Tuesday, November 16, 2010

'Humankind' vs. 'Mankind'

In the battle that is Humankind vs. Mankind we all know who would win: for one thing, there are more than twice as many humans as men. It's a no-brainer.

But, er, no, that's not what I meant to say. I meant to express my utter delight at the fact that at last, in it's special report, "It's a smart world," the Economist has seen fit to use the word humankind instead of mankind. (The article is pretty interesting in its own right, a primer on cross reality or mirror worlds or smart systems, depending on your preferred terminology. Scroll down to the graph labelled 'The way to go' and read the paragraph next to it. Try not to pass out in shock.)

Yes, I understand the argument that 'man' encompasses 'men and women' but, y'know, it doesn't. I've written about this before, in Alien in Our Own Tongue:

Imagine being six years old and reading an anthropology primer about Stone Age Man: "After a hard day's search for food on the veldt, stone age man was probably glad to get back to the warm cave. No doubt he was comforted by the same everyday activities we are today: the heat of the fire, good food, his family about him. Can you imagine him laughing and tousling your hair? Can you see him picking up your six month old baby brother and breast feeding him--"

At this point, the six year-old might burst into tears in sheer confusion. He? Breast feed? "Don't cry," says the teacher. "It's all right. We all get confused at first. You just have to remember that he really means he or she. See? It's easy!" But it's not easy. It makes no sense to her. Why say "he" when you mean "she?" As she grows older, she will keep asking. No one will give her an answer she understands. Her tears of bewilderment will become ones of rage. She will get tired of reading about Man the Hunter, mankind's outward urge to the stars, the exogamous impulses of man, the man on the street, one man one vote.... She will be sick to death of continually being excluded.

"No, no, no," you might say gently, "she's not being excluded. He is inclusive. He means us all. She'll learn. After all, he is the generic pronoun in English."

If that truly were the case, if "he" and "man" really did mean "he and she" and "man and woman," our six year old would not have been confused. But at age six, she has already internalized the real architecture of language; she knows that he means he and she means she. The only thing she doesn't know is how to pretend otherwise, the way grown ups do. She doesn't understand why she shouldn't point out what seems so obvious to her: he-man language isn't wearing any clothes.

Before you start to sputter, answer the following question honestly. How comfortable would you feel reading this next sentence aloud from our hypothetical anthropology primer: "How long ago was it that man found himself available for sex throughout the whole of his menstrual cycle and not just during a clearly defined oestrus?"

Grammarians may tell us that when we read "man, mankind, or he" we are supposed to imagine "people, humankind, or he and she," but we don't. In our mind's eye we see men, or boys.

When we are toddlers we know little and care even less about the generic he. We say them/they/their quite happily. "The person in the blue hat looks happy, they're smiling!" Everyone knows what we mean. Then we get to school, and the rule books take over. It is dinned into us that he is the generic pronoun; it must be used. Anything else is sloppy, incorrect, bad grammar. At the same time, everything we see and hear contradicts this. In the written form, for example, we would never see a primer such as the one I have invented. Oh, we would read about Stone Age Man, about him hunting and protecting and inventing fire and all that, but as soon as the authors have to talk about things that only women can do (and no matter how hard they try to make it otherwise, they have to mention women occasionally), they switch pronouns. He, it seems, is only generic insofar as it means "one of us," and "one of us" means "one of us boys."

When we lift our head from our text books for a little conversation, we find that our parents, our friends, and the teachers themselves--even at the university level--do not use the generic he in conversation. Person to person, in every day speech, we all understand that "he" does not really mean "he and she."

I'll leave out the bit where I rant on about Latin grammars because, frankly, I don't know where I got that info, and I'm not (now) entirely convinced it's correct.

The rest is a little dated (from a long time ago in galaxy far, far away, when we were watching Xena and Buffy once a week) but still (sadly) true:

Language shapes our thoughts and therefore our imagination. When we read science fiction, or watch it, or listen to it, we are absorbing one person's vision of the future (or present, or past). Whether we like it or not, television now provides visions of the future for more people than all the SF novels put together. Of all the women who grew up on the original Star Trek, I doubt there is a single one who did not get a thrill, a frisson, the urge to shout Yes! when she saw the premiere of Star Trek: The Next Generation and heard Captain Picard saying they were all going to boldly go where no one had gone before. The future opened like a flower: women could think that maybe in the twenty-fourth century we were a bit more important than we are now. That is a very powerful imaginative tool for a young girl. She will watch that series (and Xena, Warrior Princess; and Buffy The Vampire Slayer) and know deep in her bones that women can. She will probably stay loyal to the series, the spin-offs, the novelizations. She will make the bottom line a lot more healthy for the producers. I suspect that Babylon Five's audience would increase significantly if they changed "The Third Age of Mankind" to words that included us. To me it doesn't matter if the second in command of B5 is a woman, we are still slapped in the face every time we hear those opening credits. Such a slip with the old he-man language, even once, indicates a certain lack of thought on the subject. It means the writers have not sat down and properly examined their attitudes to gender. It makes me wonder: Where else will they slip up with women's roles? Is this series worth my time and effort? It is such a little thing, the "Third Age of Mankind," but it sits like a rock in the road. People like me will be tempted to point the car in a different direction. [Two months after writing this, I discover that the opening sequence has changed. It will be interesting to see what happens with the ratings.]

Science fiction novelists and short story writers don't do much better. It seems that many SF writers can see men fairly clearly in their crystal ball, but women are obscured by a veil. When the spaceship is manned by cadets with IQs matched only by their height in centimeters we think: oh, did the women all die? When we read of the extinction of mankind, we think: oh, well maybe it was only the men who died...but in that case, where are the women? When we hear of man being in a death struggle with some alien species, we wonder: which side are the women on? Always: where are the women? What are we doing? How do we fare in this imagined world? It matters. Women need to be see their reflections shining back at them from the future.

After all, our six year old as she grows up will not see many images of herself in her science text books.

A while ago I was invited to go talk to a class at the Georgia Institute of Technology who were studying Ammonite and Russ's The Female Man. Students do not go to Georgia Tech to study the classics. They generally do not care much for gender studies, or literature, or the humanities. They go to learn about nuclear engineering, mechanical engineering, computers and other hardware-related subjects. But here they were, brows furrowed, trying to make sense of what I was trying to do in my fiction. The marvelous thing was: they got it. One man who was studying digital video something-or-other said to me, "I was a third of the way through Ammonite and it was making me more and more uncomfortable and I didn't know why and then I realized: all the characters are female. It's all 'she' and 'her.' There were no pronouns for me. It made me feel weird, as though I didn't really matter. And I realized that this is what it must be like for girls growing up, reading their physics books or whatever."

Exactly. Women and girls feel like that a great deal, and not just while we're growing up. I can't blame men for feeling uncomfortable when they get a taste of it. It's not very pleasant. It would be nice, though, if men could take a lesson from the feeling.

I was at a party recently and a man I had never met before buttonholed me. "When I got half-way through Ammonite I got really pissed off!" he said. I sighed and asked why he thought that was. "Because I was lied to!" By whom, I wanted to know. "The publishers! The back cover copy never said a word about the book being about women!" He was pretty het up. I asked him if he had finished the book. "Yes, I liked it. It's just that, well," he looked vaguely puzzled, "I was misled..." I pointed out patiently that the only person doing the misleading had been himself: the back cover copy did not lie. It talked about security forces, and natives, and deadly viruses. The only pronouns used were "they" and "them." If he went ahead and assumed that meant men, he had no one to blame but himself, had he? After all, women are human. We are people, too.

That man wandered off, not terribly convinced. Deep inside he knows--though he may not know that this is what he knows--that people are really men. Women are just, well, women: the also-ran, the other, the alien. This is what he-man language does, this is how it survives today when it is demonstrably unfair, inefficient and unnecessary. It forms part of a feedback loop: men (and women) condemn women as Other every time they say mankind. They may not mean to, but motivation doesn't matter. The result is the same. What we hear is: less than human. The very words we all use build a hierarchy in our heads and women always come in second. As a result of that internal hierarchy, we find it harder to point to the naked ridiculousness of he-man language. Which reinforces the hierarchy. Woman as Other becomes embedded in our very language. We become alien in our own tongue.

For now let me just say to the Economist: welcome to the future. Please don't backslide.

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