Thursday, January 24, 2013

Word of the Day: “gender-norming”

Back before the Bush Crash, when mortgages were selling or rather being given away like hotcakes, a new term had come into wide use in the mortgage industry:  liar loans”.   The mere prevalence of this phrase signaled that something was seriously amiss.   My mother was intending to sell her condo before too long; I urged her to sell NOW.  She did;  it was the last unit that moved in her development, for the next two years.

There is another term, widely known in the military: “gender-norming”.    It might qualify for word-of-the-day, since the new Panetta rules on women in combat is the issue of the day.   Only … it is not a phrase we are hearing in the MSM.

Now, I am not going to wade into politics as such.  There is already such a babble of voices.   All I can offer that is in somewhat short supply, is logic and linguistics.

So:  The debate as it is being waged on places like WaPo or NPR, runs along these lines.   Verbs are omitted in this skeletal-structural summary, since facts and ratiocination are largely dispensed with in the proceedings.
PRO:  Equality.
CON:  Strength?
PRO:  … meet the rigorous high physical standards … my daughters can do anything a man can do … be all that you can be ...

A few dissenters and worryworts on the sidelines fret that, to meet the quotas  failure to meet which will count as prima facie evidence of discrimination,  conceivably  possibly  some day in the future  standards might be (just a hypothesis)  differentially relaxed -- or, to avoid appearance of favoritism, simply  relaxed across the board.  “U 2 can be all U can be, with the Navy Seals!”, the ads will run in the fashion magazines.
Only … there is no genuine hypothetical here.  Gender-norming is already a fact:

All the rhetoric about “rrrrrigorous performance standards”, then, is just for show.

Another point, which some readers have picked up on, is that what is being proposed is “equality” only in a certain sense (even apart from the disparate standards to which men and women are held).  It is equality of opportunity, but not equality of obligation.    In my generation (Vietnam era),  most guys who wound up in combat gear in the stinking jungles, did not do so as volunteers striving to empower their inner personhood -- they were drafted.  Women were not.   That probably won’t change.

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A more subtle point, where the linguist must step in.   There is a certain dialogue-of-the-deaf aspect to the whole debate, since military and non-military mean different things by the very word “combat”.

A few years ago, when I didn’t know any better, I was talking with an active-duty buddy who had already seen action in-theatre, over multiple tours, mostly in an intel capacity.   He’d been shot at, and rocketed;  and I referred to his having been “in combat”.  He gave me a quizzical look.   “I have never been in combat, ”   he said.  For the military, “combat” does not mean simply standing there and getting shot-at;  it means shooting back.
Another former soldier, now working as a linguist, mentioned, merely in passing, and in a joshing tone, that he had been shot in the stomach by a muj in Iraq.    I winced;  “painful wound.” -- He scoffed:  “If that guy had been any good at all, it would have been the heart.  He was a lousy shot.”   He didn’t consider that he had been in combat either -- just dumb enough (he blamed himself) to have stopped a bullet.

[Update]  Actually, even the semantic proviso above is too weak, in the eyes of a veteran commenting here -- even “shooting back” is not enough:

OK, plenty of veterans have chimed in is one more...I've done multiple combat tours in Iraq as a Marine.

Yes, many women have been shot at and returned fire in Combat zones. But that is not combat!!! Just because you are in harms way, does not mean you have seen combat. Combat is being on patrol for 6-8 weeks without a hot meal, shower, change of clothes, and sleeping in filthy environments. Combat is dealing with IED's, snipper fire, and harassing fire every day for months without a break.
I have had women on patrol with us, and some of them did a great job...they were used to search local females...but they have to be switched out every week. That is not combat!!! Just because you get shot at, shoot back, and now have a new ribbon to wear does not mean you have experienced the true grotesque nature of combat.

Again, note, this observation is not to argue any political point:  just noting the facts of linguistic usage, which differ markedly between military and civilians.  (Similarly, the meaning of, say, "grammatical" differs depending upon whether it is being used by generativists or schoolteachers. "Object" means something quite different to a psychoanalyst from what it does to a linguist or to the lay speaker.  And so on.)

Additionally, the term “combat unit  has a specific sense in the military, whereas civilians use the term vaguely.  Again a comment from a vet, on the same site:

Females that are MP (convoys), Interpreter, Human Exploitation Team (HET), Pilot, Aircrew, Motor T, Force Protection, etc can and are exposed to hostile fire...that does not mean they are part of a combat unit. Combat units are not the same thing.

Similarly, just because you can write your name does not mean that you are a “writer”, in the strict professional sense of that word.

[For a servicewoman's take on this, try here:  Navy linguists save the day.

[For more from this pen, check this out:]

 [Update 15 Dec 2017]


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