Language isn't neutral. It force-feeds us inequality.
More than words
I made the mistake of reading Margaret Wente’s Globe & Mail columns last month on the Dalhousie University dentistry scandal, where she refers to legitimate grievances against male dental students as “hysteria.” Her words spurred me to start thinking about how language holds the power to not only relay information and describe events, but also to downplay and deny their occurrence.
The dentistry scandal erupted just days before students were set to begin the 2015 winter semester after a private Facebook group called the “Class of DDS 2015 Gentlemen” went public. In it, male dentistry students described, among other acts, how they would “hate fuck” female colleagues or use chloroform to rape them.
Women in the class and their allies demanded punishment for the classmates. On January 8, Dalhousie announced that 13 members of the university’s graduating dentistry class who had made misogynistic comments on Facebook would take separate classes from their peers, according to the Globe and Mail. And a third party would investigate the environment at the dentistry school.
To Wente, however, the outrage in response to the Facebook comments was little more than the politically correct ranting of hysterical women hell-bent on revenge. Her takeaway advice to young women everywhere? Man up. Get a hold of yourself. Put a lid on the hysteria.
Ever noticed how ‘hysteria’ is never a word used to describe the concerns of a man?
How language manipulates public opinion
I started thinking about how language and euphemisms can become tools and weapons. How language is used to sell a story and a point of view in a way so subtle, pervasive, and ubiquitous that the person on the receiving end doesn’t even realize they are being manipulated and influenced.
Euphemisms come in handy when we want to name things without calling up unpleasant mental pictures, when we want to soften the hard edges. Genius wordsmith George Carlin made this astute statement in 1990: “It’s getting so bad, that any day now I expect to hear a rape victim referred to as an unwilling sperm recipient.”
Language can be used to manipulate public opinion and assign a value system to what is being defined in mainstream media. Women who argue loudly and persistently over gender equality are often referred to as Feminazis—according to this logic, arguing for women’s rights is exactly like being part of a murderous dictatorship.
Feminists (who only want equal political, social, and legal rights for women) are often referred to as “angry,” “man haters,” “lesbians,” “ugly” (because what could be a bigger insult than ugly, when a woman’s self-worth and self-esteem are directly related to her desirability to men?).
When women press charges against someone who sexually assaulted them, mainstream media often refer to the accusation as alleging “non-consensual sex.” But as a writer I appreciate precision. Non-consensual sex is nothing more than the opposite of consensual sex, and that...well, that’s rape. Yes, it’s uglier, but it’s accurate. Why would we want to prettify rape anyway?
And what about “date rape”? Why is there any need for this sub-category? A rape is a rape whether it is perpetrated by someone you had drinks and dinner with first, or a stranger who jumps out of the bushes to use force or the threat of violence to sexually assault you. Does the fact that a victim knows the perpetrator make it less of a rape, or does it somehow imply that she did something to encourage them?
Taking it one step further in the euphemism department, notably regressive U.S. Republican Todd Akin once told a television reporter that “women can’t get pregnant if it’s ‘legitimate rape.’” Silly me. I never even knew there were instances where rape could be legitimate.
Anything we can get?
When the Toronto Star reported on the women who came forward to accuse Jian Ghomeshi of sexual abuse, the article made sure to reassure us that they were both “educated and employed” because women accusing a powerful man of sexual assault need all the credibility boosting they can get.
Language is a powerful medium through which the world’s attitudes are both reflected and constructed. How descriptions are phrased, what words are used (or not used) in reporting a story or describing an incident are a direct reflection of pervasive misogyny and sexism. And it doesn’t always have to be as obvious as “women are emotional” or “boys don’t cry.”
It can be as basic, subtle, and omnipresent as using male-based generics all the time, which is an often- unintentional reinforcement of a system in which “man” is the abstract, the normative sex, the barometer against which everything else is measured.
Sure, the use of “he,” “him,” and “his”is often used for simplicity’s sake. But one can argue that the ubiquitous presence of male pronouns promulgates unequal thinking: it makes women invisible, and trans folks non-existent.
“Shrill,”“abrasive,” “bossy,” “aggressive,” “pushy,” “ballbuster.” These words are often used to describe women in the business world or once they enter politics.
The very same leadership traits that get men to the front of the line are looked down upon when a woman dares exhibit them.
“You throw like a girl,”“Man up,” “Don’t be such a pussy,” “Grow some balls.”
Jessica Valenti, the author of Full Frontal Feminism, said it best: “The worst thing you can call a girl is a girl. The worst thing you can call a guy is a girl. Being a woman is the ultimate insult.”
Language and how we use it can play a vital role in conditioning boys and young men not to respect women. Words matter. They always have.
“Master” has strong and powerful connotations, while “mistress” does not. An unmarried man is a “bachelor” (coveted by many, perpetually free to date and be desired), while an unmarried woman is a “spinster” (a sad and lonely woman destined to die surrounded by her cats, barren and childless, devoid of any joy or sexual fulfillment).
Many may debate whether language shapes the way we think. But there is no denying that it reflects the way we see the world and what society deems acceptable.
When we laugh at blonde jokes, when we tell women to “smile” on the street, when we mention a female politician’s attire before we mention her platform, when we immediately call an older woman who happens to be dating a younger man a “cougar” (because predators need to pounce on unsuspecting prey. Younger men couldn’t possibly be interested in them all on their own), when we call single women with multiple sexual partners “skanks,” yet applaud men leading identical lives as “studs,” when we refer to a powerful business leader as “a CEO and a mother of three” (when is the last time you heard of a professional male described in terms of his paternal role or how many children he fathered?), we are sharing a popular and deeply damaging narrative.
We’re sharing a narrative that defines women as primarily defined and valued by their looks, their youth, their sexual attractiveness, and their mothering qualities. Anything that veers from that norm is deemed suspicious and to be cautiously sneered at or looked down upon.
Sexism in language is everywhere. It’s not always ill-intentioned or malicious, but it tells a story—one in which women are rarely the heroines. “I pronounce you man and wife,” “Who’s manning the office?”, “My husband is babysitting the kids tonight” (have you ever heard that verb assigned to a mother? No. Mainly because raising children is still considered woman’s work).
We live in a culture in which too many people have internalized harmful stereotypes about women and deeply embedded patriarchal power structures and assigned gender roles that we all need to be constantly aware of, question, and de-program.
Words and phrases that demean, ignore, or stereotype members of either sex, or that needlessly call attention to gender are not harmless. They send a message that being a man is the desired status quo and that to be a woman is to be less than.
You grow up being fed these stereotypes via the language you’re exposed to, and they stick.
You taste them, you digest their poison, you swallow them whole, and you become them without even realizing.
We are what we eat, after all.