Was Martin Luther King Boldly Inclusive or Mutually Exclusive on Equality in Communication?

US civil rights leader Martin Luther King,Jr. (C)With the birthday celebration of the great civil rights leader, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., less than a week away, it would be interesting to know what the famous activist thought about Aristotle’s ancient statement: “The worst form of inequality is to try to make unequal things equal.” It is likely that in today’s politically correct environment, King would have vocally supported a greater measure of equality regarding communications between the sexes. Put another way, one might say King was a “Boldly Inclusive” communicator rather than a mutually exclusive dogmatist. Consequently, he would have been at odds with the famous Aristotelian quote mentioned in the argument’s opening sentence. Perhaps it is unfair to compare Aristotle’s mutually exclusive words on equality to present debates on speech. It is, nevertheless, an attractive idea warranting further discussion.

Arguably, words alone are labels and tools that both men and women use to convey or communicate ideas and ideals. In the hands of considerate people, words become an instrument used to cheer up a friend, or to express and share joy with those we love. Birthdays, anniversaries, Christmas and New Year’s cards are all examples that demonstrate the positive use of words. However, people also use words to hurt, denigrate, incite hate and dehumanize others. It is conceivable that the civil rights leader would have spoken out against such action.

Throughout history, men and women have deliberately used words to reduce fellow men and women to abstract, insubstantial and non-representational names such as savage, alien, cripple, virus, parasites, fetus, nigger and kike. These theoretically non-human characterizations enable those who lack sensitivity and genuine concern for others to inflict unimaginable injury, deeply wounding the species core essence and spirit. At some point, humankind must draw a line and separate itself from those who are insensitive to others and who choose to demonstrate their insensitivity by the choice of words they use to communicate with others. For those who are self absorbed, with no particular interest in humanity, this analysis will only irritate them to further embrace their “Raison D’être.” On the other hand, the truly human individual must force her or himself to carefully choose words that not only accurately communicate, but also reflect a deliberate consideration for the sensitivities of others. Not too far of a stretch from Martin Luther King’s core philosophy.

Alleen Pace Nilsen’s essay, Sexism In English, exposes the harsh reality that exists within the English language. Words describe women in terms full of sexual overtones as well as negative connotations, while words that describe men evoke a more constructive quality. Nilsen writes, “a callboy is the person who calls actors when it is time for them to go on stage, but a call girl is a prostitute (400).” These two words clearly show how wide the gap is between usages for gender specific language. The sexual inference is an obvious point of dissension between the sexes and therefore an excellent place to aim for change. Nilsen asserts that the titles of master and mistress call to mind similar images. Though these examples show a disparity between the images they produce for either men or women, there is a strong benefit to avoiding them. However, most men and women find it almost impossible to avoid the sexual overtones that have entered the language through such Greek “eponyms [as] aphrodisiac from Aphrodite, the Greek name for the goddess of love and beauty, and venereal disease from Venus, the Roman name for Aphrodite (Nilsen, 400).”

Nevertheless, it is within human reach to overcome such uses demonstrated in the slogans “The Marine Corps builds Men!” and “Join the Army! Become a Man,” especially when we know it is inaccurate. Today, journalists often correct themselves on television. For example, many have heard a number of them say “any man who runs for president should…,” and before they finish the sentence they immediately change the word “man” to “candidate,” which is more inclusive and more accurate. It is not necessary to exclude women from the use of language. With today’s heightened, politically correct atmosphere it is no longer practical, but rather inconsiderate, to continue to use such language. Is it not reasonable to conclude that excluding women or references to them from political parlance contributes to the perpetuation of this inequality in language. It may be that Aristotle’s wisdom applicable in the context of this argument. Can it fairly be said that the equality in communications debate is simply an attempt to make unequal things equal?

“Real Mean Don’t: Anti-Male Bias In English,” written by Eugene R. August, diametrically conveys the opposite view that men are unfairly and negatively characterized by the English language. He supports his view by offering the familiar nursery rhyme that tells children: Girls are dandy Made of candy – That’s what little girls are made of. Boys are rotten, Made of cotton – That’s what little boys are made of. (Baring-Gould 176) (428) Though this rhyme might seem harmless, it represents one of the first ideas that will enter the minds of young children throughout America. However, August further reports that words also affect men. Words like “loser, dead-beat, bum, freeloader, leech, parasite, goldbrick, sponge mooch, scrounger, ne’er-do-well, good for nothing and so on” adversely affect one‟s psychological senses (430). These labels can and should be avoided. If not, then English‟s warning, “The more we make men the enemy, the more they will have to behave like the enemy” is a plausible consequence for such inconsideration. (433)

After examining both Nilsen and August’s essay one could arrive at the conclusion that both writers have valid points, and that their objectives offset one another. Therefore, the easy way might be a continuation of the status. Nevertheless, Rosalie Maggio’s essay, “Bias-Free Language some Guidelines,” mediates the polarizing factors that differentiate these two works. Maggio suggests: “A speaker who uses man to mean human being while the audience hears it as adult male is an example of communication gone awry” (316). In other words, Maggio is saying that the primary objective of communication is accuracy; thus, a person that uses “man” to mean “human being” is not only insensitive, but also inaccurate. Furthermore, she emphasizes the value of inclusive language, claiming that it is more logical as well as beneficial to ones inner attitude. Maggio contends, “Sexist language promotes and maintains attitudes that stereotype people according to gender while assuming that the male is the norm—the significant gender. Nonsexist language treats all people equally and either does not refer to a person’s sex at all when it is irrelevant or refers to men and women in symmetrical ways (317).” Her solution is to describe people as individuals. This approach will not only make one’s writing and speaking more clear. It will nurture and cultivate the human qualities that negative language robes from us. Maggio appears to be in both conflict and agreeance with King and Aristotle.

In the final analysis, the first two essays infer that our words are deeply shaped by long standing ideas between both men and women. However, though the third demonstrates that humans are not without the power to augment their language and accommodate today’s cry for equality in communication; consistent with Martin Luther King’s philosophical paradigm, it is nevertheless quite an intriguing adventure to juxtapose Aristotle’s contribution with America’s “Boldly Inclusive” civil rights leader on the subject of equality.

By DiMarkco Chandler


Real Mean Don’t: Anti-Male Bias In English”, written by Eugene R. August (Print)