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How a small dot has sent the French language establishment into uproar

But one man turning a group of ten women into a male noun is fine

Masculinity is a fragile thing. Here in the UK, men are still reeling from John Lewis’s decision to put gender-neutral tags on children’s clothes. How will boys know how to be boys without the correct labels to guide them?

Across the Channel, things are even more dire. At this very moment French men and boys are threatened with total emasculation via the use of the middot, an item which might look like a tiny dot in the middle of a word, but is in fact a weapon of mass gender-neutralising destruction, aimed at ending the dominance of the masculine over the feminine for good.

The middot, or median-period, works by allowing users to combine both masculine and feminine endings on nouns and adjectives. This overrides the rule whereby if a group of any size contains just one male member, agreement reverts to the masculine.

For instance, a group of primary school teachers would ordinarily be described as “instituteurs”, even if most members were female “institutrices”. Under new inclusive writing directives, the correct plural noun would be “instituteur·rice·s”.

According to Éliane Viennot, the professor of Renaissance French who launched a petition to end the dominance of the masculine in French grammar, a move to gender neutrality matters because of how language shapes the way we think: “Telling children the masculine form wins over the feminine cannot contribute to shaping egalitarian minds”.

Alas, not everyone agrees. Last week prime minister Édouard Philippe issued a ban on inclusive writing in official texts. Sounding not unlike a gender-flipped parody of gender-flipped parody @manwhohasitall, Philippe primly declared that “the masculine form is a neutral form which should be used for terms liable to apply to women” (or as Chief Dictionary Editor, Angela B might put it, “the term ‘womankind’ is completely gender neutral. End of story”).

The Académie Française has been similarly riled by inclusive writing. In response to a primary school publisher issuing a school textbook using gender neutral grammatical forms, it declared that “the multiplication of the orthographic and syntactic marks that it induces leads to a disunited language, disparate in its expression and creates confusion which borders on illegibility”. I don’t know about you, but I think this is a messy, long-winded way of claiming inclusive writing is just too messy and long-winded.

So what is the language establishment so afraid of? Can it really be those innocent-looking dots? Personally, I can’t help thinking there are huge similarities between this and the recent anxiety over gender-neutral clothing. Those most resistant to change insist that they’re not the ones with the political agenda; they just want to keep things the way they are, because the way things are is, by definition, “normal”. Actively interfering with the rules is confusing and besides, how can words themselves be sexist?

Philosopher Raphaël Enthoven has called inclusive writing “an attack on syntax by egalitarianism, a bit like the Mona Lisa being slashed with a fair-trade knife”. Obviously, we are supposed to think, it must be purely coincidental that in a world where a man’s voice is ten times louder than a woman’s, one man’s presence should alter the very words we use to describe ten women.

Perhaps it is apt that it took a French woman, Simone de Beauvoir, to write the definitive text on the insidious power of the male default. In The Second Sex, she noted that “man is defined as a human being and woman as a female – whenever she behaves as a human being she is said to imitate the male”. Or as Katrine Marçal puts it in Who Cooked Adam Smith’s Dinner?, “man is the norm and humanity becomes synonymous with masculinity”.

As a feminist who works on language textbooks – albeit not in a feminist capacity – I find the male default ever-present in the way grammatical structures are formed and taught. Male pronouns appear before female ones in verb tables; female adjectives are taught second, as an adaptation of male ones. It is inconceivable to me that this evolution is unrelated to power relations between women and men.

The feminine is the male modified, with a little bit added or removed. Female experiences and bodies are no more than adapted male ones. Such thinking is even present in non-verbal communication. The male toilet door shows a person, the female one, a person in a skirt; the male bear in my children’s picture books is simply a bear, the female one, a bear with a bow on her head.

Man is the one, woman, the adaptation, and while this may be dismissed as a fringe issue – why fuss over adjective endings when women are getting killed? – changing this is essential to creating a world in which women are seen as full, complete human beings in their own right.

Language is a living thing and as such it is not objective. According to Viennot, the dominance of the masculine in French is itself the result of political meddling. Speaking to The Local, she argues that “it was only in the 17th century that the grammar rule that the masculine takes precedence over the feminine came into effect and […] the decision was about the superiority of men over women”.

Today, in comparison to the use of the middot, reversion to the masculine feels most straightforward. Then again, I can remember a time when conservative English speakers were up in arms about the use of “chair” rather than “chairman”. “But it’s a person, not a chair!” they’d cry, as though somehow one might get confused and decide a meeting was being led by a piece of furniture. We all got through those dark times, with no undue expectations placed on Ikea merchandise in the process.

I believe it is possible to do the same with boys in skirts and French nouns with dots floating in the middle of them. Have courage, default men. Language can be used to oppress; it can be used to mask oppression; or it can be used to liberate, by changing how we see ourselves and others. Surely it’s time for everyone to adapt.

 

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of three who works in publishing.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
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It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.