Wednesday, 12 October 2011

The brotherhood of man

However I might feel about the concepts of nation and nationality, hearing national anthems during international sporting competitions somehow makes me feel emotional. The stirring music, the communal joining-in, the sense of belonging. I particularly felt this during the 2011 FIFA Women’s World Cup, which was staged in my native Germany. The 2006 (Men’s) World Cup might have helped to restore some of Germany’s chipped feeling of identity, but the 2011 event was for me the icing on the cake.

Packed stadia, round-the-clock (local) broadcast, extensive newspaper commentary – whether you were a woman or man, football, despite its once exclusive history, seemed to have (momentarily) made us all equally human. Or so I thought, until the German national anthem was played. While I had never listened to it that closely before, I have both meagre experience of international sporting events and no strong sense of nationality, the occasion of seeing only female faces while the anthem was played, demanded that special attention should be paid. And so I did.

“Einigkeit und Recht und Freiheit für das deutsche Vaterland! Danach lasst uns alle streben, brüderlich mit Herz und Hand!” - 'Unity and justice and freedom for the German fatherland! This is what we should aspire to, brotherly with heart and hand!' (Die Bundesregierung 2011, my translation). One question was suddenly painfully obvious: if we were singing the anthem to honour the women’s football team where were the women?

Why were we only singing about fathers and brothers – men? Do women (only) have a fatherland? And (how) can they be brotherly? If we make a point of calling the Women’s World Cup, Women’s World Cup, where are the mothers and sisters, in short, women? Further, why had I never noticed before that the German national anthem was linguistically exclusive to ‘man’?

One reason might be that I had simply not encountered many women-only events. Another, that I, due to my upbringing, did not generally think it odd that ‘man’ was presented as the only human. As the linguist Benjamin Lee Whorf argues: “the effortlessness of speech and the subconscious way we picked up that activity in early childhood leads us to regard talking and thinking as wholly straightforward and transparent” (Carroll 1973, 238). In short, if something is learned from a young age, we are less likely to consider it strange – the repetition of a certain language simply ‘neutralises’ certain concepts.

However, that does not mean that language itself is ‘neutral’. As the feminist Senta Trömel-Plötz confirms: “Sprache ist nicht neutral – sie ist über Jahrhunderte gewachsen und spiegelt unsere Einstellungen und Grundannahmen wieder. Im Patriarchat ist der Mythos männlicher Überlegenheit eine dieser Grundannahmen” - 'Language is not neutral – it has grown over centuries and reflects our attitudes and basic assumptions. The myth of male supremacy is one of the basic assumptions of patriarchy' (Trömel-Plötz 1994, 90, my translation). But if, in our supposedly equal societies, we believe we have moved beyond ‘the myth of male supremacy’, why do we not say so. Why do we still praise only ‘man’ in the German national anthem and not woman?

Unfortunately, Germany is far from an isolated case, as a line in the fourth stanza of the British national anthem shows: “Lord make the nations see - That men should brothers be” (The Telegraph 2011). British citizens might currently praise the Queen as a representative of womankind, but as soon as she leaves power, Britain will once more be in the linguistic grip of the brotherhood of man.

To get to the point: as long as we allow ‘man’ the sole linguistic reign over humanity, woman is, as she is nowhere to be seen, unlikely to be considered fully human beyond. As the Playboy images of Germany’s team to promote the Women’s World Cup sadly confirmed, woman is still trapped in her object position to man – singing the praises of only ‘fathers and brothers’ simply perpetuates the myth that ‘man’ is the only human. To escape this circular line of thinking, we need to make sure women’s voices are equally heard – allowing woman to finally praise herself as woman, that is, an equal member of humanity, now that would be something to sing about.

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Carroll, John B, ed. 1973. Language, Thought, and Reality: Selected Writings of Benjamin Lee Whorf. Cambridge: Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

Trömel-Plötz, Senta. 1994. Frauensprache: Sprache der Veränderung. Frankfurt am Main: Fisher Taschenbuch Verlag.

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