Chairs and Persons

I was a student union activist at University many years ago; involved in committees and things. One late evening, with the Union Council had been discussing a new constitution for many hours, and people wanted to wrap it up and get to the bar before its late licence ran out..

And we came to the last proposed amendment; the chair was taken over by a Steering Committee member, for no amendment could be debated from the chair. And Rob, the chairman had serious views on this one.

February 15: first teddy bear.

The new proposed constitution had replaced the word ‘chairman/woman’ with the word ‘chairperson’.

Rob rose to his feet; in his hand he held a large stuffed teddy bear. He introduced the bear. This, as he pointed out, was a toy, but some people got attached to their toys and thought of them as real, so let’s call this a person. But now let’s look closer: it’s a teddy bear. It’s an ‘it’. It’s not a male or a female. It’s got something important missing – no, perhaps not what you’re thinking.

What’s missing is a major part of its identity, the part that, if it had it, would make it he or she; or even allow it to be uncertain about which. The part that applies to living, thinking, reasoning, being humans.

I haven’t got that bit missing, he said. I’m a man, not just a person. My predecessor in the chair of this Union was a woman, not just a person. Mr Acting Chairman, he said, I oppose this change on the grounds that it is a lie and a belittling of humanity.

Perhaps because it was late; perhaps the various-tasting smoke drifting over the meeting; perhaps because of the teddy bear, but just perhaps because his words hit a sense of identity in those listening, the word ‘chairperson’ was struck out and replaced by ‘chairman/woman’; the majority for doing so was massive.

I have little doubt that now the constitution of that union has a place for a ‘chairperson’, genderless, identity-impaired, inhuman. For that’s what we now expect, and how a society has grown away from valuing people as complete people.

It may seem an abstruse point of language, but it’s fundamental. Every time a man or woman is used as a ‘person’, his or her identity is devalued, and part of his or her humanity ground in the dust.

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