If the first instinct of our prime minister is to push the envelope for inclusive language change, I say go for it. No apology necessary.
By SHEILA COPPS
First published on February 12, 2018 in The Hill Times.
OTTAWA—I guess I am just a feminist bitch. I, for one, was delighted when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau sparked global reaction by putting an inclusive spin on the word mankind.
Too bad that a horrendous backlash promoted Trudeau to walk back on his changes, explaining the statement away as a bad attempt at a joke.
It is no joke that our vocabulary is sprinkled with words that serve to promote sexism and the notion that one gender or one colour is more fitting than another.
Just think of it. Why do we deify white and fear black? Not people, but colours.
And as for being a bitch, why is a pregnant dog viewed as a negative?
Just last week, we concluded a monumental struggle to change the words to our national anthem, so that they would be more inclusive.
The idea for the new wording originated from Mauril Bélanger, a courageous politician who stared death in the face while fighting for inclusion in our national anthem.
His amendment, passed unanimously by the House of Commons, was blocked in the Senate by some curmudgeons who didn’t approve the grammatical construction of the amended prose.
Those same curmudgeons were probably on hand to sling arrows at Trudeau as his “faux pas” made the world news.
A gender neutral O Canada is an important reminder of what we aspire to be as a nation.
On more than one occasion, similar wording changes were proposed, only to be tossed aside as ridiculous, and too politically correct. The same kind of sexist vitriol spiralling out of control last week was mustered to explain why the anthem could never change.
Opposition deputy leader Lisa Raitt urged Trudeau to “person up,” to the delight of the Conservative benches, in a heated parliamentary exchange. Her retort was a not so subtle rebuke of Trudeau’s inclusive vocabulary.
Man up, be a man, mankind, are all words that subconsciously reinforce the notion that only men can be strong, can be honest, and can run the world.
Same goes for history. It is no mistake that in the last few years, herstory has become an acceptable substitute for a word that implies that all important events of the past were carried out by men.
The no-subtle message of our ingrained sexist language is that only men can lead, only men can be strong and only men are fit to represent humankind.
Last year, Trudeau’s partner Sophie Grégoire, was the butt of jokes of a different kind, after she paid tribute to her spouse in a March 8 International Women’s Day posting.
Grégoire’s call for male inclusion was deemed weak and inappropriate. She was also attacked for posting an accompanying photo with herself and the prime minister walking hand in hand.
Grégoire was trying to make the point that moving toward equality involves inclusiveness. And that means engaging and embracing men who support equality as well.
When Stephan Harper became prime minister, one of his first directives was to eliminate gender analysis from the content of all government documents.
Gender analysis is just words. But in that directive, Harper stalled the move to equality across many sectors for a decade.
The last number of weeks have been consumed with sexual scandal. We are also asking how to overturn the climate of harassment that bedevils us in power-wielding sectors like politics, media, sports, and finance.
Most solutions focus on the individual, as if a gender sensitivity program for Harvey Weinstein would stop the madness.
Instead, the notion that men are powerful, and women can be aggressed, is much more deeply ingrained in our culture.
According to the Cambridge dictionary, man up, is synonymous with bravery and courage. The expression is also compared to audacity, grit, guts, balls (another expression loaded with gender stereotypes). Every time the phrase is repeated, it subtly reinforces the privileged power position of men.
It also reflects deeply ingrained sexual power imbalances that have spawned the spate of harassment accusations roiling the globe.
Sexual attacks do not occur in a vacuum. They happen when someone in power believes they can operate above scrutiny based on their position of privilege. Language can either promote or prevent this sense of entitlement.
Manpower used to be the name for Canadian government employment services. That name would never fly today. Neither should man up, or mankind.
If the first instinct of our prime minister is to push the envelope for inclusive language change, I say go for it.
No apology necessary.
Sheila Copps is a former Jean Chrétien-era cabinet minister and a former deputy prime minister. Follow her on Twitter at @Sheila_Copps.