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Mailbox, Winter 2006

Comments on gender-neutral language.
By Christopher L. Walton
Winter 2006 11.1.06

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Nothing in the Fall 2006 issue generated as many responses as a single sentence about the “Opening Words” on page 1: “This passage has been modified to employ gender-neutral language.” “I can’t think of a more destructive form of censorship than that of changing the past to suit the prejudices of the present,” wrote John Hemington of McMurray, Pennsylvania. “I would love to see the person or persons responsible for this policy defend it in print,” wrote Terry Tutton of Palmyra, Wisconsin, and Port Charlotte, Florida. Three other readers lodged similar complaints.

Unlike Hemington, I can think of more destructive forms of censorship, but I’m happy to explain why we change the words “man” and “mankind” in passages selected for “Opening Words”—and only for that page—to words like “humanity” or “humankind.”

Page 1 of this magazine is not intended as a historical exhibit. It is meant, like the opening words in a UU Sunday service, to welcome people to the magazine.

In 2004, we tried printing passages as they had been written, but heard from a number of women that these passages often created a barrier rather than extending a welcome. “While I want to retain the words of our ancestors,” wrote one minister, “I do not expect to be greeted with gender-biased language on the first page of our Association’s journal.”

We decided that we had three goals for “Opening Words”: to set the tone for the issue, to welcome readers, and to share the wisdom of the ages and the values of the Unitarian Universalist Association. We won’t change the meaning of a passage, but when it is clear that an author, writing in a different era, used the word “man” to refer to the human race, we feel perfectly at ease adjusting it for “Opening Words,” just as a minister would for worship. A modern translation of the Bible strives to be faithful not only to the meaning of the original text but also to the idioms of the present. That’s the balance we’re trying to strike, too. We also always note the change.

—Christopher L. Walton
Executive Editor

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