August 2016

Am I included or not?

There is a link between exclusive sexist language and abusive behaviour towards women, writes Good Samaritan Sister Patty Fawkner.

BY Patty Fawkner SGS

I don’t like being called a ‘guy’, let alone a ‘man’. So I salute former Army Chief and Australian of the Year, David Morrison, for his campaign to discourage Australians from using catch-all words like ‘guys’ to include women.

Morrison was maligned for “political correctness gone mad”. But is it political correctness or real and present discrimination when 50 per cent of the population have to think twice whether they are included or not when such words are used?

Presumably, when I pray “for us men and for our salvation” in the Creed at Mass, I am included. But after Mass when the priest asks for some men to stay behind to move a piano, I’m not. Presumably.

Like everyone else on the planet I want to belong, but, as a woman, I do not want to belong by being “one of the guys”.

“Get over it,” people say to those who raise the issue of inclusive language, “‘man’ and ‘guy’ are generic terms”. That’s my point. Sometimes they are, but there are many occasions when they are not, leaving women to wonder if, in a particular situation, they are one of the ‘men’ or ‘guys’ or not. And have you noticed that all-inclusive generic words for people are never female?

It is not only women who are left wondering. On the feast of the Body and Blood of Christ this year, we heard the Gospel story of the multiplication of the loaves. Faithful to the text, at the church where I went, the priest in his homily said that Jesus fed five thousand men. He added, in an ever-so-casual aside, that women and children were not there. Not that they weren’t counted (in keeping with the patriarchal mores of the time), but that they weren’t even there at this iconic Eucharistic event.

I was disturbed. The priest wasn’t. There was no outcry, no thought of injustice that the world for which Jesus breaks, blesses and gives bread, just as he breaks, blesses and gives his body and his life, is a world in which women and children are excluded.

Excluded in our language and then in our consciousness. Excluded in our consciousness and then in our language. Women become unseeable just like Alice, who observed beyond the looking glass, “I don’t think they can hear me, and I’m nearly sure they can’t see me. I feel somehow as if I was getting invisible.”

Nowhere is this more apparent than in the rituals and prayer of many of the world’s religions, including the liturgy of the Catholic Church. In language of Scripture, hymn and creed, in the person of the imam, priest or preacher, not to mention in images for God, women are absent. But do we notice, let alone care?

The issue of inclusive language continues to be trivialised. I’m told that I shouldn’t “sweat the small stuff” and should concentrate on what’s important, the real issues of domestic violence and the sexual exploitation of women. But I am, in a small way, focusing on such issues, because there is a link between exclusive sexist language and abusive behaviour towards women.

Language is potent. Language shapes perceptions and shapes reality. Language shapes behaviour. Dictators and propaganda merchants, advertisers and spin doctors know this, as do victims of discrimination. Exclusive language indicates and reinforces a system in which the male is normative and privileged over the female.

There is also a link between language which excludes women and language which sexualises women’s status or behaviour. Think of words such as ‘spinster’, ‘old woman’, ‘bitch’, ‘slut’ or ‘whore’, and their gendered pairings of ‘bachelor’, ‘old man’, ‘dog’, ‘philanderer’ or one who ‘sows his wild oats’. Pejorative moralism often accompanies the first set of words, while the second list is generally neutral or benign.

Language that is sexist, heterosexist, racist or ageist enhances the position of men over women, heterosexual over homosexual people, one race over another, and usually the young over the old. Language is used to maintain a status quo of differential power and discrimination.

Herein, of course, lies the good news. If there is such a linear connection between language and behaviour, surely by changing my language I can challenge this status quo and create the possibility of a new reality.

Taking the cue from that famous guy, astronaut Neil Armstrong, I believe that changing my language may be one small step for me as a woman and one giant leap for humankind. Please think about taking your own small step.

Patty Fawkner

Sister Patty Fawkner is a former Congregational Leader of the Sisters of the Good Samaritan. She is an adult educator, writer and facilitator with formal tertiary qualifications in arts, education, theology and spirituality. Patty is interested in exploring what wisdom the Christian tradition has for contemporary issues. She has an abiding interest in questions of justice and spirituality.

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