From: Harold Fromm
Date: Sun, 12 May 1996 19:55:14 -0500
Subject: Cary Wolfe's "Getting the Dirt on The Public Intellectual"

Policing the Thought P(C)olice

Harold Fromm

I liked Cary Wolfe's refinements upon Michael Bérubé's "Cultural Criticism and the Politics of Selling Out," but I find it hard not to object to his use of sexually exclusive language. Although his reply refers almost entirely to male writers, Wolfe insists on using female pronouns as generics. Not only is this senseless, but unlike the use of male pronouns, which have historically been understood to include women, use of female generics would be felt in their guts by most men to refer to women only. Of course canny male academics know that they too are really included because they know the game that is being played--but they recognize it as a game rather than as a naturalized mode of expression. (The practice, after all, is observed mainly by academics and is not generally found even in highbrow mainstream periodicals.) What they intuitively know is that these "she's" and "her's" are instances of "grandstand virtue," a left-academic piety, a variety of the emperor's new clothes. When Phyllis Schlafly, Jesse Helms, or William Bennett engage in THEIR public pieties, using locutions that we register as right-wing shibboleths and mendacities, we regard such behavior as just another instance of their untrustworthiness.

Things reach a point of special absurdity in the sentence on page 6 of Wolfe's reply where he writes ". . . as Said warns, the intellectual who attempts to engage them on behalf of a more progressive truth may find herself the tool of the very system he means to oppose . . . ." This gender switch in mid-sentence suggests that Wolfe's PC Thought Police are not yet working full time and that his unregenerated intent is "he," even as his institutionally controlled superego continues to be wrestled down to the mat of total shibboleth-conformance.

Awkward as it is, the expression "he or she" is still available to make it doubly clear that one is including both sexes, even though most literate readers continue to understand that masculine pronouns very often mean "he or she." But to pretend that saying "she" is inclusive when one's sense means "he" or "he and she," is not really a gesture of inclusiveness at all. It's bad faith, even--especially--when done by someone I admire, like Richard Rorty. It forfeits my trust, in the same way that the pieties of people like Jesse Helms fill me with disgust. Being dishonest is still a vice, even when practiced in the name of virtue.

University of Illinois at Chicago

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