Transport for London (TFL) recently announced they would be changing the language they use to address their customers. Staff on TFL trains have been advised to stop using the words ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ when addressing passengers over tannoys, and to start using more gender neutral terms like ‘Good morning everyone’.
Callum Dann wrote an article about it recently. It was well-researched and well-argued and well-written. But it was problematic, and it deserves a response. He seems to think that the change, designed to make sure British institutions more inclusive, is somehow a bad thing.
Dann’s article isn’t problematic because I disagree with it, it’s problematic first and foremost because he seems to misrepresent the narrative he’s discussing.
He calls the change in protocol a ‘ban’. If that were the case, maybe Dann’s anger would be justified. He’s trying to create a sense of rigid dogma. He’s trying to make us think this shift, away from one expression to another is outright – that the poor TFL soul who, in a moment of fatal forgetfulness, accidently mutters the word ‘ladies’ will be flayed for his impudence like a misbehaving dog.
‘Ban’ is a carefully chosen, inflammatory word. It’s a word designed to create a sense of conflict, catastrophe. But it’s a lie. This isn’t a ban. At least, not in the sense Dann seems to think it is, it’s really more of a guideline.
In The Evening Standard article Dann links to, London Mayor Sadiq Kahn explains that ‘from time-to-time, well-meaning staff may still use the term ‘ladies and gentlemen’. If this happens frequently, TFL will issue reminders to staff.’ So it’s not a ban, then; we’re not about to see the eradication of gendered terms on the tube. It’s the start of a gradual shift from one set of words to another. It’s a comparatively mild thing, a gentle prod in a gentle direction to help oil the wheels of progress.
Our language is important. It’s fundamental to the way we interact with one another, and the perfect expression of domineering social trends. So when Transport for London staff say ‘Ladies and Gentlemen’ they might not intend to actually isolate anyone, but they do. Without wanting to, without thinking about it, they deny non-binary people their existence, their presence in British society.
It’s a little thing, sure, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t important. This is more than a ‘frivolous act’. It’s a means of making life in Britain more pleasant and more inclusive for more people, of pushing our socio-cultural frontiers forward. It’s progress.
Nonetheless, Dann seems to reject that importance. He presents a list of things the government might feasibly spend their money on, as alternatives to the tannoy change. He suggests we ‘spend time and money on improving public transport, recruiting more staff or working towards fixing relations between unions and the government’. This is a very special sort of logical fallacy. It sees nothing but extremes. Sure, maybe it would be more beneficial to just pump money into hiring more staff, but why spend money on hiring more staff when you could spend that money on just buying more trains? Expanding connections? Why even bother spending money on trains when you could spend it funding cancer research?
Follow Dann’s logic and you’ll find there’s always some bigger issue we can shift our attention to, that there’s always something somehow more societal, somehow more pervasive, somehow grander in scope and darker in nature that we should be focusing on. Dann’s implied intellectual principles are ludicrous. To indulge in them is to expose yourself to a kind of world that should only ever focus its biggest issues and should only ever try to tackle its largest problems. That’s not how the world works.
Finally, and most egregiously, though, Dann seems to think that the change has come at a cost to the majority. He seems to think that Transport for London’s reforms aren’t so much pro-LGBTQ+, but rather they are anti-everyone else. ‘Does freedom mean forcing beliefs upon people?’ he laments, before asserting that the vast majority of the people remain a ‘lady’ or a ‘gentleman’. He’s technically right. Freedom definitely doesn’t mean forcing your beliefs on someone. And most people are traditionally gendered – as Dann himself points out, only 0.4% of the population are actually non-binary.
However, the practical reality is more complex. ‘Good Morning everyone’ doesn’t force you to change genders. Not being reminded by your train that you are, indeed, a man or a lady, doesn’t suddenly stop making you a man or a lady. Sadiq Khan is not trying to make you non-binary. ‘Good morning everyone’ is as neutral, as inoffensive as it gets. It quite literally doesn’t discriminate.
Even so, Dann seems to think it’s especially undemocratic. He claims the change puts the needs of the few before the needs of the many, policy, he suggests that ‘logically, sensibly, it is moronic to try and please everyone and everything’. Maybe that’s true. Maybe that carries some sort of sense, but it doesn’t really seem to hold up. For one, it seems to advocate for something called tyranny of the majority: a state of political being whereby the needs of minority groups, groups defined by unique socio-political needs- minority groups likes the LGBTQ+ community- are quashed by the much louder voice of a domineering majority. Under that kind of system, with those sorts of mechanisms, minority groups can’t develop their rights because they don’t have the political voice through which to do it.
Dann’s train of thought is pernicious, then, because it seems to suggest that society can only change if it’s changing for the sake of a majority, rather than for a disenfranchised minority. It’s pernicious because it seems to disregard, with one fell and wildly misinformed swoop, the legitimacy of the black civil rights movement, the suffragette movement, the gay rights movement and any kind of pressure group success ever.
Minority rights have to have a niche in the national discourse. We have to consider them and try to accommodate for them where we can. That’s how progress happens. Sitting down and shrugging, suggesting it’s too much trouble or somehow insisting that society has other problems, doing what Dann is doing here, does not help.
This is bigger than identity politics. This is bigger than what it means to be non-binary (for what it’s worth, I’m not), this is about social complacency, about a brand of political conservatism that hinders change and impedes progress. This is, more than anything, about bad politics.