Language We Use, Prejudice We Practice

I read a terrific article on Women Under Siege this morning, on the appallingly high levels of sexual crime in Egypt, which are predominantly reported as sexual harassment or street harassment, but should be described as sexual assault or rape. Is the distinction that important?

“Well, yes, actually”, Bates argues.  “It matters because there are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” 

This has been a big issue for me lately. So many of the phrases we thoughtlessly use are deeply patriarchal. I use many of them myself. There are more of these kinds of sexist linguistic ticks than any of us could list or explain, but I’m going to discuss three glaring and particularly bothersome examples here. If there are others that particularly bother you please feel free to discuss them in the comments.

1. Having the balls: 

See also: Grow a pair, grow some balls, ballsy.

People use this phrase all the time. Congratulating Andy Murray for having the balls to win a tennis match, criticising Nick Clegg for lacking the balls to take strong political stances. Horrendously enough, I was recently asked if I’d ever have the balls to commit suicide. The world and its mother is mocking Naomi Wolf this week for bigging up the vagina and its emotional and spiritual significance. But none of us really seem to question that in our language and so in our culture strength, nerve, daring and power depend on having testicles?

There’s no evidence of the veracity of the following Betty White quote, but I’m going to use it anyway. And by the way, I will be reviewing ‘Vagina: A New Biography’ in the next few days.

2. Man up:

See also: Don’t be such a girl, be a man.

I have used this phrase far too much, for far too long. I liked to believe I was using it ironically, but what does that even mean? I used the phrase to tell people that they should be less feminine, less emotional, less childish. More like men. Those tough folk who don’t feel pain. The strong half of humanity.

This one feeds into a social narrative that’s hugely harmful to men and women alike. In Michelle Obama’s DNC speech (which I loved overall) she told a clearly heartfelt story of her father, who struggled through MS to provide a better life for his children than he’d had for himself. Why?

You see, for my Dad, that’s what it meant to be a man.

Not a good parent, not a good American, not even a good man. That’s what it mean to be a man.  Moments later she told an equivalent story about Barack Obama’s grandmother and the adversity she faced, in the form of systemic sexism:

Barack’s grandmother started out as a secretary at a community bank…and she moved quickly up the ranks…but like so many women, she hit a glass ceiling. And for years, men no more qualified than she was – men she had actually trained – were promoted up the ladder ahead of her, earning more and more money while Barack’s family continued to scrape by.

It reminded me of a great story I heard from a friend. Her parents got married in the late sixties (after her Dad came back from Vietnam) and quickly became very comfortable financially. Why? Because her mother earned more than her father, so when they got married his employer significantly boosted his salary to ensure that he was the primary breadwinner in his family.  They recognised that the attitude was wrong, but took the money anyway and as an impoverished young person I can’t blame them. But he got that extra money ahead of someone else, someone like Barack Obama’s grandmother.

Michelle Obama is not sexist. And I’m sure that her speech was exhaustively tested and they factored in that a few feminist bloggers somewhere would take issue with the use of the word man and decided it was worth the hit. But I think it’s really important to recognise that the “being a man” rhetoric reinforces the glass ceiling. Men got promoted above Obama’s grandmother because of what it meant to be a man, because they had to be providers and head households so they needed to be paid more.

It takes a huge amount to actually dissemble that particular prejudice, largely because so many people still believe in the manly ideal. However, I can stop casually using a phrase that encourages it.

3. Suck it:

See also: Suck on that, suck  my balls, suck my dick.

I cannot count the number of times that these phrases have left me close to tears. They are horrific. At best, they make it degrading and a sign of weakness to perform oral sex on a man, which is outrageously sexist and homophobic. At worst, and far more often, they are sexually violent expressions used in angry, threatening contexts. This phrase is used so frequently that I’m sure people will want to tell me to calm down and not make such a big deal of it (or they would if those kind of people read my blog!) In fact, I’ve spent the last few days delighting over Tina Fey’s wonderful memoir Bossypants and she uses the phrase twice in the book. I also heard it used in the final of an all-female, very feminist-orientated debating competition and seemed to be the only person who responded negatively. What that suggests is that we have been frighteningly desensitized to the use of these absolutely horrific expressions.

Let’s look at why they’re so horrific. Someone does something to offend you. You angrily suggest that a fitting punishment for them would be to suck your penis (whether or not you have one) because that would be a demeaning and painful thing for them to have to do. That’s an invocation of sexual assault as deserved punishment. That’s a frightening manifestation of rape culture.

In a previous post about language I quoted Iris Murdoch’s Metaphysics as a Guide to Morals and the quote is so perfect that I’m going to use it again.

“…the limits of my language which are the limits of my world fade away on every side into areas of fighting for concepts, for understanding, for expression, for control, of which the search for the mot juste may serve as an image. Everyone, every moral being, that is every human being is involved in this fight, it is not reserved for philosophers, artists and scientists. Language must not be separated from the individual consciousness and treated as (for the many) a handy, impersonal network and (for the few) an adventure playground. Language, consciousness and world are bound together, the (essential) aspiration of language to truth is an aspect of consciousness as a work of evaluation.”

“There are such clear links between the language we use and the prejudice we practice.” Changing the way we speak in small ways is simple, we can all do it, and it will change our political, social and lived reality.


10 thoughts on “Language We Use, Prejudice We Practice

  1. Great article. It points to the fact that changing the way we speak is not about freedom-restricting censorship. Rather, it means that we should be more aware, more conscious and more thoughtful in how we speak. The words we use have real effects – positive as well as negative – on the people who hear them. Sometimes people do intend to use language to be hurtful but so often there is no intention but hurt is caused anyway by people’s carelessness. Examining the way we speak and the words we use – whether we use them literally or not is not the point – doesn’t come at the cost of a free mind. It rather brings the benefit of a mindful and fresh voice that means and cares about what it says – “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language and next year’s words await another voice.”

  2. I think the reason many of these phrases still exist is because people don’t associate them with the harms they cause and miss the nuance that Ursula has highlighed. phrases like man up, gay meaning shit and frape to take control of someones facebook page (as well as rape but I can’t think of a popular culture definition of it that isn’t appalling)have become so detached in language from their original meaning that people don’t find it hard to justify their use. But they still do quite a lot of harm, which is why you’re totally right to highlight these.

    1 I imagine it will be the slowest to change though, as it has become almost gender neutral partly because many women trying take owner ship of it

    2 is something that I’m trying to get rid of myself at the moment. in Michelle’s defense I imagine her father did see it as his duty as a man and not as a person/American to get up every morning with MS, but I’d also bet the reason they put/left it in was more to do with the fact that Barrack already has the votes of everyone that has a problem with such a sentence and they obviously correctly judged that it would not cause an uproar.

    3 is just appalling. Has always struck me that its really not in men’s collective interest to mock the act of perform oral sex on a man, yet so many do.

  3. Great post!

    I’ve been thinking about this a lot, especially the third one, and the more I do the more I realise how correct you are.

    I agree we should all try to be more self aware of our language use, but where I’m unsure (in the real sense of that word, in that I really don’t know what I think!) is on the criteria we use to rule certain language use out. What I mean is, are we just talking about language use that is hurtful because it relies on dimensions of oppression, such as gender, sexuality, race and so on, or is it the hurt itself we have a problem with. The reason I think this distinction is important is because the former requires an argument based in critical theories, and which explains the hidden discrimination that is reinforced by such language, whereas the latter requires an argument that’s more concerned with the type of public sphere we want, and is much less focused on private conversations. The two certainly overlap, but I always worry when issues overlap that we can end up taking the concessions from both and gains from neither! (sorry this a bit tangential!)

  4. The Spanish use “eat a cunt” instead of “suck it/kiss my ass”. Very forward-thinking.

    “The world and it’s mother is mocking Naomi Wolf this week for bigging up the vagina and it’s emotional and spiritual significance”

    its, not it’s. Both times! God, Trinity, eh.

    • Also I want to mention, with regards “suck it” – there is a line in the Dr Dre/Snoop Lion (at the time still Snoop Doggy Dogg) song “Fuck Wit Dre Day” where the good doctor invites a rival rapper to fellate him while simultaneously mocking his appearance: “Gap teeth in your mouth so my dick´s got to fit.” What a curiously self-conscious insult.

  5. Kiera – edited! I’m so ashamed of myself. That lyric is totally bizarre! I considered quoting Catullus and illustrating how little we’ve progressed, but I’m glad that you had something more contemporary and “hip” up your sleeve.

    Muireann – very interesting question. I think that what I’m suggesting is the former. While I would like if people were nice all the time (cake made of rainbows etc.) I don’t think that hurt being caused is something we either can or should control, in and of itself. The language I’ve mentioned above is negative in that it causes hurt and is oppressive to women and non-traditional men. But I’m as concerned about its impact on the speaker. Normalising such aggressive, coarse language does harden her to oppressive and violent behaviours. I also think that frequent, superficial reference diminishes our understanding of the severity of these issues. They become funny, throwaway tropes. Consciously preventing myself from using the phrase “man up” has increased my respect for women and has reminded me that villification of emotion and vulnerability in both men and women is incredibly damaging and worthy of attention.

  6. Pingback: Don’t Hang the Rapist « Leigh Anois Go Curamach

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