One of our tasks during the day was to write 200 words about something that concerned us. Everything concerns me: that made this task tricky. But since we'd been discussing the very intricate nuances of language, I settled on how words, or the misuse of them, keep me up at night.
I'm concerned about how words silence people.
Words are slaps and smacks and bites. They just don't look like them and the bruises aren't visible.
Words we hear on streets, in classrooms, at dinner parties cement our stereotypes, while autonomy crumbles. We burden each other with a baggage we haven’t consented to carry.
Call someone a 'chav' and you affirm their social worth: destitute, frightening, useless and conveniently categorised by the arbitrary sum of money they possess, or their accent.
Call a woman a 'slut' and you affirm her social worth. Her choices warrant scrutiny, her decisions are humiliating, her agency is compromised; she’s conveniently categorised by the arbitrary sum of people she's been intimate with, or the inches of her heels.
And call a man a 'fag', regardless of his sexuality, and you affirm his social worth: repulsive, laughable, shameful, devoid of the acceptable dose of masculinity and conveniently categorised by the arbitrary preference of his partner, or what he wore that day.
I'm concerned that words oppress people: keep them packaged, downtrodden, and silent.
Because words were made to liberate, unify, civilise. To articulate what looking and feeling cannot alone. To lock lips.
So let’s choose them wisely.
... Boom, 200 words precisely. With not a single word to spare, I trail off a little at the end: I would've preferred a suitably rousing call to action but I only had five words and I'm not that imaginative.
The more I think about language, the more I see how the foxy stuff tries to pull a fast one on many of us. And all too often this is directed at women. Quelle surprise. For example, how frequently do we hear in our offices a senior female staff member be called a 'bitch'? The same assertive behaviour or seniority exhibited by a man in the same position, however, wouldn't even induce the bat of an eyelid. We expect men to be in charge: when a woman is in control, we're uncomfortable and we project those feelings onto her. Ergo, she's a bossy bitch.
That gets me on to 'bossy'. Oh 'bossy', how I loathe you. I was completely overjoyed to see Sheryl Sandberg and the USA Girl Scouts' #BanBossy campaign, because that seemingly innocuous word has been plaguing me all my life. For a few of the guys in my office who didn't understand why it was such a big deal (and to any male dissenters), I'd ask you this: When you were growing up, did you enjoy taking on leadership roles? Were you encouraged and praised for doing so? Did you ever get called bossy for taking the lead on a task or activity? I'm imaging the answers will be yes/yes/hell no, which is a completely different story for little girls.
Girls are largely socialised to be compliant and quiet, and we see this in the aggressively gendered nature of toy marketing. Girls get pretty dollies to nurture, boys get cool trucks to smash. And helicopters to craft. And Lego to build. Girls are carers. Boys are doers. Girls get used to putting others first and boys get used to standing up and getting shit done. There’s a ton of interesting research behind this, I’m just paraphrasing. Language like ‘bossy’ works in collusion with media and marketing because it punishes and chides girls for stepping outside of their prescribed gender roles. And that’s seriously hefty cultural practise to overcome as a child, or indeed as an adult.
While I hate to be a killjoy, I think it’s time we all rethink some of the language we use. ‘Bitch’ and ‘slut’ and ‘chav’ don’t have the same historical weight as racially motivated terms like n*gger of course, but any language that seeks to make a person subordinate, ashamed or marginalised is unacceptable. Plus it’s lazy and narrow-minded and that’s not sexy. So the next time your friend calls a bloke in a tracksuit a ‘chav’, ask them why they felt the need to denigrate a working class person. That’s sure to be an awkward conversation.