I did a mock in English Literature the other day.

It was a really amazing question about Blake, and there was so so much to write about – the ideal question! Only I had a problem with it, one I had to ignore in order to write a good essay rather than descending into argument.

Here’s the question:

“In Blake’s view of the world, nature liberates : man imprisons” How far does your reading of the Selected Poems lead you to agree?

So yes, there was a lot to say – so much of Blake’s poetry is about nature or the restrictions of humanity (mind forg’d manacles, anyone?) and the answers just pour from the mind to the pen to the paper to the grades. But I really didn’t like the way that the question refers to humanity as ‘man’ – for a 21st century question, when it takes at least a year for them to give an exam question the OK, you’d think they’d have picked up on that one.

Because yes, it’s a term which was used (and accepted) to refer to all of human life. And yes, in many cases it still is. But to use it in this question goes one step further than having to read texts in which it is assumed that ‘he’ can count for all people and things, as it forces the student to do the same – one cannot answer the question without referring to the quote in detail, and so whole paragraphs turn into ‘man imprisons his emotions, his thoughts and his beliefs’ and suddenly women are excluded.

Reading texts which use the male pronoun throughout make me feel like an outsider, even if the intention of the author was to refer to men and women. My teacher argued that intention is all that matters – I call bull. I think that while intention is important, there are some things that regardless of how they are intended, should not be said. For example, returning to a previous post, the intention of a man who says ‘thanks babe’ in a shop should of course be acknowledged. For all we know, he means well, he thinks he’s being polite. But look at the implications of the term, and the cordiality which is being assumed between strangers, and regardless of his intentions the use of the word ‘babe’ is unacceptable. Similarly, regardless of the intentions of the author, or in this case the examiner who wrote this question, the wording of the question is exclusive and offensive.

If you are a woman who feels that the use of a male pronoun as all-encompassing is unnecessary, unequal and, indeed, unfair, then to have to answer a question in which you have to use said pronoun throughout just seems flat out unacceptable. When the question chosen faces so much scrutiny, the examiner should have to think twice before using sexist terms in their question.

I spoke to my teacher and a few fellow students about this, and it became quite heated. It ended up being me and another girl against my teacher and a couple of other guys (surprise, anyone?), and it was clear that they just weren’t listening to what we were saying. Now don’t get me wrong, my teacher is amazing. He’s normally very level-headed and seemingly aware of the inequalities in society, and he teaches accordingly. But in this case he was simply blinded to the obvious. My partner in crime (coincidentally, the same woman who I agreed with in Philosophy) pointed out that if they were to read an entire book in which humanity was referred to as ‘she’ then it would be a very different story. But because they never have to experience it, they don’t recognise the issue and so feel that it’s ok to reduce it to intentions alone.

One response to this was ‘you don’t care about the question, you’re talking about changing the whole English language!’. Well, yes and no. No, in that the question was what I was frigging arguing about. Sorry mister, but I do care or we wouldn’t even be having this discussion. But yes, I think that the English language needs some work, as it has so much of its basis in patriarchy. That, however, was not my point. My point was that the wording of this particular question was unnecessary and, if I may say so, backward. It forces men and women to accept an element of our language which has already been questioned. An element of our language which has already been dismissed by many. So my issue was not so much that the language itself needs to change, it was that our language IS changing, and this question does not allow for that.

It was also said that the question uses a quote – surely the quote must therefore have been from before the days when people cared about such petty things as pronouns? This is possible. But of all the hundreds of quotes that could be used about Blake, they chose this one. Also, as far as my understanding of these questions goes, they are not always real quotes – rather, they are expressions of a view point which the examinee must discuss. Therefore, the quote was either a modern one, invented by the examiner her/himself, or was badly chosen.

Ultimately, however, the argument came back time and time again to intent.

For me, reducing it to intentions discounts the emotions of the recipient, assuming the importance of what you are thinking over the reactions of others. I think I made my point a bit clearer by this example – in a lot of rap music, the word nigger is used. The intentions may have been good, but the word itself has a negative effect. The very use of the word seems to condone racism and a divide between white and black, enforcing the division rather than destroying it. Of course, I can never truly know how that word feels to a black person, just as my teacher and his followers cannot know how it feels for a woman to face a text which instantly treats her as subhuman, but I can recognise, acknowledge the power of words. You’d think that a chief examiner, for English Literature of all subjects, could also make that connection.

And on that note – adieu.

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