So there I was the other morning, luxuriating on the cushions by the warm gas heater in my big, thick winter dressing gown, crunching away on my four-grain toast and my muesli, pondering my first world problems in that semi-vacant way you do when you’re only half-awake… the heater was by now actually generating too much warmth, I had too much to eat for breakfast, I’d badly screwed up my morning coffee, you know the kind of thing. Then ABC News Breakfast cut into my thoughts with a report about yet another boat full of asylum-seekers that had gone down somewhere between Indonesia and Australia. “More than 130 people were on board”, the reporter said, in that wistful tone that TV news reporters use for nearly everything these days, “including women and children”.”How awful”, I thought to myself… double take … but wait a minute! “Including women and children”?? Why “including women and children”?? Does that somehow make it more sad, more tragic, than if only men had died? What’s going on here? Can it be… is this a clear-cut case of gender-based discrimination I see before me?
Suddenly, I was very much awake.
At this point, I hasten to add that I’ve no intention of commenting further on the specifics of the boat thing – I don’t want my flippant tone to detract from what is nothing less than a desperately tragic situation; a disgraceful, shameful mess that several governments in our corner of the world – not least of which, our own – should be removed from office over, for the part they’ve knowingly played in it. But I digress.
So back to matters of a more shamelessly frivolous nature… this “including women and children” thing. I’ve mulled it over for two days now and I need to exorcise it! See, it’s a little-acknowledged fact that men have been the (perhaps unlikely) victims of gender-based discrimination for longer than any of us can remember. It’s not a case of us ‘finally’ getting our comeuppance, not really. This “including women and children” business has happened since the dawn of time! Bottom line: regardless of the situation, I struggle to see how either gender or age makes someone’s premature death in tragic circumstances any more tragic than it already is. Human beings are human beings and when an innocent human life is lost prematurely it’s always a tragedy, plain and simple. Gender and age mixes only mean something to market researchers, not to death tolls. Imagine if a boat sank at sea and a 5-year-old child, a 28-year-old childless woman, a 36-year-old father and a 67-year-old grandfather all died – it’s all just sad, there’s no other way to feel about it. Could I look at this group of prematurely deceased people and feel degrees of sadness, relative to their age and gender? Could I plot the relative level of sadness on a scale of one to five, where one is not sad at all and five is inconsolable? Of course I couldn’t.
But these repeated media references to “including women and children” are tantamount to saying that a situation just wouldn’t have been quite as bad, not quite so tragic, if only men had died.
In this PC-gone-mad age of ours, I can’t believe anyone’s still able to get away with saying something like that! Just imagine if the report of last December’s asylum-seeker boat sinking off the Indonesian coast had mentioned that “an overcrowded boat full of asylum seekers sank on Saturday, killing as many as 180 people, including men and elderly people”. Of course it’s ludicrous – why would anyone say that? So why, then, does the “including women and children” tagline tug at our heartstrings? And it must do, it’s an age-old journalistic technique that just keeps being rolled out, time and again.
It’s lazy journalism though, utilised with the sole intention of injecting emotion into situations that are already, if you’ll excuse a poorly timed pun, swimming with emotion; drowning in it, in fact… if you’ll excuse another poorly timed pun; it’s lazy journalism that seeks to either enhance or reduce the impact of a situation by singling out a sub-set of people, solely on the basis of their age or gender; and, quite frankly, it’s lazy journalism that’s no less discriminatory and no less offensive than any other practice of singling out a sub-set of people on the basis of their age, gender, religion, sexual orientation, height, weight, hair colour, impairment or anything else that the 2012 PC brigade would jump up and down about.
So next time you hear or see “including women and children” used in the context of some horrible tragedy, take a moment to reflect on what’s happened – would it have been any less tragic if only men and old people had been involved? I urge everyone to really think about it.
Including women and children.