This is in response to the Worstell/Wilson exchange, backstopping off
of Pam Murray's observation to Jim that using the word "he" for
farmers might cause some listening whiplash among the audiences Jim
may be trying to persuade to see his viewpoints about community. And
in response to Dan Worley's view of the world from Sunny Puerto Rico.
Rich Molini calls this discussion "potentially divisive." I agree,
but because I see people taking something that started out as an
observation about process, and gendering it in divisive ways. So,
it's not the issue that's divisive, it's how it's conducted. What
people bring to it. Rich, I'm not going to back down here. My
training is in communications research; in my estimation there is
something worthwhile to look at here from a sustainable communication
standpoint. Shutting down discussion of difficult issues because
people are still learning how to talk about them is one of the big
problems I see sustag facing, as a communicator.
First, the Worstell/Wilson exchange.
> > Are some languages more friendly to sustainable agriculture?
> > If we switched to a language of an "indigenous" people....
> > Would more communities then sustain the land?
> IMO, human language is sufficiently flexible, that new vocabulary can be
> invented to accomodate whatever cultural forces are driving agriculture.
> I don't think language per se is a big driving force.
Thanks for owning that last sentence as an opinion, Dale.
In response to Jim, and in part to Steve Diver (I'm going to name my
firstborn "Big-ass Euro Slam" BTW), let's guard against the
temptation of linguistic determinism. It's not a question of whether
"some languages are more friendly," but of what we do with the
plasticity of our own symbol systems, out of the flexibility of our
own minds and spirits.
This is abstract (which doesn't make it "inane" or "unproductive"),
and the original point was extremely concrete. Pam Murray basically
said to Jim: "You're using language in a way that's saying things
you may not realize. You may want to rethink it as it relates to
your communications goal." The reactions here to her comment are, I
think, deeply instructive for people who believe sustag to be more
than a set of production practices. And since social relationships
and community dynamics are at the heart of what I hear as the "real"
meaning of sustag, the use of language is very important as a sustag
It seems to me that one can't a priori determine that one language
is more or less friendly to sustainable ag. It reminds me of the
linguists Edward Sapir and Benjamin Lee Whorf, who argued that Hopi
was the "natural" "best" language for physics, owing to the Hopi
conceptualizations of time in that language, far "superior" than
English to thinking about things like relativity and plastic time.
I don't know that I accept that, even though it was a wonderful
intellectual exercise to follow the Sapir-Whorf take on that, and
they were at least in part being somewhat tongue-in-cheek. I take it
as an article of faith that no one language is the best for
anything, any more than one single socket will tighten nuts or bolts
of all sizes. You need a set, and so what's best where language is
concerned is learning as many languages as possible. The linguist
Saussure pointed out that each language has its own mind-set, and
learning multiple languages thus challenges the speaker/learner to
learn those mind-sets.
BTW, Sapir and Whorf forgot that the physics of relativity wasn't
initially articulated in English anyway. It was articulated in
Mathematics, by a native German speaker (born in Ulm). And so the
unasked question really was, is Math the best language to think about
the nature of time and the Universe. Or maybe Robert Anton Wilson,
guerrilla ontologist, has some better ideas. But I digress.
Jim's comment touched on this:
> >If we switched to a language of an "indigenous" people (e.g., the
> >Tohono O'odham) where "farmer" is a feminine noun-but where
> >"farmer" is not distinguished from "gardener" which is never
> >separated from the community, then we wouldn't have to worry about
> >these vexing English pronouns.
I want to get back to the original point, which I feel has gotten
Suggesting we switch to another language, Jim, to avoid something
"vexing" is an interesting suggestion, particularly in reaction to
Pam's offering a very simple piece of tactical and strategic
communications advice: if you're going to persuade your audience,
you might want to consider how they will receive you, and that
starts with understanding where they might be coming from and how
they might hear you.
When you say "farmer" and indicate that you think "he" when you do,
you're going to lose audience share among certain people. The
corollary is: if you don't *care* about the people who might tune
you out because you say that, that's up to you.
But choosing who not to listen to betrays unspoken things:
> >then we wouldn't have to worry about
> >these vexing English pronouns.
What is so vexing about remembering that 50% of the people on the
earth are not men, and adapting one's American English in very simple
ways to depict that? The language has the capacity to do this, it's
not a big grammatical deal. Making constructions plural is quite
simple--why not say "farmers...they?" Why the resistance to thinking
of people, rather than of men, in agriculture, where that is
accurate, if that will build a more inclusive and welcoming vision?
Is it really so hard to construct plural nouns and verbs, compared
to the potential of losing audiences among those who might want to be
part of sustainable ag, but aren't comfortable with "he" meaning
"she"? That kind of doublethink seems to belong more to Big Brother
and the Holding Tank than to sustainable ag. If "he" means "she,"
then "sustainable ag" could mean "large-scale chemical-intensive
industrial ag." Avery strange way to use language.
Communications researchers have studied how people will selectively
tune out whatever doesn't mesh with their way of thinking. The
phenomenon is called "cognitive dissonance." And when *challenged* to
view dissonant information, people's reactions range from irritation
to refusal to listen to ignoring the source to silencing it. A few
view such challenges as intellectual, social, moral, spiritual growth
I see those challenges to growth coming from many different quarters
these days...they take the form of people saying, "I don't agree
with how you think about this." It's easy to dismiss that as
"political correctness" or some other mediahype label that reeks of
Faith Popcorn platitudes and best seller list catchphrases. It's a
lot harder to step back and view this as a process of recasting the
I'd think people who revitalize and build communities
(/communicare/, to share) would want to LISTEN to such input,
particularly from skilled communicators (/communicare/, to share)
like Pam Murray, and adapt. You know what evolution does to them as
don't adapt. Out of the gene pool, monkeyboy, and don't trip over
the trilobites as you pick up your towel.
Dan Worley wrote:
> The language has nothing to do with it. In English, the words
> Farmer and Gardener are gender neutral.
Dan, honey, where I come from, if it has dangly bits and a
left-over-right fly, it ain't gender neutral. A farmer called "he" is
a boy, and you and Bill Safire and George Will and Dinesh D'Souza can
protest till you're blue in the typeface. I'm telling you that "he"
means "he" in my understanding, just like "organophosphate" means
just that, and not "organic" in my understanding. Ref: the ongoing
discussion here on SANET on the organic standards and what they mean.
If you choose to ignore my perspective, fine, but I'm going to
notice that you made that choice, and I'm going to factor it into my
sense of how you handle cognitive dissonance--i.e., by picking up
the remote control, pointing it, and repeatedly pushing STOP. I
won't trust you, because you may also want to tell me that war is
peace, sex is death, and 2 + 2 = 5. Or that Murphy = family farms,
and vertically integrated agrifoodbiz = sustainable ag, and Olean =
healthy. It's how movements handle disagreement and dissent that
tells me a lot about where the come down on crucial issues.
And anyway, why do some people want to erase male-genderedness from
language? Isn't there something kinda...Bobbitty about that? That
seems to be a great um length to go to, to keep people from moving
toward a change in language use.
> In many other languages the words can be, and are, either Feminine
> or Masculine, depending on the language. In Spanish Agricultura
> which I believe literally means Agriculturist, but is used as us
> English speakers use "Farmer". Agricultura is feminine. So what?
This confuses two different ontological realms: the analytical
concept of gender in linguistics with the more with the practical,
concrete concept that Pam was raising with her observation. It also
confuses a Romance language's construction of linguistic gender with
an Anglo-Saxon/Germanic-flavored language's construction of
linguistic gender. Most nouns in English are gender neutral, except
for those that specifically refer to something gendered, like "bull,"
or "drake," or "bitch" (my own power animal, along with the
cockroach). But "the farmer" is no longer gender neutral when paired
with the qualifying pronoun "he" any more than "the farmer...she" is
> It is defined in terms of linguistics and by language experts as
> being "feminine". The fact that an overwhelming majority of
> Agriculturas (farmers) in Spanish speaking countries are men is
> unimportant and a red herring in the debate of who is acting as the
> best "Steward" of the land.
Unimportant to you, and a red herring in your eyes, Dan. Please own
your opinions and don't go palming them off on some unspecified set
of "experts" as the facts. That is *such* a white male bourgeois
patriarchal rhetorical tactic! :^]
And the terms of the "debate" (and here I thought Pam was just
offering a bit of professional observation!) here had nothing to do
with "stewardship" (a word that means "warden of the sty," by the
way). It has to do with Pam Murray making a simple suggestion to Jim
Worstell on how not to potentially offend people he may want to
motivate, and to make visible the mechanism she was seeing.
And before ya know it, straw women's rights activists and NOW are
being trotted out, "screaming their heads off." Jeepers.
If I were Jim, I'd listen to Pam. She's got a few years in as
somebody who communicates effectively with a broad range of rural
Now back to Dan.
> For anyone who has ever lived in, or even been around, a Spanish
> or Hispanic culture, you know the nature of "Maschismo" in all
> Spanish cultures. Fro those who are unfamiliar with it, Latin men
> are extremely sensitive about their position of domination in the
> family unit and in society in general. One of the greatest
> insults one can hurl at any Spanish or Latin man is t in any way
> challenge his manhood. Yet I do not see a grand effort to change
> the Spanish language in such a way as to make the noun masculine.
Couldn't that have something to do with the fact that
linguistic/analytical gender and social/cultural gender are two
entirely separate things? I mean, "olla" is feminine; that doesn't
make pots girls. But farmers aren't pots, they're people. And "el"
and "ella" are used to refer to men and women, and "la agricultura,
el viene" and "la agricultural, ella viene" are used with their
appropriate pronouns to refer to individual male or female farmers.
You wouldn't call a male farmer "ella," regardless of the lingustic
gender of the noun.
Your use of "Latin," "Hispanic," and "Spanish" interchangably
troubles me. A Spanish man is a man from Spain; where is a Latin man
from? Or are you speaking of Spanish and Latin speakers? Or people
who are culturally Hispanic--I'm confused.
As for "grand efforts to change the Spanish language,"...
> In fact, there is zero movement in that direction.
Dan, you have to get out more. Every time someone says, "This
formulation of language/thinking doesn't work for me," it's movement
in that direction. You may choose not to listen, or to dismiss it,
or to ridicule it, or whatever. That's up to you. But your not
seeing doesn't equal it not being real.
In any case, I don't see your point has anything to do with Pam's
observation. She was making an observation that was local and
tactical and strategic in nature. Not abstract, not "grand." But
let's remember that except among the proponents of things like
English Only and Phonics, language is not a legislated phenomenon.
It comes out of usage, and usage changes. From the grass-roots,
mostly. From underneath. Remember? Sustainable from /sus + tenere/,
to hold up from below.
Pam reflected to Jim that there are changes in the use of language
going on, such that using "he" to refer to "farmers" might cost Jim
some audience share.
Jim responded. Dale responded. And then Dan offers this:
> So why do WE have supporters of Women's Rights and organizations
> like NOW screaming their heads off about the gender neutral use of
> the English pronoun He?
Who the heck is tht "we," kemosabe? And who are these straw-women
"supporters of Women's Rights" and "organizations like NOW"???
I won't comment on "screaming their heads off." Pam's comment seemed
pretty quiet to me, but I don't have a sound card on my computer.
> And why are so many otherwise well educated and intelligent women
> caught up in this movement to change the language? Why waste energy
> and effort on a useless project instead of investing it in fighting
> the real enemies of sustainable agriculture; the chemical
I'll address in a moment the fact that *you* have taken an
observation about communication process and gendered it as feminine
in an effort to argue that "he" is a nongendered pronoun.
But first, thanks, Dan, for letting us all know that you put yourself
in the position of approving--or not--the education and intelligence
of women on SANET. And for letting us know that professional input on
communications strategies around gender is a waste and useless.
You're certainly entitled to your opinions. And entitlement is, after
all, what undergirds many protests against how certain language and
thought-forms make women, Blacks, and others invisible.
But it looks to me like you are not listening, Dan...and perhaps
others as well. People are indicating that "he" is *not* gender
neutral to their ears. What do we do with that observation? Ignore
it? Steamroll it? Ridicule it?
Likewise, what do we do with those who say that a 30-cow dairy farm
or a subsistence farm or a CSA farm isn't a real farm...or with those
who say that such farms are indeed real? I see this as a very related
mode of thinking--and a dangerous one.
I saw Dan take Pam's observation, hear it, then represent it as
gendered---a comment of "otherwise intelligent" women's rights
activists and NOW, and he didn't use the F-word but we read it
between the lines. *You*, Dan, have gendered Pam's observation...just
as you, Dan, want to tell us that "he" is gender-neutral. That's an
amazing amount of authority you are claiming. You're asserting your
way of thinking as the norm, and you aren't leaving room for
disagreement with or development of that thinking, or even for
someone to point out where its limits might lie. You're telling us
that your interpretations, your thought-forms, are more valid than
any questioning of them.
When you characterize one observation about a communications process
as "screaming," "wasted effort," and not fighting the "real
enemies," you betray a set of fantasies and projections about the
speaker and the situation. When you gender a comment about process
and then claim that "he" is gender-neutral, it looks like the action
of someone who is used to defining and asserting reality for others
and expecting them to go along with it.
I may be completely wrong about these things regarding you as a
person, because I wouldn't know you from a yeti on a snowmobile
(though I trust your fabulous tan would give you away :^). But this
is how these ways of communicating appear to me.
What I see in these closing years of the millennium is many people
finding voices, witnessing to their experience, and telling how
things that others don't consider important are indeed important to
them. Some of those important things are around food, land,
community, and spirit. But also, women are saying to men, black
people are saying to white people, gay people are saying to
heterosexual people, child-free people are saying to breeders,
Hispanic people are saying to Anglo people (and et cetera), "You may
consider this unimportant, but it is important to me. Your power to
silence me and others, and to not listen, will ultimately isolate
you and make you small and afraid and very lonely."
It seems to me that coming to terms with this fear and loneliness is
precisely one of the things that many men have yet to learn. I would
like to think that one of the alternatives that sustainable ag could
offer is a revised role for men in the realm of self, family, and
society--particularly around these gender and power issues. Though I
suppose that those who are interested in telling others what to
think might experience this as a diminishment of power, rather than
a connection to a broader kind of empowerment.
I saw Dan making the feminine invisible by asserting the "gender
neutrality" of the masculine. I saw him making the feminine visible
on his terms by taking a simple, concrete comment about communication
process and transforming it into a drama involving NOW and
"supporters of Women's Rights" and women whose education is somehow
incomplete because they speak what they know.
I saw Frits making Blackness invisible by asserting the "color
neutrality" of whiteness. This looks to me like a very similar
dynamic. So I'm not surprised this gender thread came out of that
I've got a Craig Cramer quote around here somewhere about
-archies...wish I could find it.
If sustainable ag doesn't get past these outmoded, limited, and
destructive thought-forms, this movement is doomed to be forgotten
or, worse, to be absorbed by those who also think with these
thought-forms but have the money and power to polish them up into
something shiny and acceptable. Like $150 shoes made by children in
factories...for which other children then kill other children to
steal. What's real is bodies, land, and memory--and when someone
witnesses in language to their experience of those things, I think
we'd do best to listen. And what makes community in my experience is
the freedom to exercise dissent and disagreement, and to have their
viewpoints built into the fabric of the whole. Not to label them as
"PC" (though no one did that--but I heard it between the lines) or
dismiss them as inane.
Thank you all for listening. I'm tired, and this is longer than I
wanted it to be.
Michele Gale-Sinex, communications manager
Center for Integrated Ag Systems
UW-Madison College of Ag and Life Sciences
Voice: (608) 262-8018 FAX: (608) 265-3020
Computers are like Old Testament gods:
lots of rules, and no mercy. --Joseph Campbell
To Unsubscribe: Email email@example.com with "unsubscribe sanet-mg".
To Subscribe to Digest: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with the command