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Jewish World Review Feb. 22, 2000/ 16 Adar I, 5760

Marianne M. Jennings

Marianne M. Jennings
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Cranky nitpickers make writing a [sic] experience -- AS THE AUTHOR of textbooks, I have posted bail quite a few times for the language police who inflict their sandbox rules upon our culture and mediocrity upon our literature. In my neophyte days, I employed the masculine pronoun in my texts, using only "he" and ˜him," in the anthropomorphic sense. People began jumping from windows, so I embraced pluralism. Every example had its participants and pronouns doubled. I used "theys,""thems," and even "yuns," whenever western Pennsylvania coal-mining roots overpowered the grammar hammer.

When my dedication to pluralism resulted in two CEOs running one company, I returned to singularism and mixed my "he's and "she's" together.

Users began counting the number of "he's" and "she's," checking for equal pronoun distribution. An editor vetoed my suggested dedication for the first gender equity edition: "AN EQUAL OPPORTUNITY/AFFIRMATIVE ACTION TEXT. ALL PRONOUNS WELCOME."

Soon, even numbers were not enough. I was chided for being sexist in an example in which I made a restaurant owner a "she." The letter of protest concluded that I was insensitive for associating women with cooking.

Actually, far more men own restaurants than women. My example proved my dedication to an egalitarian society.

Language police do not limit their jurisdiction to gender and pronouns. I used the term "third world nations" as a descriptor, but was sent to the woodshed because the politically correct term is "developing economies."

"Third world nations" was eloquent compared to my original descriptor, nixed by a copy editor, to wit, "countries with gross national products of $39 or less."

One student protested that "despite the seeming inclusiveness of the text," that I suffered from "heterocentricity." He concluded so because "pg. 64 section (B) speaks to the area of moral standards completely overlooks [sic] that it is quite acceptable to discriminate against gays because they do not meet the moral standards of some lawmakers." The student admonished, "Homosexuals do take college courses (actually in greater numbers per capita than heterosexuals)." Homosexuals per capita? Is that not an odd measure?

Or is he measuring college courses per capita? Or is he measuring homosexuals per college course? How can I achieve equity if I don't understand the math?

Several times I have reaped the wrath more appropriately directed at the justices who penned the case opinions reprinted in my texts. In one case, a judge referred to four young men who accosted, beat and robbed a woman at an ATM as "thugs." Charges of insensitivity abounded. Had I been the judge, I would have written "guilty-as-sin losers." In a commerce clause case involving federal civil rights (the Ollie's Barbecue case), the justices use the term "Negro." Charges of racism arose from those who should know better -- the justice used the language of the time. One professor suggested that I put a [sic] by the term throughout the opinion.

The day I place a [sic] by the proper words of a U.S. Supreme Court justice is the day I surrender my textbooks. That day may not be so far away for jots, tittles and pronoun counts have become the substitute for substance. Offense not taken is now the measure for quality. Editors cower when a user protests the presence of a George Will piece on the heavy hand of regulators. That Mr. Will's piece was accurate in its facts and point that bureaucrats can destroy a business was irrelevant. Many law professors have protested my inclusion of the BMW v. Gorecase because it makes jury verdicts look excessive. Perhaps because they are? When the U.S. Supreme Court has taken a position on excessive damages, as it did in that case in which a fussy doctor got $4 million for $601 in paint damages, perhaps a business student should have that information prior to her first complaint and summons.

There is a textbook posse lying in wait, prepared to pounce, censor and boycott. Using superficial determinants, they rule with a judgmentalism they condemn and a demanding conformity defiant of their individualism dogma. They live by facile rules that too easily dismiss anything or anyone who provokes thought. Ironic that the age of diversity should produce monolithic literature.

Counting and word quibbles dismiss truth and alter writing on a political basis. Writing should reflect souls, not politics. Writing with no soul? For that we have the current crop of TV sitcoms and the last seven state of the union addresses.

Each time a new edition of one of my texts bolts to the marketplace, I have mixed emotions. There is pride, but increasingly, an embarrassment of compromise overpowers. The George Will piece is gone. "He's" and "she's" are not only equal in number they now appear alternately. I have surrendered issues and cases, not wanting to incur the wrath of trial lawyers or animal rights activists. I have sold a bit of my soul to conformists and sacrificed principle for text adoptions. This era's petty police can beat the freedom of expression right out of you. I have become Casper Milquetoast, or is that Casperina?

JWR contributor Marianne M. Jennings is a professor of legal and ethical studies at Arizona State University. Send your comments by clicking here.


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06/22/99: Dems and the Creator coup
06/17/99: True courage is more than just admitting troubles

© 2000, Marianne M. Jennings