Posts Tagged ‘language’

The lies we tell

Recently the New York Times posted an article titled The Kids Who Beat Autism. (Predictably, ASAN is questioning both the possibility of ‘recovery’ and the desirability of it.) I’ve mentioned before how I felt lied to as a child by the idea that the best way to make friends is to “just be yourself”, and this story and the reaction to it highlights why.

See, “just be yourself” is good advice–you can’t make a true friendship if you’re pretending to be someone you’re not, and self-acceptance is healthier than self-loathing. And I’m sure that all the people who give such advice truly mean it. Culturally, though, it only seems to be held as good advice for people who are sufficiently normal, which would also be the group of people least needing such reassurances. For those of us who are too different, that’s not how it seems to work. Instead those differences become something to label, treat, fix so that we can be more like other people. We get told to be ourselves just as much as anyone else–but the way we’re treated tells us that being who we are is not acceptable.

There are times when differences do need to be addressed because they are causing problems in our lives. The question, though, is what is the best way to temper or eliminate those challenges. Sometimes the work is something we have to do ourselves. Sometimes, the work is best shared or done at a structural or cultural level–it is far more reasonable to install a ramp than to ask a wheelchair user to navigate a flight of stairs, for example. And sometimes the only challenge is that those differences highlight that we are different. A lot has been said in the autism community about attempts to eliminate stimming, which frequently causes no problems other than the fact that other people notice and are uncomfortable with it. Or (lack of) eye contact, which is a very culture-specific demand to begin with. Why should anything be done about something so superficial? The problem is that often most or all of the work is demanded to be dealt with at the individual level, putting all the onus on the person who already has it hardest and sometimes bringing no benefit to that person at a personal cost.

As a culture we talk a lot about being tolerant of individual differences. In practice though, difference is often considered unacceptable. Instead of asking people who are struggling to spend precious effort on being “normal”, how much better would things be if we were actually as accepting of difference as we say we should be?

N is for Not Thinking

University is back in session for the 2013-2014 school year, and apparently some students can’t make it through frosh week without being stunningly offensive. Which is bad enough coming from random students, but worse when it comes from the student president.

It’s a pretty common line to get hurled at feminists, especially in discussions of rape culture, to say that not all men are rapists. But stuff like this is why that doesn’t matter, because men who aren’t rapists are still quite capable of legitimizing sexual assault through other means. Now, I can believe the guy when he says that he never really thought that much about the words before, but the fact that he and other students were saying them matters more than whether or not he meant to say “raping drunk teens is good”. What we say and hear has an effect on how we think, and this chant is a pretty blatant example of rape culture to boot. I can’t get past the fourth line of it–“N is for no consent”–and I’m not sure what is the more disturbing aspect of this incident–students repeating this chant for years without realizing that hey, this is endorses rape, or that someone came up with it in the first place. When we talk about rape culture, we’re not just talking about people raping, or sexual harassment. We’re talking about this kind of unthinking parroting of ‘edgy’ material that some people find funny and others find frightening. I have my own twisted sense of humour, but this goes beyond funny for me because this kind of stuff actually happens. Regularly. It is taking horrible experiences that too many people have to deal with and making light of it. As a bonding mechanism, no less.

In a startling contrast, just a few days earlier and a few miles away, rival Dalhousie University posted an anti-rape video (Two, actually).

SMU, you lost this round badly.

When ‘guys’ means ‘gals’

Even video games I love by companies that know how to do gender right can disappoint me, it seems. I’ve been playing Star Wars: The Old Republic lately, and while BioWare is one of the few companies that understands things like privilege and that girls do indeed play video games, there’s still the occasional moment that reminds me that as a female, I’m considered ‘other’. I don’t really blame the game companies for this, since for the most part the game does handle gender well. The moments that do appear tend to be things that are so ingrained into our culture and language that they’re easy to miss.

The moment that grabbed my attention most recently was a line talking about ‘you Havoc Squad guys’. Unfortunately, the response I wanted was not given to me, that being to look down and ask what ‘guys’ he was referring to. I’ve also had an ongoing gripe about the use of male pronouns as gender-neutral–I constantly get referred to as ‘sir’, and all Sith get the ‘Lord’ title, regardless of gender. Unfortunately, English doesn’t have a lot of good gender-neutral pronouns, and living in a culture where ‘male’ is considered the default in most situations means that when trying to pick a word that can refer to either gender, the male term usually gets used. (Though at least English doesn’t give a gender to all nouns, like French or German. I’ve never understood what makes a table feminine)

One of the frustrating things about the fight for gender equality has been the persistent idea that ‘masculine’ is better than ‘feminine’. As a result, a lot of effort has been spent on bringing women ‘up’ to the point of men. One of the effects of this has been the dropping of female terminology, and using male terms for both genders when a gender-neutral one isn’t available. Ironically, this expression of equality is making women invisible again.

Ridding ourselves of gendered terms is not going to be easy. But equality isn’t just about allowing women to be more masculine, it’s about breaking down gender norms entirely.

Wee Vishnu, a merry crushed moose, and a hoppy Jew near

Hope everyone had a good December! I’ve been distracted with holidays and family stuff, hence the lack of posts.  Today’s, however, comes fresh from a Washington Post commenter.

I remember when the WTC went down, and I spoke with someone about all the firemen that were killed going into that maelstrom. She scrunched up her nose and said ‘they are called firefighters’. I said, every one of them that died were men. Men going in to save others. They deserve to be called what they are, firemen.

Which completely misses the point. The point is that gender doesn’t matter. Even if they were all male, there’s no need to insist on using the gendered term. Doing so drags gender into the discussion when it doesn’t need to be addressed. I’m really not sure how the term ‘firefighter’ doesn’t accurately describe the people in question–if anything, it could be considered more accurate because it describes what they choose to do as a career, without referring to something they can’t control.

What’s more mind-boggling than the fact that the gendered terms still get used in the first place (I get it, it takes time to rewire your brain to not automatically use them) is that people are defending their usage. Instead of taking a moment to replace the offensive term with an equally accurate but inoffensive one, some people insist on using the gendered term. As frequently is the case, someone trotted out the, “there are bigger issues at stake,” card, which again misses the point. Yes, there are bigger issues at stake (the article the comment came from was about poverty in Manchester, New Hampshire), but that doesn’t mean that the smaller ones go away.

I have very little power to change the economics of a town in a state I don’t live in, so I’m not going to apologize for spending some energy to try and make a smaller change that I have more ability to affect.

Language and Microagressions

Geek Feminism has a good post up right now titled I feel like you are trying to tell me something, which lists various ways that our world can often tell females (especially geeky females–geek culture is at least as sexist as society at large, but less likely to admit it) that we’re ‘other’, that male is the default and being female makes us part of a special group, nevermind that we’re half the population.

Language is often an issue for members of oppressed populations. For one, it often contains unpleasant reminders that we are not members of the privileged class. Also, language can affect the way we think. This can be used for good purposes (many social justice movements are trying to reclaim or change problematic language) but often reinforces the status quo. A few examples:

  • Though language is slowly adapting, terms like ‘police officer’ and ‘firefighter’ are still sometimes replaced with ‘policeman’ and ‘fireman’
  • Peach or light tan colours are often labeled as ‘flesh’ or ‘nude’, othering people with darker skin tones.
  • Transgender individuals often have problems with people using the wrong pronoun
  • The disability community has been pushing for ‘person first’ language, replacing ‘disabled people’ with ‘people with disabilities’ and other similar changes

These things are termed ‘microagressions’ because they are small, tiny things that aren’t always noticed, and are frequently wholly unintentional. That doesn’t stop them from othering people, though, and reminding oppressed individuals that we are not the assumed default of white, straight, able-bodied, cis-gender, (add adjective here) male. Changing language is an important step towards true equality.