Please don’t call me “man”.

“I can deal with conservative ignorance and the dismissal of feminism by most conservatives…What I don’t understand is why sexism is allowed to thrive in the liberal community, which is supposedly so intolerant of sexism, and why it is that liberals are so determined to ignore very real criticisms of their sexism, ableism, classism, and racism.”

The above is an excerpt from a post on Liberal Sexism from the blog This ain’t livin’. I read it earlier this morning and it got me a’ thinking.

I live in a fairly conservative town – so conservative we recently elected a non-existent candidate to uphold our conservative values. I came to this city to attend the university, a Liberal Arts university, that I often saw as a sanctuary for progressive, liberal minded people such as myself. I was correct in many ways, but was continually astounded at the staunchly offensive and “ism’ed” behaviors I saw displayed on a regular basis. Racism to sexism to ageism seemed to bounce around those concrete walls, smacking down an innocent bystander when they would least expect it.

In most cases it is understated – an off-handed comment, or a quietly existing practice of exclusion. It can be elitist in its elitism. But, because those who practice it reside in the hallowed ivory walls of a university, many kept quiet when they felt uncomfortable or dismissed.

More often than not, it is the langauge of exclusion practised by many, perhaps unintentionally, that I find the most concerning. There are two examples I would like to use to illustrate this issue – an issue I still find prevalent amongst even my most progressive and liberal-minded peers.

The first is the use of “man” or “dude”. A term of endearment, or friendship in most cases falls on my ear as a challenge – that in order to be respected as an equal I must exhibit behaviours or patterns of thought that are classically found in males. While I do understand that those who use these terms of friendship are unlikely to consider me a “man” or a “bro” – it is the common lexicon of friendship I find difficult to accept.

If I were call to my male friends “lady” or “girlfriend”, they would find it offensive or off-putting. These gendered terms perpetuate the idea that men are constantly above women, and to be considered equal I must be considered manly, or at the very least man-like.

The second example is an incident (making it sound so much more dramatic than it is) that occurred a couple of years ago. Dr. Barry Cooper, a faculty member of the University of Calgary came to speak at the U of L on the invitation of a colleague. I did an extensive interview with Dr. Cooper and in the article I made a reference to the professor sponsoring the talk:

“Dr. Cooper was Dr. von Heyking’s Graduate program supervisor, thus there was only slight surprise on behalf of myself at the boys club familiarity Dr. von Heyking bared in his introduction.”

In response to this, I received a rather pointed e-mail taking exception of the term “boys club”. Interestingly, in the same article Dr. Cooper had said this:

“The Vice President and a lawyer, the general council for the University – she was a very pretty woman – they were extremely upset about this…”

which received no notice in by the offended professor.

An academic who credentials are impressive, and his study of classical literature extensive slipped up in his protest of language. Once again, it was the negative “male” language that was noticed, by the clear objectification of a woman in a position of authority is hardly noticeable.

We, or at least I, often expect those hallowed walls of a postsecondary institution to be free of such errors. To be able to critically examine their own use of langauge as throughly as they examine students’ citations styles in papers. I realized in a short time that is not always the case, but I do not think that is cause for anyone to stop noticing it.

Those who are willing and wanting to critically think about the world around them should also take pause to examine their own reflections of their world through langauge. A common lexicon can be incredibly powerful. It can create inclusion as easily as exclusion and permit positive behaviour as well as negative. It is able to reinforce behaviors more effectively that most physical reinforcements.

While many will complain the “language” police have gotten out of hand, or everything is un-PC “these days” – there is a reason. If the choice for a person is to use gendered terms of endearment than they need to accept how it informs the relationships they are building.

Language is a tool, a tool that should be respected and understood. It is able to affect so very much, and all too often individuals forget the power their words have.

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6 thoughts on “Please don’t call me “man”.

  1. James Frey says:

    No one wins — in our language we are either too formal and antiseptic or too informal (and likely to offend). Jenn, what is your solution?

  2. Jenn Prosser says:

    I don’t think there can be one solution. I simple mean to point out that words have an inherent meaning that is often forgotten. We should be aware of those meanings an interpretations. Personally, I take formal as a sign of respect in a professional setting. In my own peer group, often a common language is spoken where meanings are clarified and reinforced through context.

  3. jamesodinwade says:

    The use of “man” or “dude” has no inherent superiority built into it, it is simply a form of endearment. I have many female friends who will say “Hey girl, how are you?” or “Hey lady, what’s up?” to other women. No one involved is offended, and I dislike the idea that they should be. Coming from a guy, those would certainly have a different connotation, but gendered camaraderie is a far cry from sexism, though two often go together (correlation does not equal causation).

    The idea that “man” and “dude” have some inherent dominance over femininity I think may come from your own subject position if you’ve been around a lot of men who use these terms while excluding women. Regrettably, this happens often and shines a bad light on such terms as “dude”, “brother” and “guy”: all wonderful words that are not to be blamed for our social ills.

    • Jenn Prosser says:

      Well, “man” and “dude” do have inherent meanings. They refer to those who identify as male. Further, they have been used in our North American patriarchal societies to include all persons – in that women are not singular persons of their identity but afterthoughts. They have been used for centuries as dominant terms over “femininity”, to the point that women were not persons under the law because of their femininity.

      People should be free to use whatever terms of endearment they chose, I exercise the same freedom of speech I expect others to, but it is more likely for a male peer to call his his female peer “man” as a shorthand way to greet or punctuate a sentence than it is for that same man to refer to her as “lady”. Why? Is it is meaning of that term? The worry that identifying a woman as such unintentionally gives her a sex, a point of relation which is not desired?

      Men have a language to divide women who they do or do not want to sleep with. Women do not. To call a man a lady is offensive, that is why the term “pussy” is thrown around in a derogatory fashion so often.

      It isn’t that every man acts or thinks in this way. I hazard a guess most don’t intentionally. It is that language continues to raise males above females and common language reinforces that.

      To be honest, I caught myself calling students in a class today “man” three times. There is no way to tell what the student identifies with, and further it is none of my business. Instead of taking the time to remember their name or ask it, I chose to be lazy. I guess that is my point. Sometimes, we are really lazy.

  4. Intereresting dialogue. Language is such a subtle thing. Sometimes words are used to define groups and indicate who’s in and who’s not. The linguistics of the pack becomes even more complicated when it is picked up by another pack and used to create a bond. I’m thinking of white teenage boys mimicking how black teenage boys greet each other in the street–hey bro and the shoulder bump (assuming that’s still the in thing to do). My point is that language is powerful. It is wise to stop for a minute and think about how we use it. Thanks for the provocative article Jenn.

  5. OnTheTopicOfDude says:

    On more than one occassion I have seen somebody walk up to a table of male or mixed friends and greet them with “Hey Ladies!”? It really is great fun and quite endearing I should say.

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