Earlier this month, the U.K. department store John Lewis announced that it would remove all ”boys” and “girls” labels from its clothing for kids aged zero to 14 years, stating that it didn’t want to “reinforce gender stereotypes” in its children’s wear. Makes sense: If a child wants to wear any color or design, let them — gender shouldn’t matter.
However one person who called into the the U.K. radio show Leading Britain’s Conversation (LBC) complained that John Lewis’ move was bowing to “political correctness.” LBC host James O’Brien dismantled the caller’s argument by asking them to define political correctness, its danger and how the re-labelling of children’s clothes personally affects them.
If you want to hear the entire six-minute exchange, head here, but we’re mentioning it because it provides a good example of how to take down arguments about “political correctness.”
How O’Brien dismantled the “political correctness” argument
O’Brien uses “the Socratic Method,” a form of cooperative argumentative dialogue that involves asking and answering questions to encourage critical thinking and better understand the ideas and presumptions underlying a person’s beliefs and world views.
The caller says that “political correctness” means trying not to offend anyone. O’Brien asks “What’s wrong with that?” The caller admits that nothing is wrong with it, except that it’s futile since someone will always find whatever you do offensive.
O’Brien asks then whether it’s better to offend adults by removing gender labels or to offend children by labelling their tastes as either for girls or boys.
The caller eventually admits their real fear: That the government will require people to stop using gender labels altogether. O’Brien finds this unlikely (especially since the government had nothing to do with John Lewis’ decision), but he asks the caller how such a law would personally affect them beyond having to refer to themselves as “a person.”
“I’m not sure that I’ve really thought about it,” the caller admits.
O’Brien retorts, “I think we can agree on that.”
The Socratic Method requires two good-faith actors willing to honestly explore an idea together. Without that, you have a one-sided argument that is not intellectually honest and won’t reveal anything other than preconceptions.
John Lewis represents the growing trend of de-gendering children’s goods
John Lewis isn’t the only retailer to make de-gender their products: U.K. toy retailer Harrod’s gender-neutralized its stores in 2012; Toys “R” Us in Stockholm, Sweden did it in 2013; and U.S. retailer Target dropped all gendered labelling of its bedding, toys and entertainment items in 2015.
The U.K. Let Clothes Be Clothes campaign (and the associated Let Toys Be Toys campaign) have urged U.K. retailers “to support choice and end the use of gender stereotypes in the design and marketing of children’s clothes” and toys, urging social media users to compel businesses to #MakeItUnisex.
“We hate labels,” the Let Clothes Be Clothes website reads. It continues:
They’re not helpful but regrettably pretty common…. Playing with trains and liking dinosaurs too won’t make girls LESS like girls. Dressing in a princess gown or a kitten t-shirt won’t make a boy LESS of a boy. Children should be able to choose their own interests, explore and engage with lots of different ideas, colors and themes.
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