Taryn Lawson

I was listening to a conservative talk radio program this week — largely because this particular host’s ability to sustain anger both baffles and impresses me — and learned we are no longer allowed to call a manhole a manhole.

First, know this: that’s not true. You are free to call it whatever you like. This is America! But in Berkeley (because, where else?), city leadership has opted to eliminate gendered terms — among them, manhole — from the municipal code.

It’s a “maintenance hole” now, in case you were curious, there to grant folks of all types entrance to the sewer systems. “Chairmen” and “manpower” are also out, the latter replaced by “human effort.”

As a fervent promoter of equal rights and someone with no shortage of appreciation for the power of language and it’s impact on societies, I should be happy about this!

So why do I hate these stories so much?

The Berkeley city council member who served as the bill’s primary author, Rigel Robinson, was quoted in multiple media outlets as saying this:

”Having a male-centric municipal code is inaccurate and not reflective of our reality. Women and non-binary individuals are just as entitled to accurate representation. Our laws are for everyone, and our municipal code should reflect that.”

Yes! It’s not, and they are, and they ARE! I can’t find a thing to disagree with here.

So why do I hate these stories so much?

Maybe it’s because as a child, I liked to read dystopian fiction. I recognized that language control is a recurring theme in so many of these stories — stories that scared the daylights out of me. I don’t hear “change the words you use,” I hear “change the way you think,” and that puts me ill at ease, even if I ultimately conclude that the change being promoted is a good one.

There’s also this: as one of the intended beneficiaries of this action (though I don’t live in Berkeley, I strongly suspect they hope to benefit womankind...), I’ve never felt particularly excluded from the sewer system, nor from any other public utility vault. I guess I’ve always assumed that, were I to acquire the skills needed to do something of value to the community down in the sewer system, they’d let me down there to do it. Granted, I’ve never tested this, and have no immediate (or long-term) plan to. If I’m assuming wrong, I’m very disappointed in you, America...

I think it’s important, when you “don’t see what the problem is,” to ask yourself whether that’s because the problem doesn’t affect you. The trick is, you have to be honest. But, when I went looking for a person who thought this was a good idea, or a worthy topic of discussion at all, I struggled to find one.

And that gets right to the core of why I hate these stories so much. A story like this one takes off, and suddenly half the nation seems to believe the other half is deeply invested in what we are calling a hole in the ground. That’s the great frustration here: watching this all play out while knowing most of us (far more than just half the nation) want the exact same things: safe communities, good schools for our children, equal-opportunity access to...underground utilities (provided you know what you’re doing down there).

I highly doubt many were outraged by “manhole” in the first place — they’re just hoping small change has a big impact — and I highly doubt many of those outraged by Berkeley’s decision are particularly interested in barring qualified people from the sewers — they’re just antsy about being told what to say!

Anyway, after consulting with the thesaurus, I’m going with “people perforation...”

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