Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Prehistoric Man And Other He-Stories

The prehistoric man was a pretty good seamstress.

I should flesh out this post a little. It has to do with the use of "man" to refer to both human beings and to biological males. "Man embraces the woman", goes the old saying about why everybody knows that "man" means both men and women and that "he" stands for both sexes. Except when it does not. This particular article tells us:

"The mission also found caves used by prehistoric man," he said.

"The most important item is an awl made of animal bone and granite, which shows that prehistoric man devised many ways to sew leather," Khaled Saad, who headed the mission, was quoted as saying.

When Saad says "prehistoric man devised many ways to sew leather," do you visualize a hairy cave-woman inventing those ways or not?

A commenter and reader of this blog, kg, notes that Sam Harris does something very odd in his book The End Of Faith in this regard. First he applies the generic "he" in the book to refer to human beings. But then, on page 60, he writes this:

Imagine that you are having dinner in a restaurant with several old friends. You leave the table briefly to use the restroom, and upon your return you hear one of your friends whisper, "Just be quiet. He can't know about any of this."

What are you to make of this statement? Everything turns on whether you believe that you are the "he" in question. If you are a woman, and therefore excluded by this choice of pronoun, you would probably feel nothing but curiosity.

On re-reading Harris I noticed that on the very next page (61) to the above example Harris writes:

Of course, even the change of a single word can mean the difference between complaisance and death-defying feats: if your child comes to you in the middle of the night saying, "Daddy, there's an elephant in the hall," you might escort him back to bed toting an imaginary gun; if he had said, "Daddy, there's a man in the hall,: you would probably be inclined to carry a real one.

Note the mental agility that female readers of this book must possess: First you are allowed to notice that the pronoun "he" might not refer to you. But then only a page later you are expected to assume that your child is a boy and that you are a daddy.