Who’d have thought that such a traditional country as Britain would have a relatively non-sexist national anthem? How did that happen? A recent article by the Guardian shows that the UK is doing fairly well in the gender-neutral language stakes, especially in comparison to Italy which came in the worst – no surprise there from a country that still uses gendered terms for inanimate objects and doesn’t have a great history for female representation – but also better than USA and surprisingly Germany too.
The article was written in response to a member of the Canadian parliament who is campaigning to re-write Canada’s national anthem to include more gender-neutral words, something other countries like Austria and New Zealand have already done in recent years and others like Costa Rica tried but failed to do.
But does gender-neutral language really matter? Isn’t it just the icing on some more fundamental existential cake? One can hear the cries from the tabloids exclaiming that this is “political correctness gone mad”, arguing that such interference with a historical artifact is nothing more than sacrilege, that we should be proud of our heritage, etc. But this rather assumes that language is more gender-neutral than it actually is (which is the whole point), that it merely reflects reality rather than forms it. This is untrue, as one well-established thought experiment called The Puzzle shows:
“A man is driving through the woods with his son and they suffer a car crash in which his son is injured badly enough to require surgery. Upon delivery to the hospital, the surgeon exclaims, I can’t operate on this boy because he is my son”
The first time I heard this on a roof of a bar in America aged 21, I couldn’t understand it, how could a child have two fathers? This was true even though I considered myself a feminist. By the way, importantly, The Puzzle is much more difficult to get right if you haven’t been introduced to it in a discussion about gender.
When the sex of the child is changed, however, something very interesting happens:
“A man is driving through the woods with his daughter and they suffer a car crash in which his daughter is injured badly enough to require surgery. Upon delivery to the hospital, the surgeon exclaims, I can’t operate on this girl because she is my daughter”
With the inclusion of one female, the daughter, into the equation, suddenly the likelihood of others becomes a possibility – a female surgeon for instance, her mother.
The best description I ever heard on the role of words was to understand them as “the building blocks of thoughts”. Words not only reflect our thoughts, they literally form them. They open doors to other ways of seeing the world and the resultant opportunities that come with them. This is why language is such an important political tool, it can either thwart or develop our imaginations and is usually done so in favour of the powerful.
In other words, it matters that Germany thinks of itself as a “Fatherland”, it matters a lot. It sends out the signal that a historic, supposedly neutral paternal figure is looking over you and that females in such a country require such a paternal gaze to keep them safe. Women are set up as “The Other” in such a land, whereas men are more able to understand themselves as represented directly in The Fatherland (admittedly other aspects like race complicate this). This is why it is far better to call a country a Homeland, a home for everyone who lives there, equally.