seminal response

Last week, I posted a short PSA for Theorizing the Web participants regarding the word “seminal” as a metaphor for foundational ideas. I linked seminal with the masculine “semen” (i.e., sperm) and argued that its use in intellectual discourse is sexist. The backlash on the post itself, as well as on Twitter and Facebook, was quite strong. I therefore want to take this opportunity to respond to some thematic critiques and challenge those who continue to so vehemently defend the term.

Critique one:  seminal comes from the Latin word “semen” which means “seed” (not sperm) and therefore does not maintain inherent masculine connotations. 

The logic of this argument works only if we accept the premise that language is static and culturally indifferent. This is, of course, a false premise. Language changes over time and amid varied contexts. Put simply, words take on different meaning when said at different times, in different places, by different people, and to different audiences. “Semen” in the contemporary Western lexicon, does not simply mean seed, but the masculine form of such—sperm. Seminal within this context therefore evokes the masculine, associates it with the powerful foundation of growing bodies of knowledge, and reinforces the patriarchal logic from which its use stems.

Critique two: sperm and eggs are both human seeds. Sperm are active and eggs are passive, so it is logical, not sexist, to equate foundational ideas with the active variant.

The logic of this argument works only if we accept the premise that science is unbiased and gender neutral. This too, is a false premise. As deftly illustrated by David Banks and Robin James in the comments (complete with references), both sperm and egg are active participants in the fertilization process, despite deeply gendered renderings of this relationship in most reproductive science texts. This is a key point. Just as gendered relations are built into language, so too are they built into science and “common” knowledge.

Critique three: “ovulary” as an alternate term is equally sexist.

The logic of this argument works only if we accept the premise that bias is symmetrical. Once again, this is a false premise. Oppression occurs against those with relatively less power.  It cannot, by definition, occur in the reverse. While both ovulary and seminal are gender-laden terms, the former signifies femininity while the latter signifies masculinity. Feminine bias works towards leveling the playing field, while masculine bias perpetuates and extends existing power hierarchies. This is why “reverse isms” (i.e., reverse racism, reverse classism, reverse sexism, reverse ableism) are inherently flawed concepts.

With that said, I also suggested several gender neutral alternatives, and a friend recently recommended “geneal” to connote the communal and collaborative nature of knowledge growth.

Critique four: I don’t think of sperm when I use the word seminal, therefore my use of the term is not sexist. The author’s interpretation is idiosyncratic and therefore invalid.

The logic of this argument works only if we accept the premise that humans are always conscious and conscientious of their language choices. On the contrary, what makes language so powerful is its embedded nature–the ways that language shape and reflect social, cultural, and personal values under the guise of neutrality. For example, many people use “lame” to describe something undesirable without considering the bodies that this language implicitly codes as undesirable (i.e., disabled bodies).  The fact that many people—including myself until someone pointed it out—do not intentionally code seminal as masculine does not refute my original argument, but rather, acts as strong support for the problematic implications of the word.

Having addressed the specific critiques, I want to close with a challenging question to those who expressed and continue to express backlash against the original post: what are you defending, and why so vehemently?

Feel free to answer for yourself, but I have some guesses.  Ostensibly, you are invested in the status quo, and that which points to its hierarchical nature is a threat to your power position. Knowing the readers of this blog, however, I imagine you are defending yourself, rather than the status quo. I imagine your identity as progressive, a feminist, an activist, a thoughtful person, is threatened when I point to language that you may have used, or uncritically read in the works of others. I presume you are not, nor were you ever, particularly attached to the word in question, but are quite attached to the identities threatened by a critique of the word.

I often tell my students to investigate that which makes them uncomfortable, and if they can figure out why, they’ll gain an important sociological insight. I implore the critics—those made uncomfortable to the point that they felt a response was in order—to engage in this kind of reflexive investigation.


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