Tag Archives: Humpty Dumpty

Don’t offend anyone — and don’t communicate either

Today’s news brings word that Harvard University is allowing its students to pick the gender pronouns by which they would like to be called.

Humpty Dumpty

When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.

In addition to the traditional he and she, students can select the now commonly accepted they. Or they can select other, less well known options like ze, hir, and hirs.

According to a Boston Globe story, the move by Harvard “is aimed at increasing inclusion on the campus.”

I’m all for inclusion. Yet, as the old maps used to warn navigators when they approached unexplored territory, here be dragons.

Why? Based on what I know about human communication, I’d say that Harvard’s new policy will increase, not decrease, the odds of someone taking offense. And the long-term effect might be to shut down, not enhance, communication.

Communication depends on everyone having a more-or-less shared understanding of the language they use. If I use a word, I expect you to know what I mean, and vice versa. I don’t use obscure meanings — unless I’m trying to confuse or mislead you, which is the opposite of communication. I also make a good-faith effort to interpret your words in the way you intended to use them.

But unless I know all the nuanced rules for using words like ze, hir, and hirs, the risk of misunderstandings — and hurt feelings — increases. Will I need to learn a special argot just to communicate with people on the Harvard campus?

Sounds like a lot of trouble. Maybe I just won’t bother.

By seeking to create an “inclusive” atmosphere, by building a cocoon in which no one’s feelings are hurt, Harvard is actually increasing the likelihood that someone will take umbrage. And they might be discouraging people from trying to communicate at all.