The importance of words

Expanding on some thoughts I had on Twitter.

It’s an interesting phrase, “language policing”. We all know what the police are. Even people with the good fortune/whiteness to have mainly positive interactions with them would describe their role as “enforcement”: applying force to ensure rules are followed. It’s used negatively – unlike actual police who are (theoretically) empowered by the state, this kind of “policing” is done by people who have taken authority upon themselves.

I use “body policing” and “food policing” as pejorative terms – because it’s no one else’s business what someone looks like or what they eat. But “language policing” is a pejorative I’m usually on the “wrong” side of  – because I ask people to think about the language they use.

When I wrote this in November I was responding to the idea that it’s “just one word”:

It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face” …

But now I’ve been thinking about how “just one word” is a big deal. I said on Twitter:

Language is so important my first feminist thoughts came from learning as a tiny child that all men were “Mr” but women were “Mrs” or “Miss”. I can literally remember my mum explaining (so a tiny child could grok) that women could use “Ms” as an act of resistance against patriarchy. From day 1 of primary school you either learn or unconsciously accept a woman’s marital status is the 1st thing to know about her. But not a man’s.

*That* is how important “just a word” is.

“Either learn or unconsciously accept” is the key bit. I was raised by a feminist in a family of academics and English teachers, so I was always going to think about language and subtext and framing. That doesn’t happen for most people.

They go on with their lives, right as rain, and it becomes a natural, normal, totally-unimportant fact of life that women are either married or unmarried, and you need to know which.

Is it so difficult to see how just one word – two or three letters in front of someone’s name – reinforces a basic tenet of patriarchy, i.e. that women are defined by their relationships with men?

Nobody (hardly anybody) walks around thinking “I’m totally going to oppress a woman by calling her ‘Miss’.” But language influences the way we see the world. When we blithely accept we call all dudes “Mr” but have to ask if a woman is “Mrs” or “Miss” or “Ms” (she’s the stroppy one!) we don’t consciously think “All women are defined by their marital status”. When we label something “hysterical” we don’t consciously think “I’ll minimize women’s credibility by referencing archaic ideas about physiology and historic beliefs about women being incapable of rational thought. Haha!”

But those are the messages you’re reinforcing in your own mind, or reinforcing in the minds of others. Unintentionally, you are reducing women to their marital status or invoking historic ideas which undermine their speech.

(Note: dudes, some of you do use words like “hysteria”, “bitches” and “cunts” deliberately to wind us up, and we can tell, and it’s really not helping to convince us that you’d be a great ally if we just lightened up.)

What to do? Think about the language you’re using. Especially if you’re in a position where your words are going to be read or heard by a lot of people – people who don’t know you well and may not give you benefit of the doubt. Get someone else to check for you – it’s really difficult to kick linguistic habits (she says, checking how often she’s used the word “actually” this post). Be open-minded when someone points out an unintentional meaning you didn’t realise you were giving out.

Some people may not be polite about it. But if you think it sucks being told “your language is sexist”, imagine spending your whole life filling out forms which demand you identify yourself as Property Of A Dude, Not Property Of A Dude Yet, or Probably An Angry Lesbian.

You don’t have to agree. You don’t have to change your language at all. But you may be uncomfortable knowing that for many people, it marks you as a sexist douchebag. You may get called up on it again. If you’re okay with that, carry on, brave soldier of privilege. But you know what you’re doing now.

The myth of language policing

This post has been sitting in draft for a while, but it’s one of those topics which comes up again and again, and will continue to do so for eternity: the idea that people who are interested in social justice, and point out bigoted or offensive language, are being bullies, or trying to silence everyone who doesn’t agree with them, or have nothing better to do with their time.

First off, I obviously have to link to the canonical xkcd cartoon on the subject of free speech.

The thing is, these incidents are always presented in isolation. One guy gets criticised because he used “chicks” to refer to “women” and suddenly the accusations are flying: you’re overreacting! You’re taking this too seriously! It’s just one word!

That’s the problem right there. It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

And yes, it’s not just men saying those things, because all of us are swimming in patriarchy. We’ve all internalized the language and the attitudes, and yes: sometimes women are even worse. It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t disprove the existence of sexism. It just shows how much we’re forced to act against our own interests in order to survive. (Those on the left may consider the comparison with working people who get offered lump sum bonuses if they leave their union. Yes, it’s anti-solidarity – but your kids have to eat.)

The point is, it’s never just one guy saying just one thing. And if you think it’s terrible having half-a-dozen people on Twitter saying your wording was wrong this one time, imagine what it’s like having an entire society telling you your existence is wrong every day of your life.

~

Note: everything in this post will apply to other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia, but as I experience neither, I don’t want to speak for those who do.