Monday, May 18, 2009

A Word is a Word is a Word. Or Not

Apparently, "balance" is now a dirty word. As in "Balance is a myth."

At first, I was inclined to dismiss this as so much sound and fury signifying nothing, but I can't seem to let go of it.
The dirtying of the word seems to me to contribute to the repulsive notion that women are something other than full-fledged human beings with the ability and the right to manage their own lives - not to mention to focus on what actually matters.

I was informed this morning that in the context of
work-life balance the word has come to mean 50/50, as in "I must spend the exact same amount of time and expend the exact same effort on my family as on my career in order to be balanced."

Obviously, this is ridiculous. A balanced life is just like a balanced story, a balanced diet, a balanced argument. The point of the word is that the thing in question works, it's pleasing, it has the right relative placement of the important and the less important. It does the trick. The 50/50 concept must be read into the word; it is not there as a matter of definition. Moreover, why 50/50? People have more than two things to balance; they have friends, lovers, hobbies, pets, causes and all manner of other activities in addition to career and family.

If the word has come to have this 50/50 connotation, the reason ties directly to the work-life balance conundrum faced by women. Whether adopted by women ourselves with the result that we feel bad about our own balance choices or batted at us at all times by a society intent on insinuating that it is not possible to have both a good career and a good family simultaneously, the whole "balance is a myth" phenomenon is misogynistic and limiting.

Does anyone hear the phrase "balance is a myth" and think first:

--Maybe I better reconsider taking a sabbatical to work on a political campaign?

--How am I ever going to incorporate care of my elderly parents into my life?

--Will it be possible to combine my career goals with being a dad?

I doubt it. I think most people hear the phrase and think either "Good grief! How am I ever going to make this career/being a mom thing work?" or "Women don't have what it takes to do both." The likely impact of this is concern bordering on despair for women contemplating taking on both, and narrowing of opportunities for women in work environments that demand dedication and commitment from their workers.

Neither impact helps women construct and lead full lives. The bottom line is that the dirtying of the word "balance" has a disproportionately negative impact on women and is inherently sexist.

Maybe I should just relax. One of the tried-and-true tactics for re-selling a tried-and-true concept is to make it seem fresh instead of old-hat. If we call balance a dirty word, we can spin a new one that, with any luck, will strike people as perky, appealing, and innovative. A bit sleazy perhaps, but OK. I can live with it.

unintended meanings have been attaching themselves to words, like so many barnacles clinging to the hull of a boat, from time immemorial. The word "choice" comes immediately to mind. So does "working mother," which carries far more meaning than the usual adjective/noun combo. (It continues to annoy me no end that "working mother" is a loaded phrase and "working father" is not a phrase at all.) New nuances and meanings are how language evolves, and the evolution is not necessarily political. Evolution is OK with me, too.

But here's my problem. First of all, this wordplay is silly, in the same way the 60s talk about changing the word "history" to "herstory" was silly. Easily scorned silliness like this doesn't help the cause, both because it lends itself to being mocked and because it distracts our eyes from the ball. The word isn't what's in need of redefinition. Whether you call it balance or something else, the point is that each person has the right and the responsibility to define and then construct for herself a life that works.

Second, the world we live in does not need any help marginalizing women. It does not need any help insinuating that there's somehow a right way to be a woman and that all other choices fall short. Examples abound, be they discussions - in 2009! - of gender as a potentially negative issue when filling a Supreme Court seat,
or the pregnancy of a 66-year-old woman (who is almost without exception referred to as a "career woman" instead of, more appropriately, as an example of selfishness and medical freakery), or a list of great 20th century books that manages to include only 7 books written by women (and to include among the exclusions, if you will, not only Edith Wharton and Flannery O'Connor and Alice Walker, but also the Great American Novel, Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird). (Don't like these examples, which, by the way, are all from just this morning? Here are plenty more.)

Even if the intent of throwing a nice word like "balance" under the bus is to empower women, the very separation of women from men in this regard suggests we are somehow not in the same position as men with respect to making our own choices, setting our own priorities, and doing what each of us, in her own wisdom and circumstances, deems the right things to do with her life. Backhanded sexism is still sexism.

1 comment:

Angpang said...

Wow. Excellent arguments expressed with such writing flair. I'll be back here again...