I have been having a discussion with a friend about the use of the word mankind. She claims that it makes women “invisible” and should be abandoned in favour of humankind or humanity – or, if not abandoned, used only to refer to men.
This makes me uneasy. Mankind means humanity and not people of the male persuasion. It is a useful word that has the virtue of being unambiguous and inclusive of every being that comes under the heading human. Humanity can mean compassion, and human race is inaccurate, because mankind is not a race but a species.
Changing the use of language to reflect a political position has a bad history. We’ve all read 1984. Changing the language to pander to people who are over-sensitive is equally disturbing – if not another version of the same thing. If women feel disempowered or invisible, then it’s nothing to do with language: it’s to do with relationships and attitudes. Bullying is bullying, whatever the gender.
I myself have never seen an invisible woman. I hope that’s not a dismissive thing to say. All the women I know are very visible indeed, and I rejoice that this is so. Almost everything I can do, a woman can do, both legally and practically, though not all of them can do it as well. Some can do it better, and most of them can do it better than most men could, but that’s another story. It’s also a wild generalisation, but it’s not offensive to women, I hope. Needless to say, all women can do things I can’t.
I once wrote a piece extolling the virtues of the female approach – and was castigated by a woman for being patronising. So I know I can’t win.
But the fact is that if you, as a woman, have been made to feel small or powerless by a man, you are likely to see that happening everywhere, and the three letters m-a-n are as a red rag to a bull, or in this case a heifer. But in English man has a dual meaning, like many, many other words. It may mean an adult male, or it may mean a member of the human race, or the human race as a whole. In mankind it has no gender reference at all.
This is not really a difficult concept to grasp. But if you look at other languages, it makes things even clearer. In French, mankind translates as humanité, whereas an adult male is homme. In German, mankind translates as Menschheit, whereas the German for a male adult is Mann. Interestingly in German the word man is equivalent to (though wider used than) the English one (as in Royal Family). Does this intimidate German women? And do they get annoyed that the word Mädchen, meaning girl, is in fact a neuter noun? Perhaps they do.
It just so happens that in English, the letters m-a-n have different meanings, like the letters s-e-t and many others. When it comes down to it, if you object to mankind, you might as well object to mandarins, manatees and Manchester United.
You could even argue that with the word man having a dual meaning, adult English males might feel aggrieved that they have no distinct word referring to them, whereas women have. There used to be a distinct word for man – the Old English wer – but there isn’t now.
The experience of my friend is that “male language feels alienating and dismissive, that men are thought of as more important”. I personally don’t know what male language is. Language is available to anyone. The use of words like man, or mankind, as descriptive terms is neutral.
It is quite wrong that women – any woman – should feel alienated or dismissed as of no importance. Obviously women are of equal value to men: any other position is absurd. I personally prefer them, but that is a question of taste.
I am sorry my friend has had the experience she has, but I don’t think changing the meaning or use of words that are simply descriptive and, in fact, inclusive, can possibly help her, or her cause. It might even alienate people who would be on her side. If there is a side.
Should I abandon all this logic, though, and simply not use the word mankind, so that she feels better? Well, I would like her to feel better. So it all comes down to this question: what is more important, language or feelings?
Tricky. Leonard Cohen says: “I don’t trust my inner feelings. Inner feelings come and go.” Does language come and go too? And if it does, what can we rely on to express ourselves accurately?