Opinion

'The Maid' and 'The Gardener' mugs: For SA this is not a storm in a teacup

There are many reasons why these mugs are unacceptable ...

04 November 2018 - 00:00 By SUE DE GROOT


The mugs painted with "The Maid" and "The Gardener" that caused such outrage when they appeared in a Cape Town supermarket have swiftly been swept from the shelf and in all probability now lie in a heap of shattered porcelain shards. The issues they raised will not be disposed of as easily.
There are many reasons these mugs are unacceptable, and perhaps we should thank the hapless manufacturer and thoughtless franchisee who have made us think about these things.
The first problem, which fuelled most of the fury on social media, is the terrible memory triggered by the mugs. They recall a time when many white employers kept separate eating utensils for their black staff. If both the mug-maker and the shop-owner had forgotten this, or somehow did not know about these appalling indignities, perhaps that is a positive sign that the wounds are beginning to close over. Most people, however, either remember such injuries personally or have heard about them from their elders, and they still sting.
There are less obvious but no less important reasons for the outcry. One is the terminology problem, which applies more to "maid" than to "gardener". As advocate Thuli Madonsela pointed out on Twitter, "maid" is an offensive term that should be consigned to the past. Regardless of which context or country it is used in, "maid" is a word laden with the baggage of feudalism, patriarchy and subjugation.
INDIVIDUAL IDENTITIES
Incidentally, the writing on the "gardener" mug was blue and the writing on the "maid" mug was pink, suggesting some gender stereotyping, but let's set that aside for the moment. Say the pink mug read "The Housekeeper" or "The Helper" instead of "The Maid" - would that be acceptable? Of course not, and not only because of the link to the separate-utensils era. These mugs are dehumanising. They reduce people to the tasks they perform and obliterate individual identities.
During the height of the Twitter storm, a tweeter called Jay defended the mugs by saying: "Cups that display the names of each position two individuals fill in a household, as their job, is now a problem? What's the difference between mugs that state 'dad' or 'mom'?"
There's a huge difference, Jay. Dad and Mom are not just jobs; they are what we call our parents, in other words they are substitute names. No one calls their household employees "Gardener" and "Housekeeper", at least I hope they don't. If an employer bought personalised mugs inscribed with the actual names of the gardener and housekeeper - not as a separation measure but as a thoughtful gift - that would be fine. Buying mugs that bear only their job titles makes them faceless and replaceable. It suggests that they exist only in terms of the tasks they perform.
Related to this is the problem of the definite article. There's something about putting "the" in front of "gardener" and "maid" (or whatever alternative word you prefer) that makes the mugs even more depersonalising. You won't find mugs that say "THE dad" or "THE mom". That little word reduces people to disposable, interchangeable characters in a child's Lego game: "This one's the dad and this one's the mom; no wait, let's make this one the mom and that one the dad ..."
RESPECT AND DIGNITY
Immanuel Kant, one of the fathers of modern moral philosophy, held that we should never treat another person as a mere means. In simplistic terms, this means humans have value above and beyond the tasks they perform or the uniforms they wear, and our behaviour towards them should reflect this.
If a teller helps you at the bank, you are treating her as a means because your encounter with her is motivated only by the need to get your new credit card, but if you also treat her with the respect and dignity due to a fellow human being, then you are not treating her as a mere means. You are aware of her as a person with a name and a life of substance outside of her role as a teller. You wouldn't buy her a mug that read "the teller".
Which brings us to the last point. Quite aside from the dehumanising way these mugs reduce people to mere means is the problem of how we view various professions. A mug that says "the doctor", "the teacher" or "the boss" would cause no offence whatsoever, because the possessors of these mugs take pride in their job titles and know that people respect them for what they do. Pope Francis probably has a dozen mugs labelled "the pope".
The professions of people paid to manage the gardens and houses of better-off employers are generally not held in as high regard as are the jobs of surgeon and advocate - by either those who work as gardeners and housekeepers or by those who employ them. And this is the handle on which objections to the mugs should hang. One day, when the careers of those who clean or garden for a living are not perceived as inferior, the mugs might be OK. Until then, they are not.

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