining talent. Imagine if who you are IS your glorious hobby of Mario Kart on N-64: how would you react if some youngster came along and beat your high score? Is your identity shattered? Would you be ok with being known as the “Not-as-good-as-that-guy” Mario Kart player? Bleh, I wouldn’t. I totally agree with you, and think that the liberating and realistic option would be to consider a person hollistically. How confining to say that your worth as a person amounts to a one-facet category, that who you are can be expressed in one breath? If I was known as a “per,” or the “Catch Phrase” player (I happen to be really good), I would probably find myself more cynical than excited to explore what being human is actually all about.

  3. Interesting thoughts! I can definitely see from your perspective. But it still makes me wonder why? Why is it that people get made when you call them by the wrong sex? By getting angry, it is as though we are saying that this other sex is bad and that we would never want to be associated with being them (even though we can be associated with being WITH them). For example you said, “To me, it is almost akin to walking up and referring to me as an animal. You just don’t do that”. Are you really comparing the female sex to an animal? Would it be that bad if someone where to honestly call you a female? I am not trying to pick on you because I definitely see your point but I do think it might be an issue we have in our society.

    In a society without any sexes or genders, this would not be an issue. People would still be able to identify themselves with other things such as painter or nurse. It would also help eliminate some of the prejudices that occur because of sex. For example, if you were into playing with dolls instead of Mario Kart 64, this would not be odd in anyway. It would just be that you are doing something you enjoy. While I agree that we do identify ourselves with our gender somewhat, I also think it provides a lot of standards and expectations on us that if we don’t meet we might be discriminated on.

    • I didn’t mean it in any way that I am comparing being female to being an animal, that would be silly frankly. The point I was meaning to get across was you don’t call someone what they are not, you call them what they are. To do otherwise is almost a form of slander (or libel if it was in written form I suppose). Obviously it is not to that level of law breaking or anything, but I would say it is impolite to call someone an idiot when they blatantly aren’t.
      I suppose I should watch my dramatizations, otherwise they may come across in a negative manner.

  4. @fabiusbile:

    Your point:
    “Why? Because the removal of these terms may remove some effective bias (which I honestly have a difficult time seeing in the first place)”

    — you also have to consider that “per” might REFLECT a change in social consciousness, just as well as being a CAUSE of that change.

    @osupinky: you have a right to self-definition, but the novel shows us a society in which definition by gender has radically changed. What’s important to you might not be important to them. The real question is the role of language in the changes.

    We could do a survey in our class to see how many people have names based on what one of their ancestors did for a living (baker, potter, brewster, etc). I agree with your point that if we accept someone’s name for what THEY think is most important about them (MarioCart driver), rather then using socially constructed ideas of what is important, then we are privileging the individual, and possibly becoming more democratic.

    @fabius bile

    Comparing a female to an animal really isn’t a big stretch in our society. Terms like “Mother Nature” demonstrate that we have a tendency to associate maleness with culture and femaleness with nature.

    –of course, you also have to be careful that the female you are talking to isn’t carrying something heavy, pointy or easily thrown.

    “The point I was meaning to get across was you don’t call someone what they are not, you call them what they are.”

    –as long as they agree with you.


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