Tuesday, January 26, 2010

That's What He Said.

Writing a paper the other day I came across the dilemma of whether to write a gender neutral, though cumbersome sentence, or if I should write in the traditional, more elegant, though sexist manner. I made a quick note of the dilemma as a facebook status update and then went back to procrastinating from my paper. I thought nothing more of the subject until I went back the next day only to discover that over thirty comments had been written on the topic. On the one hand there were a few guys saying gender neutral language is stupid, on the other there was a host of women saying it isn't, with the support of a few guys.

Of course the debate hinged on the notion of equality. It is doubtful that any society in history has ever treated women with full equality, though the Western world has made huge steps in this area. However, as many point out, there's still a long way to go, as reflected in the firmly embedded language biases. Feminists see these biases as an insulting inheritance of a patriarchal society, something that needs to be relegated to the history bin like other injustices before.

I am in favour of equality of course. I think that most everybody thinks that equality is a good thing, a fair thing. The only reason one might conceivably argue against equality, is because things are unfair in his favour. (I thought that might be one sentence where I could get away with using an uspecified masculine pronoun.) Of the guys who protested the change to the use of gender neutral language, not one argued that women don't deserve equality or that equality is a bad thing. That's because the position is completely untenable. If the language is obviously biased, which it is, and inequality is obviously unjust, which it is, then there's really no good argument against gender neutral language.

Except perhaps, there's the fact that if the pursuit of equality at some point becomes infantile. There is no demographic more perceptive to inequality than children. Their ubiquitous appeals to the standard of equality are often correct though as often as not, the authority figure meets the appeal not with sympathy but rather the comment, "life's not fair." It's true. Life is not fair and the sooner that is learned the better. Of course one could argue then that the pursuit of equality is futile and should not be attempted but of course that argument is spurious. However, at some point a line needs to be drawn between unacceptable inequality and acceptable inequality. That of course is a task that defies unanimity.

It is an oft noted fact that women are proportionally underrepresented in high corporate and political positions. It is a telling litmus test that demonstrates the necessity of rectifying the sexism that prevents equal representation. This is mere speculation, but I imagine that bald men are also an underrepresented demographic. If not bald men, then perhaps short men, or obese men. It could then be argued that the discrimination that keeps short, bald men from being elected to public office is a great problem that needs rectifying but I certainly would not donate money to the cause.

The challenge of equality includes so many variables that even if it were possible to put every person on an even playing field, it would be impossible to discern what disadvantages cancel out what advantages. In the case of a hypothetical election for example: one candidate is a women, though she had access to the right schools, another is a man but he grew up in an abusive household, another man had a great family life but he likes to grow a handlebar moustache. Which candidate has the advantage?

Assessing inequalities is a useful practice to determine where discrimination occurs but the irony is that knowledge and subsequent attempts to rectify discrimination can lead to more discrimination. I am sure that many Caucasian men have been rejected in favour of a less qualified candidate because the less qualified person was from either a minority or discriminated group. The quest for inequality often begets new inequality. However, it is probably acceptable collateral damage.

Concisely put, my point is that life is not fair and it is wrong to try and fix every inequality. When some people have plenty and others starve to death, that is a problem that demands attention. When some have access to education and others do not, that demands attention. When some people live in mansions and others sleep on the streets, that is a problem that demands attention. When I write an essay and use the word "man" to refer to all humans... my gut feeling is that it is not that big a deal, especially when one considers that the alternative "humankind" is almost equally patriarchal.

My gut reaction carries little value however, in the presence of countless women who think it does matter. I have to accept the fact that my male perspective is not optimal for making these judgment calls. I think that it is important for myself, and other men to put greater value on the opinion of women on this question. If the majority of women say gender neutral language is important then I ought to change, even though I hate most of the gender neutral options available.