Sunday, January 8

Consciousness raisers

An excerpt from one Richard Dawkins's book. Amazingly sarcastic but factual:

In a science-fiction starship, the astronauts were homesick: 'Just to think that it's springtime back on Earth!' You may not immediately see what's wrong with this, so deeply ingrained is the unconscious northern hemisphere chauvinism in those of us who live there, and even some who don't. 'Unconscious' is exactly right. That is where consciousness-raising comes in. It is for a deeper reason than gimmicky fun that, in Australia and New Zealand, you can buy maps of the world with the South Pole on top. What splendid consciousness-raisers those maps would be, pinned to the walls of our northern hemisphere classrooms. Day after day, the children would be reminded that 'north' is an arbitrary polarity which has no monopoly on 'up'. The map would intrigue them as well as raise their consciousness. They'd go home and tell their parents - and, by the way, giving children something with which to surprise their parents is one of the greatest gifts a teacher can bestow.

It was the feminists who raised my consciousness of the power of consciousness-raising. 'Herstory' is obviously ridiculous, if only because the 'his' in 'history' has no etymological connection with the masculine pronoun. It is as etymologically silly as the sacking, in 1999, of a Washington official whose use of 'niggardly' was held to give racial offence. But even daft examples like 'niggardly' or 'herstory' succeed in raising consciousness. Once we have smoothed our philological hackles and stopped laughing, herstory shows us history from a different point of view. Gendered pronouns notoriously are the front line of such consciousness-raising. He or she must ask himself or herself whether his or her sense of style could ever allow himself or herself to write like this. But if we can just get over the clunking infelicity of the language, it raises our consciousness to the sensitivities of half the human race. Man, mankind, the Rights of Man, all men are created equal, one man one vote - English too often seems to exclude woman. When I was young, it never occurred to me that women might feel slighted by a phrase like 'the future of man'. During the intervening decades, we have all had our consciousness raised. Even those who still use 'man' instead of 'human' do so with an air of self-conscious apology - or truculence, taking a stand for traditional language, even deliberately to rile feminists.

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