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Gender-Sensitive Speech, Personal Responsibility

August 02, 1992

Your recent article on Santa Monica Councilwoman Judy Abdo, "Watching Their Language: Councilwoman Makes an Issue of Gender-Insensitive Speech" (Westside, July 16), raises some thorny questions about language and personal responsibility. Unfortunately, one of the more interesting of these questions was conspicuously absent from the article.

Here's the question: Is it a good idea for politicians to wear their personal pet peeves on their sleeves in the manner of Abdo? Of course, each of us has the legal right to say most anything we want short of shouting "fire" in a crowded public space. But is it appropriate for Abdo to champion her personal linguistic cause on "company" time?

Let's say for the moment that Abdo's pet peeve was not sexist language, but incorrect language. And instead of fighting for the use of gender-inclusive language under the banner of sexual equality and consciousness-raising, she was waging a public war on improper grammatical usage in her effort to sensitize us to the desecration of the English language.

Would her public interruptions of fellow council members and citizens still be so well-tolerated? I doubt it. I can't imagine councilmen gushing with appreciation over her enlightening tutelage if they were continually subjected to reprimands like: "Sorry to break your train of thought here, Herb, but in my personal effort to raise your grammatical consciousness, I must ask that you return to that last sentence and substitute whom for who."

More significantly, who's to say that Abdo's cause is more important to her than another similarly factious cause might be to one of her colleagues? Where exactly do we draw the line on allowing such behavior? Should all pet peeves get equal time during City Council meetings?

I suspect that Abdo's justification for her actions stems from the argument that sexist language is particularly pernicious because it is used so unconsciously. In fact, I'm sympathetic to that argument myself. But the issue here has little to do with conscious or unconscious usage; people unconsciously foul the language to someone's dissatisfaction all the time without suffering public correction. The real issue here is whether a civic meeting is the proper forum for public officials to wage personal battles, however well-intentioned they may be.


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