Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Culture, Language, Gender, and Power: Sweden’s Experiment

It appears that Sweden is considering taking gender equality to levels not seen before. An article in the New York Times by John Tagliabue provides a description of an experiment in preschool teaching.
"Sweden is perhaps as renowned for an egalitarian mind-set as it is for meatballs or Ikea furnishings. But this taxpayer-financed preschool, known as the Nicolaigarden for a saint whose chapel was once in the 300-year-old building that houses it, is perhaps one of the more compelling examples of the country’s efforts to blur gender lines and, theoretically, cement opportunities for both women and men."

"....the teachers avoid the pronouns "him" and "her," instead calling their 115 toddlers simply "friends." Masculine and feminine references are taboo, often replaced by the pronoun "hen," an artificial and genderless word that most Swedes avoid but is popular in some gay and feminist circles."

To some, this may appear at first as a silly exercise—much ado about nothing. But those who run this school took the national decree to provide gender equality, even in day-care centers, quite seriously. They took the unusual step of recording their actions as they cared for the children and evaluated the degree to which they treated boys and girls differently. What they discovered was that their actions, inadvertently, were propagating sexual stereotypes.

"’We could see lots of differences, for example, in the handling of boys and girls,’ said Lotta Rajalin, who directs the center and three others, which she visits by bicycle. ‘If a boy was crying because he hurt himself, he was consoled, but for a shorter time, while girls were held and soothed much longer,’ she said. ‘With a boy it was, ‘Go on, it’s not so bad!’"

"The filming, she said, also showed that staff members tended to talk more with girls than with boys, perhaps explaining girls’ later superior language skills. If boys were boisterous, that was accepted, Ms. Rajalin said; a girl trying to climb a tree on an outing in the country was stopped."

"The result, after much discussion, was a seven-point program to alter such behavior. ‘We avoid using words like boy or girl, not because it’s bad, but because they represent stereotypes,’ said Ms. Rajalin, 53. ‘We just use the name — Peter, Sally — or ‘Come on, friends!’ Men were added to the all-female staff."

Is it possible that these common differences in the treatment of boys and girls could have long-term effects on how the two sexes ultimately view themselves?

Daniel T. Rodgers has written a fascinating book titled Age of Fracture. Rodgers attempts to explain the social evolution that occurred at the end of the twentieth century as a movement from a society in which people considered themselves as individuals within a defined social sphere to one in which these aggregations of individuals began to fracture into numerous cultural entities.

"....the terms that had dominated post-World War II intellectual life began to fracture. One heard less about society, history, and power and more about individuals, contingency, and choice."

If individuals broke out of the social structures that might have defined them in an earlier time, did that mean that they now possessed the power to determine the course of their future? Or were there more subtle constraints that remained? Rodgers devotes a significant fraction of his work to examining the possible sources of power that might provide those constraints.

If women in the United States gradually freed themselves from the formal constraints of laws and regulations that generated unequal treatment, did that mean that they were now unconstrained? Not necessarily so seemed to be the answer.

Rodgers discusses the ideas of the Italian Antonio Gramsci in identifying and emphasizing the role culture could play in enforcing rules of conformity.

"How do the rulers rule? By domination through violence and the coercive powers of the state, surely. But also and still more pervasively, Gramsci reflected, by the less choate power of ‘hegemony’."

Rodgers quotes the definition of hegemony provided by the British historian Gwynn Williams. Hegemony is:

"....an order in which a certain way of life and thought is dominant, in which one concept of reality is infused throughout society in all its institutional and private manifestations, informing with its spirit all taste, morality, customs, religious and political principles, and all social relations, particularly in their political and moral connotations."

Rodgers then adds:

"Hegemony was the power of the dominant class not only to impose its social categories on others but also, and still more, to make its systems of meaning come to seem the natural order of things, so that by insensibly absorbing that order the many consented to the domination of the few."

While Gramsci’s thoughts were penned in the environment of World War II Europe, it is not difficult to see signs of cultural domination in current society. Would a young woman growing up in multicultural Manhattan be more unfettered than a young woman growing up in a rural area dominated by evangelical Christians? The Swedish school was correct in worrying about the little differences in behavior imposed on boys and girls.

Language is part of culture—an important part. Consider the terms "woman" and "female." Both are defined as a relationship to man, explicitly suggesting a subordinate state. Many languages enforce the rule that if gender is not specified it will be assumed to be masculine—presumably in the belief that if it is worth writing about then it probably involves a male. How many of these linguistic slights are women exposed to in the course of a lifetime, and what might be the effect?

Rodgers suggests that language can be a subtle, but powerful tool of suppression.

"....a power lodged in the hierarchical oppositions that formed the very stuff of language. Nature/culture, mind/body, inner/outer, male/female. In these overtly neutral binaries, one of the terms of difference was inevitably promoted at the expense of the other, made normal or natural in the very act of excluding, marginalizing, or making supplemental the other. Dominance and erasure ran all through what Jacques Derrida called the ‘violent hierarchies’ of language, naturalizing what was arbitrary...."

Sweden’s experiment in gender equality may or may not lead to any definitive conclusions, but the very act of defining the issue as it has, should cause others to reconsider the ways in which gender inequality is being addressed.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent food for thought. My own Swedish heritage and brief exposure to that country is insufficient to use as a base from which, at 3:47 am, to allow my sodden brain to achieve deep insights. In a similar exposure to Norway, I see those two countries as very close in their way of looking at things.


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