“Words matter,” said Liz Watson, a National Women’s Law Center senior adviser. “This is important in changing hearts and minds.”
The quote was in reference to Washington State changing its law books by eradicating gender, seemingly male gender, from the page. It is an effort, as Liz Watson noted, to hopefully change the hearts and minds of citizens. According to Reuters, Washington is the fourth state to officially remove gender-biased language from the law. The others are Florida, North Carolina, and Illinois. Nine other American states are considering similar gender-neutral laws. They changed ‘freshmen’ to ‘first-year-student’; they changed ‘fisherman’ to ‘fisher’; they changed ‘penmanship’ to ‘handwriting’.
Words do matter. It is interesting to note that Watson used the word heart in describing her noble aspirations – a poetic device to be sure! The heart has no direct effect on cognition other than in a supporting role. All kidding aside, it is interesting to see where the rubber is working hardest. It is one of the main goals of this website, to indeed change people’s perceptions about what they are told or expected to believe. There are deliberate, unintentional, and/or innocent deceptions. What Watson is hoping to achieve is assumedly the erosion of the unintentional deceptions of language which effect our thinking in unconscious ways.
If we look at gender bias entrenchment in Canada what better place than the Canadian criminal code. If we were to believe the code, it would appear as if only men existed in Canada. Take assault for instance. A person commits an assault when:
(a) without the consent of another person, he applies force intentionally to that other person, directly or indirectly;
(b) he attempts or threatens, by an act or a gesture, to apply force to another person, if he has, or causes that other person to believe on reasonable grounds that he has, present ability to effect his purpose; or
(c) while openly wearing or carrying a weapon or an imitation thereof, he accosts or impedes another person or begs. Emphasis added, but according to the Canadian criminal code women do not exist, it only pertains to men. We feign outrage!
Yet words matter, they have an effect, they carry a bias. The law, and by extension the media reporting on law should pull itself out of Victorian era language where illiterate, half drunk parish constables kept the peace.
There were 7498 comments on the Sexist Language article, a few of the top ones were:
- “And the pusscification of America continues”
- hmm… I never knew that penmanship was a gender specific word.
- you would think that government would have more important things to do.
- Oh Good Grief THE WORLD HAS GONE MAD!!!! The word “man” is present in the word woman….WTH is wrong with people??????
It’s true that people will resist change when their ideas of reality and their beliefs are threatened, as we can see in the above examples. It is through our language that we’ve created a constructs that are comfortable to accept. We live with a shadow and that shadows existence is supported and fed through our deceptive language.
The custodians of our society are those responsible for our beliefs, our ‘normative judgments’ about what we accept, believe, and fight to defend, even if they are wrong. We have worked ourselves into absurd knots that must be disentangled, which is what is being done in Washington state. Is the societal unconscious is becoming aware of its Jungian shadow?