Backlash against gender-neutral language misses the point

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The news that Service Canada has asked its agents to use gender-neutral language in its interactions with Canadians has touched off a new round of wailing and gnashing of teeth among the Conservatives, who have derided it as the sinister extension of prime minister Justin Trudeau’s “peoplekind” joke.  Apparently, this is the first step toward declaring that Mother’s Day and Father’s Day will become illegal by government fiat.

For those of you who missed this particular non-issue, agents at Service Canada had been directed to avoid using particular gender-specific honourifics when dealing with clients, as well as some particularly gendered terms like “mother” and “father” —using “parent” instead — in order to acknowledge that not everybody fits into the Ward and June Cleaver boxes that mainstream society uses without thinking.  After all, we are becoming increasingly aware that there are transgender Canadians who don’t follow those honourifics, and same-sex parents don’t neatly fit into the “mother” and “father” definitions that are being phased out of standardized forms.  When it was reported that the directive was “too confusing” for staff, Minister Jean-Yves Duclos was forced to clarify that yes, they can use honourifics but to log when a client requests that a different one be used.  In other words, it’s an innocuous policy change that takes nothing away from people, but is more inclusive to same-sex parents and trans people when they interact with the government.

That’s not, however, how it has been characterized.  If you listen to the Conservatives, the entire functioning of government has ground to a halt to make this accommodation, because the whole of the civil service can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.  Extending basic courtesies is framed as “political correctness run amok,” and the big hand of government overreaching into the lives of Canadians —never mind that it doesn’t affect them in the slightest.  There is no directive that asserts that we must all refer to one another as “comrade” or that we use “parent one” and “parent two” in our everyday conversations with one another, and that this is all about social engineering by bureaucrats determined to undermine the very foundations of our society.

In their zeal to score points with their socially conservative base and to play up the culture wars, however, the Conservatives seem to forget that implicit in their derision is an underlying vein of homophobia and transphobia that they can’t quite seem to shake.  It’s like the vein of intolerance behind those who peddle the fiction that the phrase “Merry Christmas” has been banned, and every single December, we would see the Conservative government put up a non-Christian MP to declare that they’re not offended by “Merry Christmas,” as though the “war on Christmas” was a real thing and not the straw man of people opposed to a Canada that is increasingly diverse.

This is why I find the columns from the typical straight white (mostly) male columnists about the impending backlash against the apparent oppressive political correctness of this government to be so tiresome, because it misses the point that this government is trying to speak to an audience that includes more than just them.  This Service Canada directive is, of course, just the icing on the cake.  It includes the gender-based budget, the fact that there has been a greater focus placed on finding qualified women and visible minorities for appointed positions, and the new attestation on the Canada Summer Jobs grant forms, all of which we keep hearing dire warnings about it stoking this culture war — and yet we never hear about the opposite being the case, that those who deride measures like this are the ones doing the stoking as society moves on without them.

What these particular pundits seem to forget is that this is not just about virtue signalling or political correctness, but about the fact that there are actual economic consequences to civic society for constantly excluding people who could be better engaged with just a few nudges that this government is providing.  Appointing more qualified women and minorities not only gets us better decisions —and there is verifiable evidence that more diverse voices make better decisions, from the corporate board room on down — but it provides more role models for youth to aspire to those positions as they grow up, and mentorship to youth as they move into those spaces.  Doing gender-based analysis with budget measures rather than just pouring money into childcare spaces (which, I remind you, is an area of provincial jurisdiction for which the federal government continues to work on bilateral agreements with in order to come up with proper funding frameworks to roll them out) — it’s about looking for the structural barriers that keep women and other minorities from fully participating in the workforce and contributing to the economy.

And it’s this part that the commentariat seems most oblivious to — that addressing the structural barriers is more than just an “action plan” and a commitment to throwing money at problems.  It’s about bottom-up reform of our systems in order to level that playing field so that we can get more women and minorities, whether it’s immigrants or Indigenous communities, into the economy so that we can reap the benefits of the growth in GDP that follows.  That’s something that this government seems to get.  Can they effective communicate that?  Well, that’s a whole other question, and there is a problem in that it often comes off as platitudes and more pabulum in thirty-second sound bites rather than breaking it down for Canadians that these are long-term projects with no quick fixes, but that they will have lasting benefits if they can do it right.  It’s not a question of being inclusive or focusing on the economy — it’s focusing on growing the economy by being inclusive.  Gender-neutral language at Service Canada is just a byproduct of that, and it may behoove the government to actually communicate this fact rather than just replying that “it’s 2018.”

More from Dale Smith     @journo_dale

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