By JIM NICHOLS
One of my favorite movies of recent years is “Hidden Figures.” In this 2016 film, the setting is the early 1960s and the exciting “space race” between the United States and Russia. The movie traces the lives and contributions of three African-American women, each of whom makes brilliant contributions to the eventual NASA launch of John Glenn into earth orbit. Because of their gender and race, all three face severe obstacles to having their contributions recognized. We moviegoers several decades later can see the blatant racism and gender discrimination, but it takes an agonizing time for the dominant, white males to take advantage of the women’s gifts because they seem to be, at best, clueless. A clear message of the film is how our background and prejudices (conscious or unconscious) can hide truths that become evident at a later or different time.
Taking the concept out of the Hollywood setting, the message is that there are “hidden” preconceptions that cloud the behavior and language of our lives. Some of these preconceptions are unconscious, but others are the result of unreflective acceptance of inequality. We would each do well to examine our language and behavior in a search for these hidden items.
A colleague identified a parallel situation. There was a chemistry professor at a university who lectured from a prepared script. That is, apparently, he wrote down every word for his classes ahead of time. While I might question the pedagogical effectiveness of this, it was a pattern that he had developed and worked for him.
Although it was a chemistry class, there were several times during the semester in which he would use an illustration of a specific experiment conducted by someone or identify someone’s contribution to the development of a concept.
At the beginning of one semester, he decided to use male and female identifiers each exactly 50 percent of the time. That is, for each time he used words such as “he” or “his” he would use an equal number of female pronouns such as “she” or “her.” Since he was lecturing from a prepared script, this was easy for him to do without thinking about it every time during class.
About two-thirds of the way through the semester, a belligerent male rushed up to the front of the room after class had ended. He said angrily, “What’s with this ‘she, she, she, she, sh#*#!?’ The professor pulled out his lecture script and showed the student that exactly 50 percent of the gender references were male and 50 percent were female. The student did not believe him, even after seeing the lecture script. The professor noted that it was an illustration of how male pronouns are invisible, but female pronouns are not.
Because I am a male (and some of you readers are too), this may not seem to be an interesting story. However, my experience is that females understand the story exactly. Our language written and spoken often hides one gender.
Once one becomes sensitized to this use of language, it pops up all the time. Listen to your preacher or Bible class teacher or congregational leader. Try to listen through the ears of the congregational girls who, in some cases, are waiting for some recognition of their gifts or, at least, a recognition of their presence. If you are not using a gender-inclusive Bible, note how often “men” is used when the meaning is clearly applying to both genders. Words matter.
When I was a child, I heard the phrase “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” That is not true. In many cases, words can, indeed hurt. They hurt more than sticks and stones. Furthermore, using words in an imprecise manner can not only hurt, but also be a subtle part of a religious direction that we must not support. God created both male and female and we must not relegate one set to hidden words.
Jim Nichols is a retired Abilene Christian University biology professor and current medical chaplain.