Hacking at the roots of sexism: Confronting sexist language

As a language instructor and activist, I often look at how language can help grassroots movements and change culture.  Many people don’t know that language can be used as a tool to change culture and attitudes.  Below is a discussion I have presented in the past to groups regarding how to use language to change some of our sexist attitudes in the US and hopefully continue the process of eliminating gender roles.

Introduction to Sexism

Sexism refers to our attitudes or stereotypes towards men and women.  People who are sexist believe that men and women have special roles or behaviors that they must exhibit.  Sexism goes both ways.  Men can be stereotyped and forced into a way of acting just as women are.

Some of our most commonly held sexist attitudes toward men are:

  • Men are powerful and strong.
  • Men must work outside of the home.
  • Men are not good caretakers.
  • Men do not show emotion.
  • Men are responsible for initiating sexual encounters.

Some of our most commonly held sexist attitudes toward women are:

  • Women are weak and need to be protected.
  • A woman’s job is to stay home and take care of the family.
  • Women are not as smart as men.
  • Women are emotional and irrational.
  • Any woman who is promiscuous is also a slut.

These attitudes affect how we interact with each other on a daily basis, and they affect how we do business, how we socialize, our laws, and how we enforce those laws.

How sexism hurts people

Sexism and strict gender roles bring about problems of power and privilege that can be harmful. Many of you already know this, but I want to remind you of this before we move forward in our discussion.  Some examples of the ways sexism hurts people:

  • Because men are supposed to work outside the home and women are supposed to take care of the home, women are discouraged or blocked from jobs and promotions.  The top positions in most companies are dominated by men.  This is called the glass ceiling.  And because caregiving is thought of as a woman’s job, men are discouraged from doing those things even if they are good it and enjoy the work.
  • Because men are supposed to be more powerful and more intelligent, they often are given more power and authority in a relationship.  This idea is perpetuated by many religions that claim that men serve God and women serve men (supported in both the Bible and the Quran).  This can be dangerous for a number of reasons.  An abusive man who makes all of the money in the family can essentially trap a woman in that relationship indefinitely.
  • Because it’s the man who is supposed to initiate sex, men can become predators, looking only for a small sign of consent, even if the sign is not commonly agreed upon and unintentionally given.  Some confusing “signs” that a woman is consenting to sex is allowing a man to buy her a drink, a woman dressing sexily, and a woman not explicitly saying no.  Men are raped too.  But since men are supposed to have sexual prowess, assaulted men feel ashamed and do not report the crime.
  • Because a woman is supposed to be modest and not promiscuous, women often feel ashamed for wanting and enjoying sex or for having more than one partner.  This same standard isn’t held for men.

Sex roles aren’t that bad

These are just the bad things, right?  Some say that there are good things about sex and gender roles.  For example, I’ve often hear this argument:

Everyone in society has a job; for example, all families need a boss.  After all, we all can’t do the same thing.  If everyone does their job, ie plays their role, then society runs more smoothly.

This is faulty reasoning and incredibly short sighted.  Fighting sexism doesn’t mean that everyone does the same thing.  It means that everyone has the opportunity to explore who they really are and act upon their own particular strengths and weaknesses, contributing to society in a way that is personally satisfying.

Fitting in

Before I go any further, I want to talk about fitting in.  There are numerous websites and books devoted to helping kids fit in.  Most of these websites are legitimately trying to help children who have recently moved or who have a disability make new friends.  And many give great advice about being yourself and finding friends that accept you for who you are.

What I think is interesting is the sheer number of websites and books devoted to the topic.  This helps to make a pretty clear point that fitting in is really important in society.  People who don’t feel as if they belong to a group feel like outcasts, they feel alone, and they feel rejected.  Those are pretty hard feelings to deal with, child or adult.

This ties directly into gender roles because we are all expected to act within our role, and when we don’t, we no longer fit in.  And when we don’t fit in, we become part of an outgroup  Based on the research of Turner and Tajfel (and based on our own experiences), we know that once you become a member of an outgroup, you are treated differently, often negatively.  So there are real social consequences for not playing your gender role and, therefore, a lot of pressure to fit in.

Going back to gender roles, we know that a person can suffer psychological damage by pretending to be someone else in an effort to fit in.  But if someone doesn’t fit in, then they could risk becoming a demonized member of an outgroup.  It’s a double edged sword for anyone who doesn’t fit within the confines of culturally prescribed gender roles.  The not-so-simple solution to this problem is to eliminate gender roles.

 When we are fighting sexism, who are we helping?

I always like to offer a discussion on who you might be helping if you follow my advice below.  I do this for a couple of reasons. 1. I want to show that fighting sexism has a much broader reach than only woman. 2. I want to show even the most self-centered person how they can benefit from fighting sexism. So, who benefits?

 Men and Women.  When we erase sex and gender roles, men and women don’t feel pigeonholed or compelled to fit in.  Erasing gender roles makes men and women more free to do things that are interesting and personally satisfying and not do things simply because they feel they must.

The LGBTQ community in particular has a lot to do with gender roles.  Members of the LGBTQ community feel a tremendous amount of pressure to look and act like “men” or “women.”  Fighting roles based on sex or gender helps LGBTQ men and women come out and become accepted members of society.

Ourselves.  Even the most selfish person can see an advantage to eliminating gender roles.  Nobody wants to be forced to look or act a certain way.  Eliminating gender roles allows everyone to be themselves even if it’s something as simple as choosing a job for personal enjoyment instead of worrying if it is a man’s job or a woman’s job.

Society.  When people are free from being pigeonholed into a social role, they are free to explore their interests.  This has the greatest amount of potential to ensure that the right person is in a particular job.  For example, I know a lot of men who are excellent caregivers.  Providing our children with the best caregivers has been a commonly agreed upon goal in society.  So why limit that job to only women? Everyone benefits when the right person is in the right job.

How can we fight sexism?

I’m going to tell you about a grassroots and linguistically-based approach to fighting sexism.  This is my focus because equal rights laws and legislation are not sufficient.  We already have equal rights laws for women and minorities, and we’re working on equal rights laws for LGBTQ men and women.  But those laws are only as good as those who enforce them.  The sad news is that the people who enforce equal rights laws also perpetuate sexist attitudes.  So changing the way those people think is extremely important.

What’s more, perpetuating gender roles doesn’t mean an infraction of the law.  It’s not against the law to tell boys that they aren’t allowed to like pink or play with a doll.  It’s not against the law to tell girls that they shouldn’t play soccer, and instead, they should learn how to cook.  So relying on laws to change society is ineffective.

What we need to do is get at the roots.  We have to change the way we speak and act.  We have to encourage others to change the way they speak and act as well.

Why look at language?

We use language to communicate ideas and attitudes.  Words contain both denotative (literal) and connotative (suggestive, conveys attitude) meanings. Connotation can be positive, neutral, and negative (ex enthusiastic, active, or fanatical member of a group), or connotation can describe a degree of severity (ex discussion, disagreement, argument, fight).  We communicate our attitudes toward something or someone by the words we choose.  We can call someone cheap or frugal depending on how we feel about their spending habits.

What’s more, the people that we are speaking to and other possible listeners (bystanders) can have their prejudices confirmed or challenged based on the language we use.  This goes for children as well.  I remember my parents telling me that it wasn’t ok to be racist, but then every once in awhile, you’d hear my dad use the N word. My brother and I were able to pick up on his true attitude based on the language he used.

The connotative meaning of certain words is so important that we now use politically correct language.  The point of politically correct language is to convey either a neutral or positive attitude towards a group of people by avoiding negatively charged words.

For example, let’s consider the words retarded and disabled.  Retarded used to be a clinical term.  It was used to refer to people who had a slower rate of cognitive development.  It was a blanket term for for conditions like Down Syndrome that caused learning disabilities.  Over time, though, the term began to take on a negative connotation.  Instead of a neutral term used to describe a group of people who had trouble learning, it was used to put down that group.  So it moved from a descriptive term to an insult.  It even began to be used as an insult against someone with “normal” cognitive processing.  It was normal for kids of my generation to call each other retarded when someone made a mistake or didn’t understand something.

Eventually the public was introduced a new term: disabled.  It was a new blanket term that referred to anyone who needed help learning or who physically needed help.  Educators and the public also became aware of other descriptive terms that more accurately described a person’s disability.  And through the use of these terms, along with a changing attitude in society, it has become politically incorrect to call someone retarded.  Anyone who now uses that term is seen as insensitive or even prejudice.

So when we are looking at language and changing sexist attitudes, we must look at the words we use so that we’re conveying the right attitude when we speak.  In addition to this, we need to understand that the words we use can inspire change. There is a connection between language and our beliefs, attitudes, and culture.  This connection is know as the theory of linguistic relativism which postulates that language influences culture, attitudes, and cognitive processes.  

A great example of linguistic relativism is a study conducted by Brown and Lenneberg who wanted to see if language determines how subjects see color.  Zuni and English speakers were given three chips one blue, one green, and one blue/green.  They were asked to place the blue/green chip on a continuum between the green and blue chips.  Was the blue/green color more blue or more green?  They found that Zuni speakers, who don’t have a separate word for green and blue, placed the blue/green chip at the green end, and the English speakers placed the blue/green chip at the blue end. Do Zuni speakers see color differently than English speakers?  Probably not, this study could not prove that.  But this study was able to show a connection between the language we use and how we make sense of the world.  

Does language determine thought? Most linguists don’t think so, but they do believe that there is a connection between language and how we think (cognitive processing).  Most linguists believe that language, culture, and our thought processes act upon each other.  Because we know that language, culture, and how we think are connected, we can then conclude that we are able, to some degree, to use language to change how people think.  So the basis of my approach to cultural change is this: If we encourage others to change the way they speak, then we could change the way they think and act.

Even if you can’t buy into the linguistic theory that language influences thought, you can at least buy into the fact that just by having conversations, we are forcing people to examine their thoughts, feelings, and attitudes. Many Christians turned atheist claim they changed their minds based on sustained conversations with their peers about their beliefs in God.

Using language to change attitudes: Monitor your own sexist language

We should always start by looking at ourselves and our language.  Are there things that we say that are sexist?  Identify those things and work on changing them.

You should also go beyond this and think about what kinds of attitudes you have about men and women.  Are there roles that you think are men’s roles or women’s roles?  You might be surprised to find that you do.  For example, most people, especially feminists, feel comfortable buying trains and blocks for their daughters to play with.  But it’s still a different story for boys.  My sister-in-law refused to buy her son a purse when he asked for it because “that’s for girls.” One time, my son decided to play dress up with his sister, and put on a pretty princess dress. When my husband saw our son in a dress, he was uncomfortable.  These are great times to self-assess where these discomforts come from. Ask yourself: Do you truly believe that boys can’t have purses? Is this a form of sexism?

If we truly want to end sexism and the perpetuation of gender roles, then we have to get a little uncomfortable ourselves.  We have to put our sons in dresses and smile as we take a picture.Then we have to use language that effectively communicates those ideas, bringing together denotative and connotative meaning so that our children and bystanders aren’t getting mixed messages.

Using language to change attitudes: Confront another’s sexist language

Confronting yourself is hard, but confronting others is harder even if it is something as simple as asking someone to examine their language.  If you’ve never confronted anyone about their sexist language or attitudes before, I recommend starting with someone who you consider safe.  Start with your inner most circle of friends, the ones who most likely share in your anti-sexism sentiments.  Point out some of their sexist language and have a conversation about it.  Even if they disagree with you, they’ll likely commend you on your cause.

Below are some suggestions to help you confront someone’s sexist language and start conversations.  You’ll find the suggestions below to be somewhat innocuous and non-confrontational.  Certainly, we could take a stronger, more corrective stance when talking to others about their sexist language.  However, I propose that you work to draw that other person into a conversation.  Even if they won’t engage the first time, try to preserve the relationship so that they will talk to you again in the future.  I want you to plant the seeds of doubt and let the other person know you’re open to having a thoughtful and respectful conversation in the future.

That’s why I want you to skip the lecture and refrain from demonizing the speaker.  Lectures rarely work. Even if you’re talking to someone who you think will be sympathetic, impromptu lectures are almost never appreciated. In addition, if we appear to give the sexist individual the benefit of the doubt (even if we know they’re just being a jerk), they’re more likely to react to correction more positively.  So instead of saying, “Wow, only a total asshole would think that girls can’t do high level math,” say, “Wow, it sounds like you think girls can’t do math.  Is that what you meant to say?”

Method 1: Ask questions (Socratic method)

What I’ve found works best is to start by asking questions that forces the speaker to look at themselves.

  • What are you trying to say?
  • What do you really mean when you say that?
  • Do you realize how you sound?
  • Did you really mean to sound sexist there?
  • How do you really feel about men/women in this situation?

You can also ask questions that force empathy

  • How do you think that makes women/men feel when they hear that?
  • How would you feel if someone said that about you?
  • Would you have said that if your female/male friend were around? Why or why not?
  • What if someone said that to your son/daughter?

This gets the conversation going and avoids accusations that the speaker is some kind of sexist jerk.

Method 2: Recast sexist language

Recasting is when you take what someone else said and say it differently, changing the language.  So let’s say a man tells me, “you throw like a girl,” recasting looks something like this:

  • P1: You throw like a girl.
  • P2: So you mean to say that I’m not throwing the ball as well as you are. Am I right? OR Are you complementing me how well I’m throwing the ball?

Recasting can be pretty transparent.  People can figure out what it is you’re doing, but it tends to be more tolerated because it’s non-confrontational.

Method 3: Don’t participate in sexist conversations or acts

There are four ways to do this.

  1. You can simply not participate in the conversation.  However, your non-participation could be viewed as disinterest and not activism.  
  2. State that you disagree and say why. This doesn’t mean you have to argue.
  3. Leave the room or area but say why.
  4. Change the subject and say why.

Not participating can show where you stand as far as your thoughts and feelings, and it can also force the others to reflect on what they’re saying.  Sometimes it can get a great conversation going.

Method 4: Civil and peaceful disobedience

I need to start this suggestion out with an example: One day, my husband, Adam, was at his parents’ house.  He was there to do some computer work for his parents, and the MSU football game was on.  Adam isn’t a fan of football, but every once in awhile he’ll sit down to a game with his dad.  As the game came on, his dad realized that one of the announcers was female.  His dad, who up until that time we considered a feminist, refused to watch the game because of the female announcer.  Adam was shocked and appalled and sent me a text about it. My reply was to watch the game in protest.  He was too busy dealing with his parents’ computer issue to have a sit in.  But he did express interest in watching the game with his dad, kept asking his dad to check the score, and even laughed at his dad for not wanting to watch the game. His dad eventually got over it and watched the end of the game.

Civil disobedience goes beyond refusing to participate in sexist discussions and acts.  This means you’re actively showing how you feel about gender roles and that you won’t let someone define what role another person can take.  But again, you want to act in a way that encourages reflection and conversation.  Adam was able to laugh at his dad and point out his sexist attitude because they have the kind of relationship where he can do that.  But watching the game and even complimenting the female announcer would have been enough to force his dad to reflect.

Method 5: Be direct

Depending on the situation and your comfort level, tell the person that their language or actions are inappropriate and why.

What if you’re afraid to take a stand?

Parents, bosses, and teachers can make our lives very difficult if they don’t like us or don’t agree with our cause and begin to view us as a member of an outgroup.  So I can’t say to people in these situations to stop being afraid, to suck it up, and to start correcting sexist language and behavior.  Parents can cut children off from the rest of the family.  Teachers can grade more harshly or make the classroom an uncomfortable place for activists.  Bosses can find reasons not to promote you or fire you for your activism.  There is no one piece of advice I can give you to help deal with these situations.  You have to know exactly who you’re dealing with.  But I can tell you that when in doubt, use non-confrontational language.

Lastly, don’t expect to win a battle with these conversations. Your mission is to change minds over time and through ongoing dialog.  So in essence, you are planting a seed with each conversation or small protest that will any luck grows into cultural change.

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