The Daily Mail may call it political correctness gone mad, but I think the EU’s decision to issue politicians with guidelines on the use of gender neutral language is a really positive step. ‘Sportsmen’ and ‘headmaster’, to quote just two examples of the language being discouraged, are not neutral terms; they assume a male default which excludes women from the positions being referred to, so perpetuating the concept of male as norm, female as other. The word ‘headmaster’ evokes a male image, and using it to refer to the head of a school displays either a conscious or subconscious bias towards the male, the kind of bias that contributes to gender discrimination.
Contrary to what anti-PC crusaders would have us believe, language is incredibly important: we use words to comprehend and construct the world around us, to mediate our interactions and relationships with others, to communicate our needs, thoughts and feelings. If language displays a bias towards one sex, this bias will inevitably filter through into our everyday lives, and must therefore be challenged. The male bias in language may be a reflection of centuries of patriarchy, but it also helps perpetuate the status quo, and we cannot simply hope that it will disappear along with sexism and inequality. Taking an active stance against it, dismantling one of the tools by which patriarchy is perpetuated, can only be a good thing, and it is no surprise that those who rail against such initiatives are generally those who have most to gain from keeping things as they are. Would male Tory MEP Struan Stevenson think this initiative was quite so ‘ludicrous’ if had he not grown up with the privilege of being surrounded by and using a language which paints the world in his own image?
As if the suggestion that MEPs avoid using male nouns as the default wasn’t enough to get the paper’s panties in a twist, the Mail is particularly angry that MEPs have been advised to stop referring to women by their marital status. Instead of Miss/Mrs, Senora/Senorita or Madame/Mademoiselle, females MEPs should be referred to by – get this – their name. Why a female MEP’s marital status is of such import in this day and age when her male counterpart can breeze by on the universally respected and neutral ‘Mr’ is anyone’s guess, but as someone who is absolutely sick of being referred to by the childish ‘Miss’ despite insisting on ‘Ms’, I give this move a big thumbs up.