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In Defence Of TfL's New Gender-Neutral Announcements

14/07/2017 09:05 BST | Updated 14/07/2017 09:08 BST
Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

On Thursday, it was announced that TfL is planning to scrap the use of the phrase "ladies and gentlemen" on London Underground announcements. Cue disproportionate outburst of rage from people who previously had never cared about the subject. Comments sections across Facebook were filled with the usual vacuous verbiage: "why can't we focus on more serious issues?", "why should 99% of the population adjust for 1%?" et cetera, et cetera. Memes were quickly created mocking the new policy, and while this may seem a minor development, comedy has a profound ability to create social norms.

The announcement had its defenders too, although small in number. These defenders of what is a progressive development for our society seemed most often to be running with the "it doesn't have a negative impact on anyone but has a positive impact on some people, so why shouldn't we do this?" argument. In truth, it's not a very satisfactory defence. It's essentially saying we should tolerate this change rather than accept it - and for me, that's not good enough. This change is an entirely positive development and should be treated as such. The arguments for it are, however, far broader than the reduction of micro-aggressions against the trans community (not that they need to be).

Let's begin with the whataboutery of those trying to deflect to more serious infringements on human rights abroad, and other crises being experienced at home. I cannot prove this, but one might be forgiven for suspecting that those most commonly found citing the suffering of women abroad or the poor in the UK as a means of demonstrating how "good" the rest of us have it, are likely the same people who advocate cutting the foreign aid budget or the welfare state. It stinks of shameless capriciousness when the lives of the most vulnerable are suddenly cared about when an attack is made on a patriarchal norm in the UK.

Secondly, "the majority adjusting for the minority" argument. There are a number of reasons why this is perfectly acceptable. One is that simply maximising the happiness of the greatest number of people might seem like a noble philosophical goal, but by definition, some people will be left to suffer. No society should be comfortable with itself when it makes a deliberate decision to allow some of its members to suffer so that others might thrive. This philosophy enables racism and sexism. Instead, we should look to John Rawls' theory of justice. Pretend for a moment you are unborn. Not knowing what skin colour you will have, which country you will be placed into, whether you will be born to a rich or poor family, or what your sexuality or any other characteristic may be, ask yourself this question: would you be happy with any of the possible outcomes? If not, then something must need to be changed. That is part of the reason why this decision by TfL is such a good one.

The other reason why this decision is such a positive one, however, is that it begins a long-overdue deconstruction of the gender binary that so heavily influences our lives. So often nowadays, I see people stating with hubristic certainty that "there are only two genders" (usually followed by the word libtard). I suspect what they mean to say is that "there are only two sexes", although even this is a falsity given the number of chromosomal and fertility variations that undermine the binary that the argument relies on. Gender, of course, is just how you perform to others in the world around you. Certain actions (or performances) are deemed masculine, others are deemed feminine. Human beings like to fit people into neat boxes and gendering people helps with this. However, deep down even the most ardent alt-right online troll knows that gender is entirely made up. I for one, have far more in common with Jennifer Lawrence than I do with Arnold Schwarzenegger, yet in the Venn diagram of social conservatives, I'm grouped with the big Austrian.

In reality, gender is a spectrum so broad and vaguely defined that it's difficult to make a case that it actually exists in any manner beyond our social construction of what we want it to be. We all exhibit little bits of masculinity and femininity every day, and removing highly symbolically charged words from public usage helps to normalise that behaviour. Part of the reason why suicide is so high among men is that they feel unable to express themselves to those around them. This is entirely based on the notion that men should be "tough" and "strong". Meanwhile, women who are commanding in discussions or do well at sciences are belittled and put down for not being ladylike. Little signs and symbols that appear in everyday life serve to embed this false binary of male and female behaviours into our psyche. It's a binary we've created and it's one that increases suffering for many people.

The reality is that we should embrace this decision by TfL not because it doesn't hurt anyone but improves the lives of a few, but because it is the beginning of a positive process that will improve the lives of us all. Deconstructing gender norms is the first step towards accepting rather than tolerating the transgender community, breaking the glass ceiling, and encouraging men and boys suffering from depression to seek help. Preventing micro-aggressions against the transgender community is reason enough for the new announcements. The reduction of everyday sexism and a mental health epidemic make this decision by TfL an even better one.