What Are Editors For?
Philosophy and Literature 20 (1996): 551-66.
There may be a need for an intelligent guide through the sex / race / ethnicity / disability / etc. minefields of current English usage. Unfortunately, it’s not Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing (Indiana University Press, $15.00 cloth, $5.95 paper), by Marilyn Schwartz and the Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses. The task force is a committee of nineteen women and two men; I’ll call them collectively the Bias Persons. They have elaborated their usage recommendations with examples of prejudiced prose scattered about the text in little boxes (all of the Bias Persons seem to be university press editors). Most of these examples of error and prejudice have been culled from “manuscripts submitted to a university press” presumably these passages never survived into print in their corrupt form, if they were published at all.
The Guidelines results from a ringing declaration adopted in 1992 by the Board of Directors of the Association of American University Presses: “Books that are on the cutting edge of scholarship should also be at the forefront in recognizing how language encodes prejudice. They should also be agents for change and the redress of past mistakes.” A book that comes with such an important imprimatur as this one should not be dismissed or laughed off by writers and editors who disagree with it. I believe this book threatens the quality and honesty of academic writing in the United States. It deserves detailed analysis.
Let it be said straightaway that some passages of these Guidelines are quite useful, especially those dealing with potential sexism. The book sensibly recommends going plural wherever possible as the solution for pronoun problems. While the Bias Persons do not go out of their way to discourage neologisms like laypeople, they do at least recognize individual taste may not welcome such solutions. I wish I’d had the Guidelines in hand a couple of years ago when a student demanded I rewrite my class handout of Hume’s “Of the Standard of Taste” because it contained sexist language. Prefeminist sources should be left as is, according to the Bias Persons: “Warning labels, elisions, and bracketed substitutions in quotations predating contemporary standards of nonsexist usage are gauche.” Elsewhere, the book approvingly quotes a long passage (unacknowledged in the preface and uncredited in the text) from Martha Nussbaum’s The Fragility of Goodness on the thorny difficulties of using masculine and feminine pronouns in discussing Greek literature generally and Plato and Aristotle in particular. The Bias Persons recommend against the use of she as a generic pronoun in place of he: “Some readers may find this usage exhilarating; others may perceive it as bizarre or confusing or may interpret it as reverse-sexist.” (In the past we’ve allowed authors the consistent use of the generic she in this journal; we’ve now gone off it on the ground that it is both reverse-sexist and a form of preening, of please-notice-how-feminist-I-am self-congratulation. The Guidelines lend support to this policy.)
However, rather much of what the Guidelines recommends is too obvious to be useful. Just in case you need to be told, the Bias Persons advise against using jew as a verb. Be careful with those pesky metaphors, too: they note that writing things like “He worked like a slave to become the first African American to graduate from his class” is a bad idea. And I for one heartily endorse the Bias Persons’ caution about referring to research in pesticides as a search for the “final solution” to bug problems this latter little beauty produced, with quotation marks in the original, by some blundering entomologist. (Near where I live there is a coffee shop whose chef is named Sophie. Thinking the phrase has a nice ring to it, the manager though he knows neither book nor movie calls the daily special “Sophie’s Choice.”)
Notice, however, that while using the verb “jew” advertises the speaker’s prejudice, “worked like a slave,” like “Sophie’s Choice,” is merely a gaffe, rather than evidence of racism. This develops into a major problem with the Guidelines, as the Bias Persons are easily confused when it comes to spotting the difference between substantive prejudice (or linguistically encoded prejudice) and simple incompetence. They advise, for instance, that writers avoid the “trivial use of metaphorical language referring to sexual experience or sexual violation,” such as, “This is the virgin forest, where the hand of man has never set foot.” Stupid, to be sure; but the stupidity occurs after the comma, in the form of a mixed metaphor, and I’m amazed that a committee of twenty-one university press editors fails to get it. We don’t need a bias-free guide to tell us not to confuse metaphors. The real question is whether ancient, uncut forests should be referred to as virgin. Since they have raised the issue, the Bias Persons owe us an explanation: is the phrase virgin forest insensitive to virgins? Did the task force interview any virgins who have an opinion on the subject?
Writers are instructed to avoid “gratuitous characterizations,” such as describing someone as well-dressed, intelligent, articulate, or qualified, since these epithets can be “unacceptably patronizing.” But are they unacceptably patronizing only when they are gratuitous? Is the gratuitous use of them a necessary but not sufficient condition for their being patronizing? Most crucially, would the Bias Persons please tell me how to pick out gratuitous uses of articulate or qualified?
This is no small problem: a usage guide that tells me to avoid gratuitously calling someone intelligent is no help unless it also tells me how the remark comes to be gratuitous. There is no denying that personal comments might offend my mother told me to be careful making personal remarks about people, even when intended as compliments but what are the guidelines for avoiding offense? For instance, people dress in stylish, interesting, odd, and expensive ways. When is it appropriate for me to compliment a colleague on his new Brooks Brothers suit? When should I just keep quiet? When is it right to say, “Nice suit!” but wrong to add, “Must have cost you a fortune”? If I have a woman colleague who loves clothes and dresses in ways that attract attention, when am I not supposed to compliment her for being well-dressed? The Bias Persons’ caution strikes me as certainly no more useful than what my mother advised me, which makes me wonder about the purpose of advice in this book. Usage is one thing, etiquette another; no usage guide can insure against properly used words being used impolitely.
The same problem occurs with the Bias Persons’ strictures on “positive stereotypes,” such as calling someone a silver-tongued Irish person. Meditate on this example for a moment. To begin with, the Bias Persons’ employment of person is a bit of a giggle: I’ve known silver-tongued (and -haired) Irishwomen and Irishmen; they’d not use that prim little word person. In fact, a fondness for person is normally a mark of a wooden tongue. Again, it would be helpful to have an example of a context in which silver-tongued Irish person is unacceptably patronizing. I can imagine it as banal (“the silver-tongued Yeats”) or sincere, as used in a eulogy at an Irish wake. More likely, however, would be a context where its use was tinged with humor, as in, “Pat Henry is a silver-tongued Irishman, at least when he’s sober.”
Overall, the book fails to reveal an informative middle ground between bias rules that are so self-evident no one would violate them, and rules that go against every instinct of honest, accurate writing. For self-evidence, consider section 2.18, which instructs us, “The condescending terms boy and girl to refer to adult persons of color should be avoided.” Are these people serious? When was the last time in the context of university press publishing you read a reference to, let’s imagine, “Henry Louis Gates, that boy who teaches at Harvard”? On this one, even the Bias Persons’ reliable mistake-resource, “a university press manuscript,” fails them. But they needed an example of a violation of this rule, otherwise it would be nugatory to include it in their book. So they present Example 25, from “a university film review” (a student newspaper, I’ll bet); here it is in full: “An Eskimo boy, befriended by a Canadian cartographer, is sent down to Quebec to cure his TB, falls in love with a half-breed Indian girl, then reunites with her years later when they’re serving in WWII in England.” This is a fairly astonishing citation to back up an accusation of the condescending use of boy and girl, and it shows that none of the Bias Persons has seen the movie it obviously describes, Map of the Human Heart, by the New Zealand director Vincent Ward. In the early part of the film the Eskimo lead character is a boy of about ten or eleven years old. For this reason the lead has to be played by different actors, a child actor for the early sequences and a young man through the remainder of the movie. The girl is also pluperfectly a girl early in the film, and a young woman later on. (Their love for each other as children is not erotic, but amounts to an intense affection and attachment; as adults the relation becomes erotic.)
The use of this example betrays an inexcusable prejudice on the part of the Bias Persons themselves: they saw the words Eskimo and boy in the same sentence and were sure they’d discovered sin, that some indigenous person was being demeaned by linguistically encoded racism. You’d think at least one member of The Task Force on Bias-Free Language of the Association of American University Presses would have wondered whether the review fairly described the film in question. Try to imagine working for years on a book manuscript, only to have it “corrected” by an editor as insensitive to questions of content as these people. This is what we can expect when self-important copyeditors fantasize that they are “agents of change” charged to “redress” the wrongs of history.
It’s curious that the Bias Persons don’t question the use of half-breed to describe the Indian girl in the movie account, since the term is condemned elsewhere in the Guidelines, and justifiably so. Here, at least, they apparently guess that the writer is simply borrowing from the film’s evocation of the values and terminology of prewar
Canada, and trust readers to grasp that the author of Example 25 would not use the term half-breed in normal parlance. Yet this opens on to another area where the Bias Persons strain to find prejudiced writing where none may exist. So they condemn the term aviatrix as “trivializing or pejorative.” Here is their example (from a manuscript): “There was a black woman flyer an aviatrix named Miss Bessie Coleman who had excited people in general, not only because she was a woman who could fly, but also because she was black.” But if we are to insist on aviator, why not go all the way and call her Ms. Bessie Coleman? The point is that aviatrix is a word of its time, and the educated readers of university press books will know it. Jean Batten’s, Amelia Earhart’s, and Bessie Coleman’s achievements, far from being trivialized by the use of aviatrix, are emphasized by it. The connotative density of the feminine ending directs attention to just how rare early women aviators were. Moreover, aviatrix probably belonged to these women’s own catalogue of self-ascriptions; to that extent using the term shows justified respect.
The sensitive and informed use of historic vocabulary is neither trivializing nor pejorative. Should we call Sarah Bernhardt an actress? Of course we should; it is at least anachronistic, if not incongruous, to refer to her as an actor. But the Bias Persons, numb toward such nuances, condemn an occurrence of doctoress where an author (university press manuscript again) employs this antique word precisely to emphasize how, in the age of the woman it describes, medicine kept women practitioners apart from men; no one today would use doctoress except to convey the sense of an historic division. (As evidence for this, I cite three contemporary dictionaries: Webster’s New World Dictionary, the Random House Dictionary, and the American Heritage Dictionary: all define aviatrix, and all omit doctoress, which can, however, be found in the OED, along with doctrix, but is called obsolete there. The Bias Persons will doubtless be fascinated to learn that all three modern dictionaries include editress. The -ess feminine ending, taken over from the French, is nearly gone in English, but not completely, as you’ll find out if you ever try to get clothing repaired by a seamster.)
You’d have to be a bumpkin not to understand such complexities of historic usage, but the Bias Persons consistently underestimate the intelligence and sophistication of both readers and writers. Consider their analysis of a passage from a 1985 article in the Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, entitled, “Humanity’s Propensity for Warfare.” They approve the title, predictably, but dislike the following excerpt, which “may be sexist,” and is “possibly cloaking an underlying androcentrism. . . . It is certainly unclear and misleading.” See if you can detect the sexism: “Do ritualized aggression and lethal conflict serve similar functions among humans? Alcock . . . concludes that most threatening and violent disputes are employed to resolve contested ownership over scarce or potentially limiting resources. . . . Sociologist Van den Berghe . . . interprets intergroup warfare as a rational means of gaining livestock, women, slaves, gaining or keeping territory, or gaining, controlling, and exploiting new territory” (section 1.2, ellipses as present in the Guidelines’s quotation). It is not hard to guess what the Bias Persons object to: the shift from talking about warfare as a general human trait (acceptable) to a purpose of war being the acquisition of women (that’s something men do).
But the Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology is not a publication for school children. It can assume enough reader sophistication not to be required to spell out that (1) war is a general feature of societies, often approved and championed by both sexes, (2) actual combat is historically predominantly a male pursuit, (3) the spoils of war have included women for instance, in the ancient world, where defeat frequently entailed death for men and servitude for women, either as concubines, or slaves, or both. The defeated women are not “gained” for the women of the victorious society, except perhaps as domestic slaves, and wifely objections to married soldiers bringing home concubines is even a theme in Greek literature (they are termed “spear-brides”) in such episodes as those involving Agamemnon, Clytemnestra, and Cassandra. It is against this kind of background knowledge that such a passage as Bias Persons’ offending item must be assessed. In fact, the passage is neither unclear, nor misleading, nor sexist. It does assume the reader understands what is being claimed; the mention of “women” in connection with Van den Berghe’s theory is not an unconscious lapse into androcentrism, it is a reasonable recognition of the historical nature of war.
The Bias Persons’ crass insensitivity to content flows from their sense of a grander calling: why bother ourselves with mere facts when at this very moment people the world over (university press readers, anyway) are being offended, marginalized, discriminated against, humiliated, and excluded by speech or writing? Never mind how much of the color and impact of language along with honesty of communication and respect for history will be lost with their guidelines; the Bias Persons’ ambition is to insure no readers will ever again feel threatened or have their self-esteem lowered by reading university press books. Books will be safe for all, regardless of “gender, race, ethnicity, citizenship and nationality, religion, disabilities, sexual orientation, and age.” So, according to the Bias Persons, we must stop using the word “welsh” to mean evading an obligation (example 23), even though the etymology of the word is uncertain. After all, it’s perceptions that count, and natives of Wales will be hurt. And careful about calling them natives, in case anyone gets the idea that the Welsh “have a less complex civilization” than other peoples. Even worse would be to call them heathens, which, the Bias Persons are at pains to inform us, is “offensive when used to characterize indigenous people or those who are not Christian.” (They don’t mention heatheness, a word actually in the OED, which is especially hurtful to women of heathen extraction.)
Dutch treat is proscribed by the Bias Persons, along with Siamese twins. Whether this latter is because of possible offense to Thai nationals, or to the conjoined siblings is not made clear. Mexican standoff is out, along with the verb shanghai, sure to lower the self-esteem of the residents of that fair city. (Hamburger and frankfurter are not mentioned.) On the other hand, that Soviet does not mean the same as Russian and that Chinatown “should not be used as an umbrella term for all Asian American communities” seems perfectly sensible advice, but who needs something called Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing to learn that? More curiously, ghetto blaster is watch the wording “offensive as a stereotype of African American culture.” To be sure; but who would refer to African American culture as a ghetto blaster? The real question is, is the term offensive as a stereotype of a type of stereo?
Middle East, we are informed, is to be preferred to the “Eurocentric” Near East. Did it occur to any of the Bias Persons that these terms are equally Eurocentric, as is Far East, which is northwest from where I sit in New Zealand? The Guidelines express a special solicitude toward American Indians, explaining that the powwow is “an integral and important feature of modern life for many American Indian people” and “should not be used in the incorrect sense of talks or negotiations.” This section also includes the most charming prohibition in the whole book: massacre must not be used “to refer to a successful American Indian raid or battle victory against white colonizers and invaders.”
The Bias Persons provide an accurate historical definition of Mafia (capital M) then forbid it: “Discriminatory against Italian Americans unless used in the correct historical sense.” That the word is in the dictionary (in lower case) and in common usage, defined as any exclusive, conspiratorial cabal for example, an “artistic mafia” just shows how seriously biased common usage is. Wait a minute, did I write cabal? Its rabbinical genealogy makes that term disparaging of individuals of the Jewish faith, and the Bias Persons ought to disallow it too. And how about Mafia thug, which, even if used “in the correct historic sense” of Mafia, would discriminate against Hindus? In fact, the chapter on “Race, Ethnicity, and Religion” in these Guidelines contains so much vivid (and therefore offensive) language, it tempts me to imagine a story-line based on vocabulary the Bias Persons would prohibit: “I was strolling past some Korean shops in Chinatown when I overheard members of a Cambodian mafia having a powwow. One of these heathens had welshed on a deal to buy a ghetto blaster and was shanghaied off to the
Near East. As if that weren’t hurtful enough, it was Dutch treat all the way.” Other details have yet to be filled in, but my narrative doesn’t end with a Mexican standoff: the thugs are massacred by Siamese-twin American Indian boys.
The Bias Persons’ attitude toward the disabled is nearly as patronizing as their regard for Native Americans. They are against normalism, demonstrating its “invidious” effect with yet another distressing “university press manuscript” example. It’s especially worth analyzing: “She also had an iodine deficiency, . . . which might explain why she had only one completely normal child out of seven. Four died at or near birth; of three surviving sons, one is a cretin, one is normal, except that he is quite deaf, and therefore also dumb, and one is normal. The cretin is most pathetic. . . . Fortunately he never cries.” As a copyeditor, I would be disturbed by an ambiguity in this passage in the use of normal: in its first occurrence it refers to the only child without defects, then it is used for the one who is deaf, then it is used again to refer the one without defects. On the basis of the passage provided, I’d probably rewrite, “. . . one is a cretin, the second is deaf (and therefore mute), although he exhibits no other disabilities, and the last is apparently normal.”
Is this invidious or offensive, discriminatory, disparaging, or biased? Do the Bias Persons know anything about the etiology and indications of cretinism or the milder condition of juvenile myxedema? The reason I interpolated the “apparently” in my rewrite is medical: in cases both of familial goitre, which this may be, or endemic goitre caused by local iodine deficiency, an apparently normal child may later on develop symptoms; these may be reversible with medication in a way that infantile cretinism, since it is fetally induced, is not. The bodily symptoms (including limb stunting, enlarged lips, open, drooling mouth, broad, flat face, sallow skin, etc.), and intellectual subnormality to the level of imbecile or moron, are actual medical conditions; they cannot be cured or in any way ameliorated by hand-wringing copyeditors.
If the Bias Persons don’t like cretin, perhaps it is because they have heard it in a schoolyard as a term of abuse; yet the word has an honorable history, one worth pausing to consider. Cretin came into English in the eighteenth century from the Franco-Provençal creitin or crestin, similar to the French crétin, all derived ultimately from the Vulgate for Christian. The term was a way of acknowledging the essential humanity of a physically deformed or intellectually subnormal person, meaning human being, poor fellow, or Christian soul. Fancy that: ordinary people were demonstrating a humane regard for victims of hypothyroidism even before there were panels of university press editors to instruct them on the avoidance of offensive language (note, however, that the Bias Persons would regard poor fellow as patronizing and my reference to victims as an affront: they advise polio survivor and would presumably want the same for hypothyroidism).
Today cretin is used for a definable medical condition: dwarfism and mental subnormality connected with enzyme deficiencies in the synthesis of thyroid hormone, as distinct from Down’s syndrome and other genetically caused abnormalities unconnected with thyroid function. These conditions are still as undesirable as they were in the Middle Ages. If we feel the alternatives have too many negative connotations, we can rename such symptom-complexes with generalized euphemisms such as mental retardation. But sooner or later the schoolyard finds out, and retard becomes the coinage of abuse. Everyone ought to deplore the abuse, but it is a delusion to suppose that we alter medical facts by dispensing new names, for it is the medical condition that is the problem, not the words that describe it.
Like other medical conditions, symptoms of hypothyroidism are defined against a putative notion of normal bodily condition and function. The idea of normality (e.g., of white cell count, body proportion, breathing rate, bone fragility, rectal temperature, etc.) is fundamental to the theory and practice of medicine; it is not a set of prejudices but is achieved by the study of human pathologies of disease and health. The same can be said of contrasting terms such as abnormal, subnormal, or above normal. Here is the Bias Persons’ pronouncement on the subject: “The term normal may legitimately refer to a statistical norm for human ability (‘Normal vision is 20/20’) but should usually be avoided in other contexts as similarly invidious.” A good copyeditor would have demanded an explanation of what is “similarly invidious” to what, but only the boxed cretinism example follows this statement. What the Bias Persons object to, I suspect, is the value-laden (literally, “normative”) implications of distinguishing normal from cretinous babies, even though this distinction is in truth based on nothing more than the enumeration of indications; it is no more a biased “value judgment” than a diagnosis of chicken pox.
The Bias Persons’ assault on normalism had already been foreshadowed in their earlier chapter on race and ethnicity. There they recommend against the use of flesh-colored for pink or beige. This is actually quite good advice, because flesh-colored assumes one color of flesh as normal, thereby “encoding prejudice”; having flesh that is tan, brown, or black is, as we all ought to realize, perfectly normal, and people with these skin colors constitute cohorts of normal individuals. In an odd way, there is an anti-normalism connection between the “black is beautiful” movement of thirty years ago, some strands of feminism, and the more recent gay pride movement: these movements claimed normalcy, centrality, for themselves against the biased assumption that normal meant white, heterosexual male. Fair enough. But you cannot parlay the commonness of some medical pathology into its normality, particularly if it is a condition people would normally be desperate to avoid or cure. “Black is beautiful” meant “black is normal,” “we like being black,” and even in an extended sense, “we choose to be black.” This liberationist rhetoric is not transferable to the realm of blindness, wheelchairs, polio, and cretinism. People bravely make the best of these conditions, but they cannot claim to choose them. With regard to physical afflictions and disabilities, the attack on normalism actually masks a desire for euphemism.
In a moment of temporary sensibleness, the Bias Persons themselves catch sight of this, quoting with sympathy an acquisitions librarian who specializes in the literature on deafness complaining that she could not identify relevant books because their titles were vague or indirect. The Bias Persons even state, “We recommend that writers employ direct precise language rather than euphemisms in describing disabilities,” which sounds fine until they ominously add, “taking care, however, to avoid the kinds of disparaging labels and characterization described below.” There follows a list of euphemistic devices, but which are not called euphemisms (which would be negative), but instead are (euphemistically) described as “avoiding the language of disease,” or “victimization,” or “getting the person before the disability.” One handy rule: always to add as many syllables as possible. Never say wheelchair-bound when living with mobility impairment will do. One is left with the impression that crippled stands in the discourse of physical disabilities as nigger or kike stand in the discourse of race or religion. The term mentally retarded is approved, but not the “offensive” mentally deficient, which might give someone the idea that something’s wrong. We’re told, strangely, that mute is disparaging; I’d have thought it much preferable to dumb. Stutter, stammer, and lisp are discouraged because they “carry emotional connotations that are often inappropriate or misleading.” The recommended replacement for all these is speech impairment, a surprising choice in light of the Bias Persons’ call for “direct, precise language” to describe disabilities.
Most astonishing of all are the Bias Persons’ rules governing references to madness. Actually, this word is apparently too outré for them, as it never occurs in the Guidelines. Instead, we are given the recommended terms mental illness and mental disorder, defined as “Loss of the social and/or vocational skills necessary to function independently.” To this ridiculous definition (which would lump Alzheimer’s sufferers and brain-damaged accident victims with delusional psychotics), they add, “Terms such as mentally deranged, mentally unbalanced, mentally diseased, insane, deviant, demented, and crazy are not appropriate.” Not appropriate! With this loony advice (from the astronomically offensive lunatic), the Bias Persons at last float completely free from human reality. It hardly needs to be said that concepts of sanity and insanity and their countless synonyms are universal to cultures. They are essential to understanding the human condition (hence the synonyms), and fundamental to a proper regard of history, art, politics, love, and law in world cultures. It is impossible to imagine any aspect of life where the sane/insane distinction cannot be relevant, indeed, essential. That the Bias Persons could entertain an ambition to legislate the discourse of madness couples breathtaking arrogance with childish naivety.
Linguistic conservatives have since the seventeenth century been setting up committees and academies to regulate (or embalm) European languages and repress undesirable usage. Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing is very much in the spirit of this tradition. The Bias Persons wouldn’t see it that way: they’re eager for English to change in the respects they license or encourage. It is the same well-meaning, meliorist sentiment demonstrated in the strictures of those Victorian grammarians who outlawed the “illogical” double negative or who insisted we cannot use the non-agreeing “their” with “everyone” logic for them being more compelling than the demands of tradition, including Chaucer and Shakespeare. Now the Bias Persons would have us return to the latter form, arguing that today the elimination of sexism is more important than the logic of singular/singular agreement (and besides, Chaucer and Shakespeare did it). Even when their advice is innocuous, it’s still that rigid, thin-lipped, school-masterish moralism, that will to control.
Some of the advice, however, is decidedly disturbing. Section 1.58, on translations, begins, “Translators must exercise careful judgment in rendering a text in English.” Quite so, but the “careful judgments” turn out to be about more than simply precision: translators “need to consider the readership and purpose of the translation whether it be simply to render the ideas or also to reflect stylistic or cultural nuances before determining whether gender-biased characteristics of the original warrant replication in English.” In other words, translators should consider expurgating gender bias from foreign writings where it is “unwarranted” to replicate them in English and distress readers with unhelpful and unnecessary stylistic or cultural nuances. It should not surprise anyone that what begins with overweening concern that language should never offend ends in a justification of expurgation. The Guidelines go on to say, “Translators should avoid recasting gender-neutral into sexist language, as in some biblical language.” While no one would argue with that, the Bias Persons glaringly omit the converse recommendation that gender-biased foreign-language texts should be translated so that readers can see the gender bias of the original. So does the path from courtesy take us, however deviously, to censorship.
In 1818 Thomas Bowdler’s Family Shakespeare, using “judicious” paraphrase and expurgation, sought to produce a version of Shakespeare that men could read to their families with no one offended or embarrassed, and no corrupting examples set before women and children. We haven’t come very far.
Or have we? Although prejudice is proclaimed as the major target of the Bias Persons, the Guidelines continually deplore usages which they regarded as offensive, which isn’t always the same thing. In this connection, I note the appearance of a new book from the University of California Press, where Marilyn Schwartz, head of the Taskforce, is also Managing Editor. It is Erotic Faculties, by Joanna Frueh (University of California Press, $55.00). Frueh is an art historian and performance artist at the University of Nevada at Reno, and rather than attempting to describe her project, I’ll let the dustjacket do the talking: “In this mesmerizing, utterly original work, noted performance artist Joanna Frueh affirms the erotic both as a form of communion and transcendence and as a critical practice. Frueh rejects postmodern prose, using lush, graphic, and sexual language to explore aging, beauty, sex, love, pleasure, contemporary art, and the body as a site and vehicle for knowledge and wisdom. . . . Recuperating the sentimental, proudly asserting a romantic viewpoint, disrupting academic and feminist conventions, Erotic Faculties is a wild ride and a consummate pleasure.”
Much of the book is taken over with monologues from Frueh’s stage performances where, for page upon page, she poetically describes her sexual experiences, real and imagined: “You make the red wine speak when you pour it on and into me and sip it from my cunt and lips and let it sink into my hair. . . .” There’s scholarship too as Professor Frueh says, “Only a fool speaks from her cunt alone” with notes referring to Irigaray, Danto, Brownmiller, Cixous, Baudrillard, and others. The pictures include one of Frueh nude, lying on the floor with her legs up on a chair. There is a chapter titled “Fuck Theory,” meaning both a theory of sex and an attitude toward postmodern theory. She finds in the cant of postmodern discourse ”schlock theory,” she calls it ”an amazing gracelessness,” and heaps scorn on the jargon of theory-speak as an “exclusionary weapon.”
There is reasonable sense and healthy fun in some of this writing. Frueh’s disdain for timid, bloodless intellectuals is fine, but then I wish she’d stop trying so hard to intellectualize herself. To call Erotic Faculties a “consummate pleasure,” however, is not just to exaggerate, it is to confuse a book with its subject-matter.
Now I’ve a few dear friends who are fairly straight-laced. I’m certain they would be disgusted by this book, finding it not just vulgar, but lewd. They might read some passages as blasphemous: “And it was written that He was excruciatingly close to coming. ‘And then He came,’ She said. For I drew out his semen, warm and slow, and I tasted His orgasm. . . .” Perhaps my friends would feel Erotic Faculties ought to be censored; they would probably wonder how the press of a major state-funded university could have published something so offensive. If an argument broke out, I would stoutly defend to the value of free speech, raising the spectre of Salman Rushdie, and explain that Frueh is a performance artist and her book, despite the appurtenances of feminist theory, is really an act of artistic expression, etc. I hope my friends would be persuaded by me, but I doubt that their sense of offense would be assuaged.
Yet how can we reconcile this with the Guidelines for Bias-Free Writing? The Managing Editor of a major university press and her colleagues produce a guide full of prohibitions on language offensive to readers’ sensibilities. In the chapter on “Age,” they state, “Writers are urged to avoid casual comments assuming an inevitable link between aging and forgetfulness,” such as, “She’s getting forgetful in her old age,” because somewhere, some older woman (please don’t say “little old lady”) might be offended. Now suppose that very same aged woman picks up the University of California Press’s Erotic Faculties and reads, “When your tongue is in my cunt, I’m amazed I don’t know which are your lips and which are mine, that I can’t tell my cum from your saliva.” If the elderly reader is offended, well, too bad for her! Hasn’t she heard about the First Amendment?
As a passionate champion of the First Amendment, I know how I feel about whether Frueh ought to be censored. But what principle, I’d like to learn, justifies the Guidelines on Bias-Free Writing’s overwrought care and concern about offense of one kind and complete disregard for offense of the other? What makes the potential offense of women or ethnic minorities to invidious language so dreadful, but marginalizes or entirely ignores the offense of Christian believers, or merely middle-class prudes, to explicit sexual or blasphemous material?
There is a dire contradiction between the Guidelines’ strictures on offense and the publication of Joanna Frueh by a press whose Managing Editor is the main author of the Guidelines. One of these books ought to be repudiated. I think I know which. Will the Association of American University Presses be able to make up its mind?
Copyright © 1996 Johns Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.