Thursday, March 01, 2012

Pet Peeve

Sometimes I find myself sitting down with a cuppa and flicking on the TV and it just so happens that the program that is on is "UK Border Force".  I have to say, it's the bottom end of reality TV and I'm not sure why I bother.

There is one feature though that it has in common with many other crime reality shows and that is the way many in the law enforcement community refer to "males" and "females".  In my first life I was a zoologist (briefly) and these terms are used as nouns to describe animals when you need to distinguish gender.  So if you're watching a group of elephants you might say "The large male is walking towards the females".

In my mind this is OK when you're talking about animals but not humans.  When you refer to someone as a man or a woman you also make a statement about their humanity because these words are only ever used about humans.  When you use male or female as a noun when talking about people it seems to me to have a de-humanising effect.

So to return to UK Border Force; the Calais immigration team have found a group of Vietnamese immigrants stowing away in a truck. One of the team says, in a very sympathetic tone "Oh no, there's a couple of little females in here".  In my head she's found a box of kittens, or a nest of baby mice.  But she hasn't, and her tone, which is meant to sound kind, I find disturbing.  What she has found, cowering behind the cargo, is two young women.  She treats them kindly and carefully, given that she has to arrest them as illegal immigrants, but she has already done the worst thing she can to them by referring to them in a way that reduces their humanity and infantilises them.

It something that seems to happen a lot in law enforcement reality shows; police officers talk about IC3 males, or young white females.  They may be criminals but they are actually Asian men and white girls.  It seems to be a result of creating jargon to categorise and encode people for reports, but there's a danger that, as people stop talking about men and women and start using these oddly biological terms, we reduce human beings to animals not only in our paperwork but in our minds, and once people become less than human in our minds it makes it easier to treat them as less than human.

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