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Privilege and Prejudice

I must have been six or seven when my grandmother, a schoolteacher, explained to me “when we’re talking about boys and girls together, we call them all ‘he’.” I loved my Nana, but thought it was the stupidest thing I had ever heard.  When I got to college, I realized that many others felt the same way.  Most people were saying “he or she” and writing “s/he” – unfazed by the ridicule of the few who hadn’t caught on. 

This isn’t something I thought about much over the years. But a recent comment by Sharon Presley, reminded me why sexism in language really does matter:

“(L)anguage communicates the rules of our culture and has the power to restrict behavior. It reiterates(repeats) the social patterns of our culture and thereby perpetuates cultural norms. Children’s minds are molded by language so that they think like other members of the society. A child’s reality is shaped by the way they talk about reality.”

Presley went on to discuss the use of generic male pronouns; the use of the word “man” to indicate “humanity;” the fact that women are more often described in terms of their relations to men while men are described in terms of their occupations, and other ways that women are routinely objectified or trivialized through language.

To understand Presley’s point, men should imagine things were the other way around.  Imagine growing up in a culture where femininity was presumed and masculinity was a lesser, secondary exception.  Don’t tell me that it wouldn’t affect your confidence, how you thought of yourself, and how you thought of your masculinity, as you grew up.

While men may not yet experience this kind of discrimination precisely, one might argue that they are beginning to understand how it feels to be marginalized and suppressed.   Increasingly, what had previously been recognized as normal behavior for young males, including a need for intense physical movement and aggressive play, is being pathologized as multiple variations on the ADD/ADHD theme.  According to a recent BusinessWeek article:

“The U.S. — mostly its boys — now consumes 80% of the world’s supply of methylphenidate (the generic name for Ritalin). That use has increased 500% over the past decade, leading some to call it the new K-12 management tool. There are school districts where 20% to 25% of the boys are on the drug, says Paul R. Wolpe, a psychiatry professor at the University of Pennsylvania and the senior fellow at the school’s Center for Bioethics.’”

Prescribing drugs for the “condition” of being little boys doesn’t seem to have done much to help them.  A study by the Center on Education Policy released earlier this year revealed a startling gap in academic performance between boys and girls.  In every state and at every level, boys lagged behind girls in reading proficiency.  “There is a consistent achievement gap,” said Jack Jennings, president and CEO of the Center. “Something is going on in our schools holding back boys.”

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