Monday, June 12, 2006

Women and children first

Five times this week, when describing one of this world’s many atrocities, I learned that some number of innocent people were unfairly killed - “including women and children”. The idea is, I guess, to underline the amount of indignation to be felt - the level of the atrocity. This wasn’t an ordinary atrocity: this one was worse - it harmed the women and children.

Now the death of a child is particularly sad. By definition, children have had too little time in this world, and their death robs them of more of their lives than killing an adult does. Further they are more innocent and, so, more good in a sense, which offends our sense of justice: that good things should happen to good people. “Including children” makes sense to me.

But why mention the sex of the victims? What is the importance of noting that among the dead were some that had ovaries? This addition assumes and proclaims something about the essential qualities of men and women. It suggests that, relative to women, the men either deserved their fate more (they were not as good or pure) or were more able or responsible to endure it (they were not as weak). This belief - given we have no real information about the actual victims - relies on some problematic stereotypes.

It presumes, apparently, that women, like children, lack the moral independence to be partisan or malicious and lack the strength to endure the hardships of the world. Both these assumptions are categorically false. Women love and fight for their lives, their families, and their countries, although they are culturally sometimes limited in their ability to act. Women, too, are no less physically or mentally tough than men; this fact is often noted when we stereotypically describe their endurance during childbirth and their tenacity in fighting for their children. And it must be noted that there is no amount of human strength that is relevant against a bomb blast or a shower of bullets. What’s the difference between men and women in this context?

If I were female, I’d be livid every time I hear “including women and children”. It categorizes women essentially as children. The presumption behind this is that women, like children, are dismissable- that they would not fight for their rights or their countries. Women, like cattle, will serve any master. Is this true? It is so long as women believe it is.

It also demands male role expectation. Men are expected to be fighters, and thus they apparently must be prepared to accept harm. This is part of “being a man”. Given this, when harm comes to them, our conscience is not as shocked. In other words, maleness makes one a more natural target of violence. Crime statistics, by the way, confirm this: men are far more likely to be the victims of violent crime. These sentiments are spurious and pernicious. They simulateously approve of violence to men and dismiss the power and greatness of women.

Men, seen in this way, even when they are non-partisan "innocents", are potential future enemies. In other words, we are, at least relatively, justified to take the life of a man. In a Macchiavellian sense, when we're not sure who to kill, first kill the men. By taking this view, we devalue the humanity, goodness, and potential of a man, drafting him as an unwilling participant in the war of all against all. By repeating the phrase, we remind our listeners that - for a man - it's kill or be killed.

Imagine saying "24 died in the resultant fire, 16 of which were men who hoped for a better future for their families."

The better solution, of courfse, is to ignore sex altogether. How about "12 bystanders were killed by the blast, including 4 teachers and a firefighter." or "Of the 105 slaughtered innocents, 60 were parents, and 11 grandparents." Strange, perhaps, but these comments would at least have relevance, and they might cause us to remember that these people were part of a community, a family, a fabric of life.

We should all be upset by these news reports who think to play on and reaffirm our stereotypes - including women and children.


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