What’s in a Name? The Contentious (but Correct) Decision by the Marines to Remove “Man” from Job Titles

When it comes to changing the language, I think [feminists] make some good points. Because we do think in language. And so the quality of our thoughts and ideas can only be as good as the quality of our language. So maybe some of this patriarchal shit ought to go away. I think “spokesman” ought to be “spokesperson.” I think “chairman” ought to be “chairperson.” I think “mankind” ought to be “humankind.”

But they take it too far, they take themselves too seriously, they exaggerate. They want me to call that thing in the street a “personhole cover.” I think that’s taking it a little bit too far! What would you call a ladies’ man, a “person’s person?” That would make a he-man an “it-person.” Little kids would be afraid of the “boogie-person.” They’d look up in the sky and see the “person in the moon.” Guys would say “come back here and fight like a person,” and we’d all sing “For It’s a Jolly Good Person.” That’s the kind of thing you would hear on “Late Night with David Letterperson!”

– George Carlin, Doin’ It Again

In the last few years, the US military has gone through several major changes in its personnel policy. Those opposed to these changes reliably predict doom for our military and our nation, claiming the service is essentially tearing itself apart in the name of inclusiveness. Advocates for these changes liken them to when the military underwent racial integration almost two decades before the nation as a whole followed, and they suggest that the problems associated with change are overhyped and will lessen with time and training.

The best known, recent change was the 2011 repeal of the decades-old “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy forbidding gays and lesbians from serving, and a similar repeal of the ban on transgender service members was just announced last week. But LGBTQ equality is not the only area of conflict for personnel changes—we’re also witnessing the withdrawal of policy that prohibited women from combat jobs.

This change, which started in 2013 but only gained momentum in the last six months, has caused seemingly endless wailing and gnashing of teeth, even from those who were allies on similar issues. But as with most policy revisions, the hottest issue isn’t even the root change but the second- and third-order effects. One example is the necessary development of new standards for fitness tests, which the military tackled head-on by establishing tough gender-neutral standards for combat roles while retaining classic gender-normalized tests for all other roles. The issue at play right now is the reevaluation of job titles that use the word “man.”

Last week, the Marines concluded that nineteen job titles would be changed to remove the term “man,” replacing it with the more neutral title of “Marine.” For this change, the Marines have been inundated with a significant amount of feedback—some supportive, but far more chastising.

I can understand some of the detractor’s concerns. There is tradition in certain terms, the replacement may be awkward and harder to say, and there’s no clear distinction for which titles should be revisited. I have less sympathy for anyone who argues using boogeyman terms like “political correctness” (which always seems to have “run amok”) or “regressive left,” a term with a narrow, specific, meaningful context that is often ignored. Personally, I would have trouble mustering all that much concern about it except that, as George Carlin observed, equality is everyone’s business and if language is a tool of excluding, then it must be changed.

But as both a man and a Soldier, I was hesitant to bluntly state what I thought was best for either women or Marines; I did not want to make the mistake of speaking for others without including them. To address that, I sought the input from those groups most directly affected: Marine men whose job titles were changing and Marine women who now have the ability to switch to those jobs. Their opinions were unanimous.

I spoke with several individuals from each group, and every one of them felt that not only was this change something that the Marines could handle gracefully, but that it was appropriate to make, period. Furthermore, they all agreed that while a minority of Marines would prattle on about the change, the majority would take the change well. Staff Sergeant Rebecca Nielsen, who was willing to go on record, pointed out that the Marines have a solid history of using the term “Marine” as an honorific title in a way other services simply don’t. “It’s very common to hear us ‘Marine’ each other, like, ‘Hey, I’m a tactical weather Marine…’” She added, “Most of us are good with it, since we’re integrating women into various combat roles. The title is honorable. Bottom line is, I think the pervading ideology is that the word ‘Marine’ is an acceptable replacement of the word ‘man.’”

In the end, we’re not going to get away from those who will complain endlessly about each and every step taken in the name of social equality. There will always be those that want to relegate women to a secondary role, if not literally as  “barefoot and in the kitchen,” then certainly by other means such as the terminology employed in everyday language. But it is clear that, at least with this change, the people whom it will affect are largely good to go with it, so we should just get it over with and move on. Maybe we should all take a lesson from how Marines view themselves as a cohesive whole and examine whether we want to be “mankind” or “humankind.” After all, much like SSgt. Nielsen said, the title is honorable.

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