As far as Culture War battles go, the recent brouhaha over British Airways’ decision to adopt gender-neutral language – thus dropping the words “ladies and gentlemen” from their on-board announcements – was definitely on the lame side. The usual suspects had the opinions you would expect them to have; everyone who commented took the side you would expect them to take, and nothing much came out of it.
A couple of years ago, I could not have been bothered to give this issue a moment’s thought. I would simply have said that British Airways is a private company (thanks, Maggie!), and that they can address their customers in whatever way they see fit. It is a private business decision like any other. I would probably have added that nobody listens to those announcements anyway, so who cares?
But those innocent days are gone. In 2021, everything is part of the Great British Culture Wars, everything is political, and everyone must have an opinion on everything. So I might as well throw my own half-baked opinion into the mix.
Let’s start with the following statement from BBC 5 Live presenter Stephen Nolan (in his role as moderator, so not necessarily expressing his own views), which gets to the heart of the matter:
“[I]f you’re sitting on that aircraft […] and you don’t consider yourself to either be a man or a woman, […] then how do you not feel excluded, and how is that not offensive that everybody else is being addressed except you?”
If we interpret “ladies and gentlemen” to be a philosophical statement on gender identity, i.e. a way of saying “Gender is binary; everyone is either this or that, and we do not accept the existence of anything else”, then Nolan’s statement would, of course, be correct. But is that what flight attendants – or, for that matter, anyone – mean when they say “Ladies and gentlemen”? Of course not. “Ladies and gentlemen” is simply a generic way to address a larger group of people. It has no deeper meaning, and should not be taken absolutely literally.
We do not need to get into philosophical arguments about biological sex, gender identities and their mutability here. This is about something much simpler than that: linguistic conventions. Everyday language is often imprecise, including the way in which we describe groups.
When London Mayor Sadiq Khan talks about the supposed beneficiaries of his policies, he usually refers to them as “Londoners”. That is not very inclusive, if we take it literally. Not everyone who is affected by Khan’s policies is a Londoner. Some are commuters who work in London, but live elsewhere. Some are newcomers, who have not yet decided whether they want to make London their permanent home, and who might not yet consider themselves “Londoners”. Should those people feel “offended” by Khan’s language? Is he trying to exclude them by his choice of words? Clearly not. “Londoners”, in this context, is simply shorthand for “People who spend a substantial proportion of their lives in London”. In this context, commuters and undecided newcomers are “Londoners”, even if, in other contexts, they may not be.
Similarly, when politicians talk about the inhabitants of this country, they usually refer to them as “the British people”. Again, if you take that at face value, it is not very inclusive. Not everyone who lives in Britain has a British passport. I don’t have one, for example. Should I consider myself “excluded” when politicians talk about “the British people”? Should I be “offended” by that phrase? Of course not. In this context, if you live in Britain, you are part of “the British people”, whether you have a British passport or not. In a political speech, “The British people deserve better than this!” simply works better than “British citizens, foreign nationals who have permanent residence status or who are currently in the process of applying for it, nationals of the European Economic Area plus Switzerland who have settled or pre-settled status or who are currently in the process of applying for it, and residents on temporary but renewable visas who are thinking about settling in Britain permanently, deserve better than this!”
Gendered language is no different. Gendered language is not exclusionary. It is imprecise. It does not cover every eventuality. Everyday language rarely does, and we normally do not consider that a problem, because we do not expect it to meet the same standards of accuracy and precision that we would expect from a report by the Office for National Statistics.
Identity is complicated, everyday language simplifies. You can recognise the existence of non-binary gender identities, and still communicate in standard English. You do not have to use awkward phrases like “people with cervixes” or “people who menstruate” in order to be inclusive.
Which is really a long-winded way of saying “There is no real issue here, it is just that everything now gets sucked up in the vortex of the Culture War.” But you already knew that.