Sex, death and aliens: a feminist watches ‘Arrival’

Last week I saw Arrival, the recently-released film with Amy Adams as Louise Banks, a linguist recruited by the US military to decode the language of some non-humanoid aliens who have unexpectedly arrived on earth. I wasn’t expecting to love it; in fact, when I first heard about it I thought I’d probably give it a miss. For one thing, I’ve never been a great fan of the ‘aliens have landed’ genre; for another, I’d read that Arrival leans heavily on the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, a 20th century theory which says that your perceptions of reality are influenced—or in the strongest version of the theory, determined—by the characteristics of the language you speak.

People in my line of work tend to approach anything based on this premise with caution. Most linguists rejected the ‘strong’ version of the hypothesis long ago (though ‘weak’ versions continue to be debated), but that hasn’t prevented it from being endlessly recycled in popular culture, often in crassly simplistic ways. Some propositions based on it have been around forever, repeated so often they’ve passed into received wisdom (like the indestructible zombie fact about Eskimos having a lot of words for snow—they don’t, but even if they did, as Geoff Pullum says in his classic debunking piece ‘The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax’, why would that be any more significant than printers having a lot of words for fonts?) Others, testifying to its continuing vitality, have popped up more recently (remember the headline-making claim from 2013, that people save more if their language lacks a future tense?)

The Sapir-Whorf hypothesis has also been of interest to feminists. In 1980 Dale Spender invoked it to support her thesis that women were oppressed by having to view the world through the lens of a ‘man made language’. And a few years later, as I explained in an earlier post, the feminist linguist and sci-fi writer Suzette Haden Elgin made it the premise of a series of novels, for which she also created an alternative ‘women’s language’.

Not all versions of the idea that idea that language determines thought are directly indebted to Sapir and Whorf. Another perennially popular source for it is George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-four. (Orwell was a contemporary of Whorf, though it’s unclear if he knew Whorf’s writing). Though Arrival refers explicitly to the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, in some ways it seemed closer to the Orwellian tradition. Specifically, it reminded me of a classic piece of feminist writing in that tradition: Carol Cohn’s 1987 article ‘Sex and death in the rational world of defense intellectuals’.

Cohn wrote this article after spending a year at what she refers to as ‘the Center’, an institution devoted to studying the technology and strategic use of nuclear weapons. (She memorably describes herself as ‘a feminist spy in the house of death’.) A critic of US defence policy, she hoped that spending time with ‘defence intellectuals’ would give her politically valuable insights into their thinking. But she gradually became aware of a paradox. To interact with the experts it was necessary to speak their language, since if you didn’t use their specialist terminology they dismissed you as ignorant and naïve. But as Cohn learnt the language she realised her attitudes had changed:

The more conversations I participated in using this language, the less frightened I was of nuclear war.

Why did learning the language have this effect?  Cohn’s answer is that ‘nukespeak’ is designed to make its users feel powerful and in control. By positioning them as knowledgeable, rational agents, planning and overseeing the use of weapons of mass destruction, it insulates them from the emotions they would feel if they identified with the mass of powerless victims.

The most obvious feature of nukespeak which enables it to do this job is abstraction: it’s full of acronyms and obscure nominalisations (like ‘escalation dominance’ and ‘strategic stability’) which are, as Cohn comments,

so bland that they never force the speaker or enable the listener to touch the realities of nuclear holocaust.

But it isn’t all about bland euphemisms. Another way in which users of nukespeak are induced to feel powerful is by imagining weapons as extensions of their masculinity. Cohn reports being both amazed and appalled by the extent to which explicitly sexual imagery pervaded the experts’ discourse:

Lectures were filled with discussion of vertical erector launchers, thrust-to-weight ratios, soft lay downs, deep penetration, and the comparative advantages of protracted versus spasm attacks—what one military adviser to the National Security Council has called “releasing 70 to 80 percent of our megatonnage in one orgasmic whump”.

Yet the same weapons could also be imagined as cute animals or harmless pets: one anti-ballistic missile system went by the acronym ‘BAMBI’, and on a tour of a nuclear submarine the visitors were asked if they wanted to ‘pat’ a missile.

Cohn was also struck by what the experts couldn’t talk about. The model that informed their strategic discussions had been developed mainly by mathematicians, and its internal logic excluded the human factors which would be likely to affect any real-world conflict. For instance, discussions of ‘limited nuclear war’ were conducted on the assumption that

Our rational actors would be free of emotional response to being attacked, free of political pressures from the populace, free from madness or despair or any of the myriad other factors that regularly affect human actions and decision making. They would act solely on the basis of a perfectly informed mathematical calculus of megatonnage.

Which brings me back to Arrival, and why it reminded me of Cohn’s article. What I saw in the film was the same opposition Cohn posits between militaristic ‘male’ values (rationality, dominance, destructiveness) and their ‘female’ opposites (emotion, co-operation, nurturance). In Arrival the female values ultimately defeat the male ones. Whether you think that makes it a feminist film will depend on what kind of feminist you are.

What I knew about Arrival before I saw it suggested it would be a feminist film in the more conventional Hollywood sense. It doesn’t pass the Bechdel test (which requires at least one scene where two named female characters discuss something other than a man), because there’s only one adult female character in it. But that character, Louise Banks, is the main protagonist, and her role in the story is defined by her intellectual and professional achievements. She isn’t just a man’s sidekick or his love interest. She’s smart and brave and she ends up saving the world.

But at a deeper level the narrative is structured by the stereotypical male/female opposition I mentioned earlier. Louise isn’t just a brilliant linguist who happens (like many real-life brilliant linguists) to be a woman. The logic of the film requires her to be a woman—Venus to the military establishment’s Mars. I said before that what defines her role is her profession, but in fact she is also identified, in the opening moments of the film, as a mother—one who (we are led to believe) has suffered the death of a beloved child. And this is not irrelevant. Her success in decoding the aliens’ language is shown to depend not only on her technical skills (which are alluded to more than they are displayed), but also and crucially on her feminine/maternal qualities of empathy, intuition and compassion.

These qualities are especially prominent in the scene where Louise makes her initial breakthrough. She manages to connect with the aliens, before she knows how to communicate with them, when she impulsively abandons the defensive posture required by military protocol, and instead makes herself vulnerable. Defying her orders, she removes her protective gear, walks up to the glass wall that separates the humans from the aliens, and presses her naked palm against the glass—a gesture which the aliens reciprocate, and then follow up by offering the first, all-important evidence of their writing system.

Later on, Louise will apply her emotional intelligence to defusing the threat of global war, which arises because of a conflict among rival human powers (China, Russia, the US and their various satellites) about how to deal with the aliens, and in particular, whether to use force against them. This part of the film is like a textbook illustration of Carol Cohn’s point about the practical irrelevance of defence strategists’ abstract models. The politicians and generals who must decide what to do are clearly not in control, and nor are they making rational decisions. As their terrified populations riot, loot and demand immediate action against the alien menace, these leaders stop trying to figure out whether the aliens are really a threat, shut down communications and focus solipsistically on their own political interests (apparently they reason that it’s better to blow up the world than give up your strategic advantage by sharing intel with your rivals).

As the crisis escalates, the rational, pragmatic army colonel in charge of the US military operation seems to accept that the world is heading for catastrophe. Louise, however—who by now is in touch not only with her own feelings, but also with the aliens’ minds (this is where the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis comes in: by learning the aliens’ language she has become able to cognize the way they do)—refuses to accept defeat. Disobeying orders one last time, she makes a phone call and averts disaster. (I won’t reveal how she does it, but her strategy is definitely from Venus.)

Louise isn’t exactly a ‘feminist spy in the house of death’, since she appears to have no political convictions of any kind. But she can be seen as a disruptive female force in a world whose rules are made by men, and in the context of the film as a whole I think she does symbolise the old idea that women are the creators and protectors of life, whereas men—or at least the powerful ones—are the bringers of death and destruction.

That was also, of course, an argument used by some feminist peace activists in the 1980s. It’s not my favourite feminist idea; but the popularity of Arrival suggests that, like the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, it still resonates. And when you look at what’s happening around the world today, perhaps that isn’t hard to understand.

What makes a word a slur?

Content note: this post contains examples of offensive slur-terms. 

Last week, the British edition of Glamour magazine published a column in which Juno Dawson used the term ‘TERF’ to describe feminists (the example she named was Germaine Greer) who ‘steadfastly believe that me—and other trans women—are not women’.  When some readers complained about the use of derogatory language, a spokeswoman for the magazine replied on Twitter that TERF is not derogatory:

Trans-exclusionary radical feminist is a description, and not a misogynistic slur.

Arguments about whether TERF is a neutral descriptive term or a derogatory slur have been rumbling on ever since. They raise a question which linguists and philosophers have found quite tricky to answer (and which they haven’t reached a consensus on): what makes a word a slur?

Before I consider that general question, let’s take a closer look at the meaning and history of TERF. As the Glamour spokeswoman said, it’s an abbreviated form of the phrase ‘Trans-Exclusionary Radical Feminist’; more specifically it’s an acronym, constructed from the initial letters of the words that make up the phrase. Some people have suggested this means it can’t be a slur. I find that argument puzzling, since numerous terms which everyone agrees are slurs are abbreviated forms (examples include ‘Paki’, ‘Jap’, ‘paedo’ and ‘tranny’). But in any case, there’s a question about the status of TERF as an acronym. Clearly it started out as one, but is it still behaving like one now?

To see what I’m getting at, consider an acronym from the 1940s: ‘radar’. Do you know what all the letters stand for? I do, but only because I’ve just looked it up. I’ve been using the word for 50-odd years without realising it meant ‘RAdio Detection And Ranging’—a feat made possible by the fact that ‘radio detection and ranging’ isn’t really what it means any longer. Over time it’s become just an ordinary word, which is used without reference to its origins as an acronym. No one mentally expands the letters R-A-D-A-R into words; no one imagines that ‘gaydar’ must be short for ‘gay detection and ranging’. Also (a trivial but telling sign) no one now writes ‘radar’ in all caps.

I’ve been writing TERF in all caps, but these days you also see it written ‘Terf’ or ‘terf’. That’s one sign it’s going the same way as ‘radar’, becoming a word which can be used without knowing what the letters of the original acronym stand for. Another sign is the way it’s now used to describe people (e.g., men) who don’t fit the original specification, in that they aren’t radical feminists. It looks as if at least some users of the term don’t define it strictly as meaning ‘trans-exclusionary radical feminist’, but use it with a more generic meaning like ‘transphobic person’.

This kind of change is common in the history of words. Word-meaning is inherently unstable, liable to vary among different groups of users and to change over time, because we don’t learn the meanings of most words by looking them up in some authoritative reference book, we figure them out from our experience of hearing or seeing words used in context.

It’s easy to see how that might shift the meaning of TERF in the way I’ve just suggested. Imagine you hear two of your friends discussing a mutual acquaintance who they refer to as a TERF. You’ve never encountered the term before and you have no way of knowing it’s a short form of a longer phrase (because it’s a true acronym, pronounced not as a series of letters but as a single syllable that rhymes with ‘smurf’).  So you listen to what’s being said about the TERF in question and make the simplest inference compatible with what you’re hearing: that TERF means a transphobic person.

If TERF’s meaning has started to shift that’s actually a sign of its success (words evolve as they spread to new users and contexts). But it makes the argument that TERF is just a neutral descriptive label for a specific group of people less convincing. That argument either takes no account of the way usage has changed over time, or else it’s a version of the etymological fallacy (‘however people actually use a word, its original meaning is the true meaning’).

But the fact that a word isn’t a neutral description doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a slur. We’re back to the question philosophers and semanticists have found so tricky: on what basis can we say that a word is a slur?

As I’ve already mentioned, the people who’ve written on this subject don’t agree on what the answer is. And after reading their various accounts, I’m not sure I believe there’s a single right answer. Rather, I think there are a number of criteria which need to be considered. If we’re in doubt about a word’s status as a slur, we can try asking the following questions, and then looking at the overall balance of the answers.

My first two questions are based on what the philosopher Jennifer Hornsby proposes as the two fundamental features of a derogatory term or slur.

Is the word commonly understood to convey hatred or contempt?

Does the word have a neutral counterpart which denotes the same group without conveying hatred/contempt?

This definition seems to have been constructed using racial/ethnic slurs as a prototype. In these cases it’s generally understood that the slur term, used in preference to a neutral term which denotes the same group of people, communicates hatred/contempt as part of its meaning (that’s the difference between, say, ‘Jew’ and ‘kike’). This doesn’t help us much with terms like TERF whose status as slurs is disputed. TERF is certainly understood by some people to convey hatred and contempt, but others deny it conveys those things.

It’s also unclear whether there’s a neutral term which TERF contrasts with. TERF doesn’t so much refer to a pre-existing group as bring a new category into existence (there was a pre-existing group of radical feminists, but they weren’t defined as a category by the belief that trans women are not women, and in fact they still aren’t, since not all radical feminists hold that belief). So, to decide whether TERF is a slur we need to ask some other questions.

Do the people the word is applied to either use it to describe themselves or accept it when others use it to describe them?

Both parts of this question are important. If a group of people voluntarily use a word to describe themselves, then—on the assumption that people don’t generally slur their own group—you might conclude the word isn’t a slur. However, this does not allow for the possibility that a term might be a marker of identity and solidarity when used within the group, while remaining a slur if it’s used to/about the group by outsiders. (The classic example is the solidary use of the N-word among (some) Black people: it doesn’t make it OK for white people to use it. ‘Dyke’ for ‘lesbian’ is another example: fine if you are a lesbian, suspect if you aren’t. ) There are also jocular, ironic and self-mocking uses which don’t undermine the status of a word as a slur (women friends might refer to themselves in private as ‘sluts’ or ‘bitches’, but they wouldn’t accept being described in those terms in public or by non-intimates).

With TERF, I’d say the answer to both parts of the question is ‘no’. There may be people who use TERF ironically/self-mockingly in private, but I’m not aware of any who publicly define themselves as TERFs, and it’s common for those who are called TERFs by others to reject the label. Note that these observations concern attitudes to the word: there are certainly some feminists who publicly affirm the belief mentioned by Juno Dawson, that trans women are not women, but they may still deny being TERFs. This suggests they see TERF in the same way members of a certain ethnic group might see an ethnic slur: ‘yes, I am a member of the group you mean, but no, I do not accept the implications of the name you’re calling it by’.  Which brings me to the next question:

Do the people the word is applied to regard it as a slur (e.g. do they describe it explicitly as a slur, protest against its use, display offence/distress when it is used)?

For some writers, a ‘yes’ to this question is enough on its own to make a word a slur.  Luvell Anderson and Ernie Lepore argue that

…no matter what its history, no matter what it means or communicates, no matter who introduces it, regardless of its past associations, once relevant individuals declare a word a slur, it becomes one [emphasis in original]

What these writers are trying to account for is the fact that labels which were previously considered acceptable, or even polite, can get redefined as slurs (examples include ‘Negro’ and ‘coloured’), and the reverse may also happen (‘Black’ was not always acceptable, and ‘queer’ used to be unambiguously a slur). This isn’t a matter of what the term means (the literal meaning of ‘Black’ and ‘Negro’ is the same), but rather depends on the perceptions of ‘relevant individuals’ (members of the target group) at a particular point in time. If they declare a term offensive, then it’s offensive: it’s idle for non-members of the group to tell them they have no business taking offence.

On this criterion, TERF is indisputably a slur.  Many individuals who have been described as TERFs have called it a slur, protested against its use (witness the complaints about Juno Dawson’s column) and explicitly said that it offends them. But I’m reluctant to make that the sole criterion. I agree that for something to be a slur it’s necessary for members of the target group to regard it as offensive, but I’m not sure that’s a sufficient condition (and what do you do about cases where the target group is split? ‘Queer’, for instance, divides opinion in the LGBT community).

As a sociolinguist (unlike the writers I’ve been referencing), I’m also dissatisfied with the implication that members of a group just arbitrarily and randomly decide that, for instance, ‘queer’ has ceased to be a slur or ‘Negro’ has now become one. I think these developments can be related to the changing social and political contexts in which words are used (for instance, the context for the ‘unslurring’ of ‘queer’ was the surge of radical activism prompted by the HIV-AIDS epidemic). Perceptions of words have to be seen in relation to what the words are being used to do, either by the group itself or by its opponents. So another question I would want to ask is,

What speech acts is the word used to perform?

If a word is just a neutral description, you might expect it to be used mainly for the purpose of describing or making claims about states of affairs. If it’s a slur, you’d also expect it to be used for those purposes, but in addition you might expect to see it being used in speech acts expressing hatred and contempt, such as insults, threats and incitements to violence. (By ‘insults’ here, incidentally, I don’t mean statements which are insulting simply because they use the word in question, but statements which say something insulting about the group, e.g. ‘they’re all dirty thieves’.)  

There’s evidence that TERF does appear in insults, threats and incitements. You can read a selection of examples (mostly taken from Twitter, so these were public communications) on this website, which was set up to document the phenomenon. Here are a small number of items from the site to give you a sense of what this discourse looks like:

you vile dirty terf cunts must be fuming you have no power to mess with transfolk any more!

I smell a TERF and they fucking stink

if i ever find out you are a TERF i will fucking kill you every single TERF out there needs to die

why are terfs even allowed to exist round up every terf and all their friends for good measure and slit their throats one by one

if you encounter a terf in the wild deposit them in the nearest dumpster. Remember: Keeping our streets clean is everyone’s responsibility

Precisely because it was set up to document uses of TERF as a slur, this site does not offer a representative sample of all uses of the term, so it can’t tell us whether insulting/threatening/inciting are its dominant functions. It does, however, show that they are among its current functions.  It also points to another relevant question:

What other words does the word tend to co-occur with? 

It’s noticeable that on the website I’ve linked to, TERF quite often shows up in the same tweet as other words whose status as slurs is not disputed, like ‘bitch’ and ‘cunt’. Other words that occur more than once or twice in these tweets include ‘disgusting’, ‘ugly’, ‘scum’ and a cluster of words implying uncleanness (‘smell’, ‘stink’, ‘garbage’, ‘filth’)—which is also a well-worn theme in racist and anti-Semitic discourse.

One of the clues we use to infer an unfamiliar word’s meaning in context is our understanding of the adjacent, familar words; the result is that over time, recurring patterns of collocation (i.e. the tendency for certain words to appear in proximity to one another) have an influence on the way the word’s meaning evolves. The examples on the website are too small and unrepresentative a sample to generalise from, but if the collocations we see there are common in current uses of TERF, that would not only support the contention that it’s a slur, it might also suggest that the word could become increasingly pejorative.

In summary: TERF does not meet all the criteria that have been proposed for defining a word as a slur, but it does meet most of them at least partially. My personal judgment on the slur question has been particularly influenced by the evidence that TERF is now being used in a kind of discourse which has clear similarities with hate-speech directed at other groups (it makes threats of violence, it includes other slur-terms, it uses metaphors of pollution). Granted, this isn’t the only kind of discourse TERF is used in, and it may not be the main kind. But if a term features in that kind of discourse at all, it seems to me impossible to maintain that it is ‘just a neutral description’.

I believe in open debate on politically controversial issues, so I’m not suggesting the views of either side should be either censored or protected from criticism. My point is that when one of the key terms used in the argument has become a slur, it is no longer fit for any other purpose, and the time has come to look for a replacement.

 

Donald Trump talks like a woman (and the moon is made of green cheese)

A couple of days ago, Politico magazine published a piece by Julie Sedivy claiming that Donald Trump talks like a woman:

He might be preoccupied with grading women’s looks, penis size and “locker room talk,” but the way he speaks and the actual words he uses make for a distinctly feminine style. In fact, his speaking style is more feminine by far than any other candidate in the 2016 cycle, more feminine than any other presidential candidate since 2004.

A number of people who read my last post, on Trump’s ‘locker room talk’, have asked me what I think of this claim. The answer is well summarised in the title of a response written by the linguist Tyler Schnoebelen, ‘Trump does NOT talk like a woman (BREAKING NEWS: gender continues to be complicated and confusing)‘. If you’re looking for a full explanation of why Sedivy’s analysis does not stand up, this excellent post should be your first port of call. (Some other relevant points are made by John McWhorter here.)  There’s no need for me to duplicate these more detailed critiques, but before I go, let me just highlight a few key points–points which aren’t just relevant to this piece about Donald Trump, but are equally applicable to many other discussions of the linguistic differences between men and women.

First point: the fact that a word is used more frequently by women than men, or vice versa, does not license the conclusion that the word in question is typical of women’s or men’s speech (let alone that the word itself is ‘feminine’ or ‘masculine’). As Tyler Schnoebelen points out, a word can be strongly associated with one gender, but only used by a small minority of people of that gender. If that’s the case, you’re not looking at a marker of ‘masculine’ or ‘feminine’ style: more likely it belongs to the style of a particular subset of men or women (e.g. ‘white suburban women under 25’), or maybe it’s typical of a group which is numerically female- or male-dominated, but is actually defined by something other than gender (e.g. being a sports fanatic, or the primary carer for small children). Women and men are not internally homogeneous groups, so we should always be sceptical about any claim which implies that each of them has a single, uniform style of speech.

Second point: statistical findings about language-use need to be interpreted in relation to the context–it makes a difference what people are talking about, to whom and in what situation. A case in point: the research Sedivy cites suggests that women use the pronoun ‘she’ more frequently than men do, and the analysis of Trump’s speech during the presidential debates shows that he also uses ‘she’ quite frequently. But there’s a good reason not to interpret that as evidence of his ‘feminine style’. Political campaigners tend to make repeated reference to their opponents, and Trump has a female opponent. In this context, his use of ‘she’ says precisely nothing about his style.

Third point (and please forgive me for stating the obvious here): communication style isn’t just about words. Even if we leave aside the question of content, what Trump says, the analysis of his ‘distinctly feminine style’ detaches the words he uses from a whole lot of other things that contribute to our perception of him. His aggressive attempts to dominate the floor, for instance, by interrupting and talking over other speakers. The tone and volume of his voice. His body language: gaze, facial expression, posture, the way he prowled around and loomed over his opponent in the second debate. All those aspects of his performance, I would suggest, are distinctly–indeed, cartoonishly–masculine.

When you look at Trump’s performance as a whole, it’s hard to buy the argument that his ‘feminine’ linguistic style is ‘helping to counter the opposition’s portrait of [him] as a domineering misogynist who lacks empathy and concern for others’. And I don’t think we need that argument to explain Trump’s appeal. His support isn’t coming from people who don’t believe or haven’t noticed he’s a domineering misogynist; it’s coming from people who either don’t care that he’s a domineering misogynist or who consider that a positive virtue. We can only hope their view will not prevail.

On banter, bonding and Donald Trump

cropped-cropped-banterslang.jpg

In my last post I argued that gossip–personal, judgmental talk about absent others–is not the peculiarly female vice our culture would have us believe. Both sexes gossip. But one common form of male gossip, namely sexualised talk about women, is made to look like something different, and more benign, by giving it another name: ‘banter’.

A week after I published that post, along came That Video of Donald Trump doing the very thing I was talking about–and trying to excuse it, predictably, by calling it ‘locker room banter’.

There are many things I don’t want to say on this subject, because they’ve already been said, sometimes very eloquently, in countless tweets and blog posts and columns. I don’t need to repeat that Trump is a misogynist (which we already knew before we heard the tape). I don’t need to upbraid the news media for their mealy-mouthed language (the Washington Post described the recording as containing ‘an extremely lewd conversation’, while the Guardian has referred to it as a ‘sex-boast tape’–as if the issue were the unseemliness of bragging or the vulgarity of using words like ‘tits’). But what I do have something to say about is banter itself: what it does and why it matters.

A lot of the commentary I’ve read about the tape does not, to my mind, get to the heart of what’s going on in it. So, that’s where I want to begin. Here’s a (quick and very basic) transcription of the start of the recorded conversation: Trump, the Hollywood Access host Billy Bush and a third, unidentified man are talking on a bus which is taking them to the set of a soap opera where Trump is making a guest appearance.

THIRD MAN: she used to be great. she’s still very beautiful

TRUMP: you know I moved on her actually you know she was down in Palm Beach and I moved on her and I failed I’ll admit it

THIRD MAN: woah

TRUMP: I did try to fuck her she was married

THIRD MAN: [laughing] that’s huge news there

TRUMP: and I moved on her very heavily in fact I took her out furniture shopping she wanted to get some furniture and I said I’ll show you where they have some nice furniture. I took her out furniture– I moved on her like a bitch [laughter from other men] but I couldn’t get there and she was married. then all of a sudden I see her and she’s now got the big phony tits and everything she’s totally changed her look

In this sequence Trump is not boasting about having sex: he’s telling a personal anecdote about an occasion when he didn’t manage to have sex (‘I failed I’ll admit it’). He then returns to what seems to be the original topic, how to assess the woman’s physical attractiveness. The first speaker’s turn suggests that this has diminished over time (‘she used to be great’), but whereas he thinks ‘she’s still very beautiful’, Trump’s reference to her ‘big phony tits’ implies that he no longer finds her as desirable.

What’s going on here is gossip. Like the young men’s gossip I discussed in my earlier post, this is judgmental talk about an absent other which serves to reinforce group norms (in this case, for male heterosexual behaviour and for female attractiveness). It’s also male bonding talk: by sharing intimate information about himself–and especially by admitting to a failed attempt at seduction–Trump positions the other men as trusted confidants.

It’s not clear whether the discussion of the woman’s appearance has reached its natural end, but at this point, as the bus nears its destination, Billy Bush intervenes to point out the soap actress Trump is scheduled to meet, and she becomes the next topic.

BUSH: sheesh your girl’s hot as shit. In the purple

THIRD MAN & BUSH: woah! yes! woah!

BUSH: yes the Donald has scored. Woah my man!

TRUMP: look at you. You are a pussy.

[indecipherable simultaneous talk as they get ready to exit the bus]

TRUMP: I better use some tic-tacs in case I start kissing her. You know I’m automatically attracted to beautiful–I just start kissing them. It’s like a magnet just kiss I don’t even wait [laughter from other men] and when you’re a star they let you do it. You can do anything

BUSH: whatever you want

TRUMP: grab them by the pussy [laughter]  do anything.

Trump’s contribution to this extract looks more like the ‘sex boast’ of the news headlines. But we shouldn’t overlook the fact that this too is an enactment of male bonding. Trump, the alpha male of the group, takes centre stage, but the other men support him throughout with affiliative responses–saying ‘woah’ and ‘yes’, echoing his sentiments (‘Trump: you can do anything’/ ‘Bush: whatever you want’), and above all, greeting his most overtly offensive remarks with laughter. They laugh when he says he doesn’t wait for permission to kiss a woman; they laugh again when he mentions ‘grab[bing] [women] by the pussy’. (You can listen for yourself, but my assessment of this laughter is that it’s appreciative rather than embarrassed, awkward or forced.)

The transgressiveness of sexual banter–its tendency to report markedly offensive acts or desires in deliberately offensive (or in the media’s terms, ‘lewd’) language, is not just accidental, a case of men allowing the mask to slip when they think they’re alone. It’s deliberate, and it’s part of the bonding process. Like the sharing of secrets, the sharing of transgressive desires, acts and words is a token of intimacy and trust. It says, ‘I am showing that I trust you by saying things, and using words, that I wouldn’t want the whole world to hear’. It’s also an invitation to the hearer to reciprocate by offering some kind of affiliative response, whether a token of approval like appreciative laughter, or a matching transgressive comment. (‘I trust you, now show that you trust me’.)

When a private transgressive conversation becomes public, and the speaker who said something misogynist (or racist or homophobic) is publicly named and shamed, he often protests, as Trump did, that it was ‘just banter’, that he is not ‘really’ a bigot, and that his comments have been ‘taken out of context’. And the rest of us marvel at the barefaced cheek of these claims. How, we wonder, can this person disavow his obvious prejudice by insisting that what he said wasn’t, ‘in context’, what he meant?

What I’ve just said about the role of transgressive speech in male bonding suggests an answer (though as I’ll explain in a minute, that’s not the same as an excuse). Public exposure does literally take this kind of conversation out of its original context (the metaphorical ‘locker room’, a private, all-male space). And when the talk is removed from that context, critics will focus on its referential content rather than its interpersonal function. They won’t appreciate (or care) that what’s primarily motivating the boasting, the misogyny, the offensive language and the laughter isn’t so much the speakers’ hatred of women as their investment in their fraternal relationship with each other. They’re like fishermen telling tall tales about their catches, or old soldiers exaggerating their exploits on the battlefield: their goal is to impress their male peers, and the women they insult are just a means to that end.

As I said before, though, that’s not meant to be an excuse: I’m not suggesting that banter isn’t ‘really’ sexist or damaging to women. On the contrary, I’m trying to suggest that it’s more damaging than most critical discussions acknowledge. Banter is not just what commentators on the Trump tape have mostly treated it as–a window into the mind of an individual sexist or misogynist. It’s a ritualised social practice which contributes to the maintenance of structural sexual inequality. This effect does not depend on what the individuals involved ‘really think’ about women. (I have examples of both sexist and homophobic banter where I’m certain that what some speakers say is not what they really think, because they’re gay and everyone involved knows that.) It’s more a case of ‘all that’s needed for evil to flourish is for good men to go along with it for the lolz’.

You might think that in Trump’s case a lot of men have chosen to do the decent thing. Since the tape became public, male politicians have been lining up to condemn it. A formula quickly emerged: after Jeb Bush tweeted that, as a grandfather to girls, he could not condone such degrading talk about women, there followed a steady stream of similar comments from other men proclaiming their respect for their daughters, sisters, wives and mothers.

But to me this rings hollow. Some of it is obvious political score-settling, and far too much of it is tainted by what some theorists call ‘benevolent sexism’ (no, Paul Ryan, women should not be ‘revered’, they should be respected as equal and autonomous human beings; and no, they aren’t just deserving of respect because they’re ‘your’ women). But in addition, I’d bet good money that all the men uttering these pious sentiments have at some point participated in similar conversations themselves. When Trump protested that Bill Clinton had said worse things to him on the golf course, I found that entirely plausible (though also irrelevant: Trump can’t seem to grasp that Bill’s behaviour reflects on Bill rather than Hillary). Whatever their actual attitudes to women, as members of the US political elite these men have had to be assiduous in forging fraternal bonds with other powerful men. And wherever there are fraternal bonds there will also be banter.

Feminists generally refer to the social system in which men dominate women as ‘patriarchy’, the rule of the fathers, but some theorists have suggested that in its modern (post-feudal) forms it might more aptly be called ‘fratriarchy’, the rule of the brothers, or in Carole Pateman’s term, ‘fraternal patriarchy’. Banter is fraternal patriarchy’s verbal glue. It strengthens the bonds of solidarity among male peers by excluding, Othering and dehumanising women; and in doing those things it also facilitates sexual violence.

Male peer networks based on fraternal solidarity are a common and effective mechanism for informally excluding women, or consigning them to second-class ‘interloper’ status, in professions and institutions which no longer bar them formally. Whether it’s city bankers socialising with clients in strip clubs, or construction workers adorning the site office with pictures of topless models, men use expressions of heterosexual masculinity–verbal as well as non-verbal, the two generally go together–to claim common ground with one another, while differentiating themselves from women. Sometimes they engage in sexual talk to embarrass and humiliate women who are present; sometimes they spread damaging rumours behind women’s backs. These tactics prevent women from participating on equal terms.

I said earlier that when Trump and his companions on the bus talked about women, the women were not the real point: they were like the fish in a fishing story or the faceless enemy in a war story. But that wasn’t meant to be a consoling thought (‘don’t worry, women, it’s nothing personal, they’re just bonding with each other by talking trash about you’). When you talk about people it should be personal–it should involve the recognition of the other as a human being with human feelings like your own. Heterosexual banter is one of the practices that teach men to withhold that recognition from women, treating them as objects rather than persons.

When you objectify and dehumanise a class of people, it becomes easier to mistreat them without guilt. And when you are part of a tight-knit peer group, it becomes more difficult to resist the collective will. According to the anthropologist Peggy Reeves Sanday, rape culture arises where both these conditions are fulfilled–where men have strong fraternal loyalties to each other, and at the same time dehumanise women. In her classic study of fraternity gang-rape, Sanday argues that what motivates fraternity brothers or college athletes to commit rape in groups is the desire of the men involved both to prove their manhood and to feel close to one another. These are typically men whose conception of masculinity will not permit them to express their feelings for other men in any way that might raise the spectre of homosexuality, which they equate with effeminacy and unmanliness. Instead they bond through violence against someone who represents the despised feminine Other.

Heterosexual banter is a regular feature of life in many fraternities, and Sanday identifies it (along with homophobia, heavy use of pornography and alcohol) as a factor producing ‘rape-prone’ campus cultures. One man who was interviewed for her study recalled the way it worked in his fraternity, and how it made him feel:

By including me in this perpetual, hysterical banter and sharing laughter with me, they [the fraternity brothers] showed their affection for me. I felt happy, confident, and loved. This really helped my feelings of loneliness and my fear of being sexually unappealing. We managed to give ourselves a satisfying substitute for sexual relations. We acted out all of the sexual tensions between us as brothers on a verbal level. Women, women everywhere, feminists, homosexuality, etc., all provided the material for the jokes.

Of course there’s a difference between ‘acting out on a verbal level’ and committing gang rape. It’s not inevitable that one will lead to the other. But Sanday suggests that one can help to make the other more acceptable, or less unthinkable. What the man quoted above says about the social and psychological rewards of fraternal bonding also helps to explain why men may be prevailed on to join in with a group assault, even if they wouldn’t have initiated it alone; and why they don’t intervene to stop it.

Whenever I talk or write about male sexual banter, I always hear from some men who tell me they’re deeply uncomfortable with it. I believe them. But my response is, ‘it’s not me you need to tell’. They risk nothing by expressing their discomfort to me. What would be risky, and potentially costly, would be for them to put their principles above their fraternal loyalties, stop engaging in banter and challenge their peers to do the same.

Similarly, it’s pretty easy–assuming your politics lean left of fascism–to criticise the behaviour of Donald Trump. But as necessary as that may be in current circumstances, on its own it is not sufficient. We need to acknowledge that the kind of banter Trump has been condemned for is more than just an individual vice: it is a social practice supporting a form of fraternity that stands in the way of women’s liberty and equality.

Personally speaking

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Earlier this month, when Andrea Wulf won the Royal Society’s 2016 Science Book prize for The Invention of Nature, a biography of the scientist Alexander von Humboldt, the Guardian’s John Dugdale wrote a piece headed ‘Why have women finally started winning science book prizes?’  Um, is it because they’re writing more science books than they used to? Is it because the book prize judges are finally recognising their talents? No: apparently women are being rewarded for making science personal. ‘Female science writers’, says Dugdale,

are more likely to focus on people, while their male counterparts are more likely to address a problem, a mystery or an underexplored scientific field.

Men do the difficult, sciencey stuff, while women concentrate on the human angle. It’s yet another iteration of that ancient cliché, ‘men are interested in ideas and women are interested in people’.

Apart from being sexist, this is fundamentally illogical. Why are ‘ideas’ and ‘people’ presented as mutually exclusive options? Don’t most books about science deal with both?  James Watson’s book The Double Helix certainly did: subtitled ‘A personal account of the discovery of the structure of DNA’, it’s both a gripping narrative of scientific problem-solving, and a story about, as the blurb on Amazon’s website puts it, ‘brilliant scientists with great gifts, very human ambitions and bitter rivalries’. Yet somehow it’s remained an article of faith that men aren’t interested in personal stuff, and that women are interested in nothing else.

There is, of course, nothing wrong with being interested in people. What’s wrong is the belief that this is a distinctive and universal female trait. That belief persists because it does ideological work: it naturalises the division of labour that makes women responsible for taking care of others’ needs. It implies that women do this because they want to, and because it’s what they’re naturally good at. It’s an argument that’s been used both to confine women to the domestic sphere and to limit their options in the wider world. Women are good with people, so let them do care work and customer service. If they’re journalists, assign them human interest stories while men report the news. If they’re politicians, give them a ‘soft’ portfolio, like education rather than finance. And so on, ad infinitum.

The same stereotype has pervaded discussions of the way men and women use language.  Women, the story goes, talk about people and in order to make connections with people. Men, by contrast (because there’s always a contrast), talk about objects or concepts, to impart information, solve problems or display knowledge. As Deborah Tannen summed this up in her 1990 bestseller You Just Don’t Understand, men do ‘report talk’ and women do ‘rapport talk’.

Evolutionary psychologists have taken this a step further by declaring that the difference is a product of evolution. According to John Locke’s book Duels and Duets, women’s well-known love of gossip reflects the involvement of their early human ancestors in all-female mutual support networks, where they created ‘feelings of closeness through intimate disclosures about others and themselves’. Men, on the other hand, did not form mutual support networks: rather they were rivals, and their ways of talking reflected that.

Since men were selected to aggress and dominate, but could end up killing themselves, they needed a safer way of achieving their goals. Ritualized duels, using words instead of weapons, filled the bill.

It’s an axiom of evolutionary psychology that human nature doesn’t change: that’s why modern women still gossip and modern men still fight verbal duels—‘even’, Locke informs us, ‘when they are merely socializing with their colleagues and friends’.

In these ordinary duels, men denigrate their friends in a humorous way, often before an audience, but they also hold competitive joke- and story-telling sessions that feature verbal artistry.

So, men duel and women duet; women engage in intimate gossip while men engage in competitive banter. Locke presents this as an absolute divide: no bantering for women and no gossiping for men. ‘Women may denigrate themselves’, he explains, ‘but they do not insult their close women friends, even humorously’. (If you’re a woman and you’re thinking ‘WTF?’ I can only say you’re not alone.) Men, conversely, have no use for the female habit of talking about other people behind their backs. ‘If they have something to say to a foe or competitor, they usually go up to him and say it’.

Well, sorry to spoil a nice neat story, but I’m afraid I’m going to have to call bullshit.

Back in 1990, a student in one of my classes recorded a couple of hours of casual conversation in the house he shared with four other men (all were straight, white and in their early 20s)*. He wanted to answer the question, ‘what do male friends talk about?’ Some of the answers were much as he’d expected: they talked about sports, drinking and dating. But there was another topic which occupied more time than anything else apart from sport–criticism of other men. To give you the flavour, here’s a chunk of the transcript (which I’ve simplified a bit to make it easier to read):

BRYAN: uh you know that really gay guy in our Age of Revolution class who sits in front of us? he wore shorts again, by the way, it’s like 42 degrees out he wore shorts again [laughter]

ED: That guy

BRYAN: it’s like a speedo, he wears a speedo to class he’s got incredibly skinny legs

ED: it’s worse you know you know like those shorts women volleyball players wear? it’s like those it’s like French cut spandex

BRYAN: you know what’s even more ridiculous? When you wear those shorts and like a parka on […] he’s either got some condition that he’s got to like have his legs exposed at all times or else he’s got really good legs

ED: he’s probably he’s like he’s like at home combing his leg hairs

BRYAN: he doesn’t have any leg hair though

ED: he really likes his legs

BRYAN: yes and oh those ridiculous Reeboks that are always (indeciph) and goofy white socks always striped tube socks

ED: that’s right he’s the antithesis of man

So, OK, what is this? Is it banter, or is it gossip? It does have some features of what Locke describes as typical all-male talk: the two men I’ve called ‘Ed’ and ‘Bryan’ are talking in a way they evidently find amusing, and they’re doing it in front of an audience (the three other men who share the house). But in other respects it doesn’t conform to Locke’s template for male verbal duelling: it’s more of a collaborative duet. The speakers aren’t ‘humorously denigrating’ one another, they’re talking about someone else behind his back. They aren’t expressing conflicting views—on the contrary, what they’re constructing is very much a shared view of the ‘really gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’.

Why would young men gossip? The short answer is, for the same reasons anyone gossips. People who study gossip (they include anthropologists, sociologists, historians and linguists) say it’s ubiquitous in human cultures–despite the fact that most communities claim to disapprove of it–because it serves a number of important social purposes. One of these is circulating personal information, which enables members of a community to keep track of others’ activities and relationships. Another is the one Locke emphasises in his discussion of all-female talk, namely bonding. When you talk about absent others you’re constituting them as an out-group and yourselves as an in-group: if what you’re sharing is sensitive information–like a secret or a negative opinion about someone–that will strengthen the feeling of intimacy among those present.

A third purpose gossip serves, especially when it’s critical or judgmental, is to affirm the group’s commitment to particular norms and values. That’s clearly one thing that’s going on in Ed and Bryan’s duet. By describing the absent ‘gay guy’ as ‘the antithesis of man’, they’re also bonding around their own, very different code of properly masculine behaviour.

It may seem paradoxical that the vehicle for this heterosexual male bonding is a kind of talk which is stereotypically associated with women (not to mention that the main subject discussed is the very thing these men claim to have no interest in—other men’s bodies). But it’s only really a paradox if you take the stereotype at face value. The fact is that both sexes gossip: one survey conducted in 2009 found that men reported spending slightly more time on gossip than women. And respondents of both sexes gave the same reason for doing it: they said that gossiping made them feel like ‘part of the gang’.

But if everyone gossips, why has gossip been decried for centuries as a specifically female vice? The historical record is full of injunctions to women to avoid gossip, which was variously denounced as idle, frivolous, anti-social, sinful and even a cover for witchcraft.  Noting that the word ‘gossip’ in early modern English meant a close female companion who stayed with a woman in childbirth, Suzanne Romaine mentions one reason why this role prompted anxiety:

Professions such as midwifery allowed women passage between households, largely free of male control, to exchange …knowledge of intimate matters such as contraception and abortion.

Some historians argue that what really worried men wasn’t so much the sharing of arcane female knowledge as the prospect of women talking about them. They feared their wives would share embarrassing secrets, or spread malicious gossip deliberately to damage their reputations. This fear was not unfounded: at a time when women had very limited access to more public forums, gossip provided an alternative channel for influencing the opinions of others. And in a culture that practised quite extensive sex-segregation, it was one channel men couldn’t control.

But it was never just women who made use of this channel. Men also used gossip as a weapon; they still do. A fair proportion of what men like to call ‘banter’ is sexist and sexualised talk about women, and one of its effects (thanks to the sexual double standard) may be to damage a woman’s or a girl’s reputation by branding her a ‘slut’ or a ‘slag’. This kind of so-called ‘banter’ is just gossip by another name. A more forgiving name, too: whereas ‘gossip’ is associated with meanness and malice, ‘banter’ is more often described using terms like ‘good natured’ and ‘light-hearted’.

The idea that women are obsessed with the personal (meaning the trivial, the venial, the commonplace) takes many different forms, and all of them are basically sexist put-downs. They’re a good illustration of the more general principle that whatever women are said to do will be devalued by comparison with whatever men are said to do–even if what they’re doing is essentially the same thing.

*The men involved in this conversation gave me permission to use the recorded data, which I later transcribed and analysed in this article. The names I’ve given them are pseudonyms.

Getting real about bad advice

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It’s been a while since I posted anything about the policing of women’s language, but that’s not because the police have been idle: while I’ve been concerning myself with other matters, it’s been business as usual for the finger-wagging advicemongers. Here’s a recent example which I wouldn’t bother clicking on, since it’s just a rehash of the generic Bullshit Article About Women’s Language that’s been doing the rounds for the last two years. And here’s a piece about uptalk and vocal fry, which does contain one novel feature–a link to this blog, which the author cites to show she considered both sides of the argument before deciding to go with the ever-popular ‘stop it, you’re annoying people’.

Both these pieces use what I’m going to call the ‘let’s get real’ argument, which goes something like this: ‘it’s all very well to call out prejudice/preach tolerance, but the world is the way it is; the faster you adjust the more successful you’ll be’. My function, where a writer brings me into the discussion, is to represent the naive idealist whose extreme and unworldly opinions no true supporter of women should be distracted by.

Along those lines, yet another advicemonger recently informed her readers:

Deborah Cameron argues that it’s basically sexist to examine how women speak at all — they should be allowed to say whatever they want (however doormat they sound)

I’m not sure what she thinks the alternative is. Language wardens patrolling the offices of the nation, and fining women on the spot for saying ‘sorry’ or ‘just’? But the laissez faire attitude she attributes to me is not what I’ve argued for either. No one has total freedom to speak however they want, at least if they want to be (a) intelligible to others and (b) considered a competent member of society. My aspirations for women are more modest: I’d just like them to be able to speak without constantly being told they’re doing it wrong.

But to my critics this is shockingly irresponsible, and does women no favours at all. As they see it, telling women to mind their ‘justs‘ and ‘sorries‘ is like telling a stranger in the toilets she’s accidentally tucked her skirt into her knickers–she might be embarrassed, but she’ll also be grateful.

Some women evidently are grateful. Whenever I criticise some egregious piece of sexist language policing, I get a couple of emails from women who protest that they have personally found it helpful. I don’t argue with them: obviously only they can say whether or not they found something helpful. But in the spirit of ‘let’s get real’, I do have a question about how the advice has helped them.

You might think the answer is obvious: it’s helped them by prompting them to change the way they speak, cutting out the bad habits that make them ‘sound doormat’. But in reality that’s not very likely. All the evidence suggests that criticism of a linguistic feature does a good job of making people aware of it, but has little effect on the way they actually use it. Think of all the grammar, spelling and pronunciation shibboleths (double negatives, ‘aint’, ‘we was’, h-dropping, t-glottalling, saying ‘somefink’, writing ‘it’s’ when it should be ‘its’, etc.) which have been relentlessly criticised for decades or even centuries. Most English-speakers are well aware that these features are stigmatised, and most believe the stigma is deserved. Yet that hasn’t led to a decline in their use: in some cases they’ve spread rapidly since the criticism started.

This isn’t as paradoxical as it sounds. Our ideas about good and bad language may be derived from the pronouncements of authorities (like parents, teachers, or the people who write opinion pieces in the media), but our actual behaviour is much more strongly influenced by the speech of the people we converse with directly. When we talk to someone, we have a tendency to ‘accommodate’ to them, usually by (subconsciously) making our speech more similar to theirs. This is one way speech-patterns like uptalk spread. More generally, a lot of our spoken output is produced without much conscious reflection. It’s habitual, automatic, below-the-radar behaviour, and as such quite difficult to modify.

Of course, there are people who’ve succeeded in altering their habitual speech-patterns, either permanently (like Margaret Thatcher, who lowered her voice-pitch in a bid to sound more authoritative), or temporarily (like the actors and impressionists who can perform in various different accents and vocal personae). But these cases are notable precisely because they’re unusual. Success depends on a combination of aptitude, motivation, structured training and intensive practice; failure is not unusual.

Yet most critics of women’s speech seem to think there’s nothing to it. They have plenty to say about why you should stop saying X, Y and Z, but nothing to say about how you’re meant to do it. The implication is that once you’ve become aware of what you’re doing wrong, you can simply decide to stop. It’s ironic that these critics so often describe the features they want women to stop using as ‘verbal tics’. As much as I hate this inaccurate and trivialising use of the phrase, you’d think the word ‘tic’, meaning an involuntary response which the subject cannot control, might be a clue to the fact that changing your speech-habits isn’t easy.

Occasionally advice-writers do pay attention to the ‘how’ question. One of my favourite examples is a WikiHow entry headed ‘How to stop saying the word “like”’.

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The reader’s mission, should she choose to accept it, is to train herself (I’m using feminine pronouns advisedly: all the visual illustrations depict young women) to use ‘like’ only in its two ‘proper’ meanings, which are ‘enjoy’ (as in ‘I like chocolate’) and ‘similar to’ (as in ‘that tastes like chocolate’), while breaking the bad habit of using ‘like’ as a quotative (‘she was like, who cares?’), an approximator (‘she’s like, five feet tall’) or just an all-purpose filler. The author recognises that this is a challenging task, and offers strategies for approaching it in a systematic way. For instance:

  • Whenever you realise you’re about to say ‘like’, pause. If your ‘like’ was going to be a filler, you’ll have dodged the bullet. If it wasn’t, you’ll have time to think of a suitable substitute.
  • Arm yourself in advance with a selection of potential alternatives to ‘like’. For instance, you could replace quotative ‘be like’ with a more ‘descriptive’ verb like ‘yell’, ‘whisper’ or ‘exclaim’.
  • If the ‘likes’ are still creeping in, slow your speech down to a speed which allows you to consider each word before you utter it.
  • If you’re really struggling, go cold turkey: ban ‘like’ from your speech entirely, even in its legitimate senses. Say ‘I enjoy chocolate’ and ‘it tastes similar to chocolate’.

The last tip is to persevere, since your efforts may not bear fruit immediately. No kidding: it’s hard to imagine anything more fruitless than trying to follow this advice. Whoever was unlucky enough to engage you in conversation would be baffled, if not maddened, by your strange inability to talk at a normal speed, your sudden unexplained silences, your weirdly formal vocabulary and your peculiar habit of reporting others’ speech as though you were writing the dialogue in a bad novel (she quipped, sarcastically). It’s heartbreakingly earnest, and about as much use as the proverbial chocolate teapot.

In that it is not unusual: the world is full of useless advice. Some people have argued that the uselessness of the advice it offers is the secret of the self-improvement industry’s success: if the advice really worked, people wouldn’t keep coming back for more. But some research has raised the question, is it actually advice that people are after?

Research done with people who regularly read self-help books has found that the advice element of the genre is not very important to them. The books are generally marketed on the promise of solving readers’ problems, but readers themselves say that isn’t what they read them for: rather their goal is to understand themselves better. A ‘good’ book, as they see it, provides a description of the problem which they can recognise themselves in, along with an explanation of what’s behind the problem that resonates with their own experience. The benefits they say they get from this include feeling validated (‘this writer understands me’) and feeling more able to cope with their situation. As one woman explained to the researcher Wendy Simonds, ‘if I understand something, I feel a little bit better about it; I don’t feel so overwhelmed and so helpless’.

This may also be what my correspondents mean when they tell me they find advice on speaking helpful. Not that it’s transformed their behaviour, but that it’s given them a valuable insight into their problems. Their situation may not have changed, but at least someone has explained it in a way that seems to make sense (‘you aren’t getting respect because your tentative and apologetic way of speaking undermines your authority’).

There are parallels here with the experience of feminists. If you’re a feminist, it’s because, among other things, you think feminism explains women’s situation and their problems in a way that makes sense. Most feminists can recall moments when their understanding was changed by a conversation in a group, or by something they read in a book; and most would probably agree that this felt like a positive experience, even though on its own it didn’t solve anything. To change your situation you first need to understand it: that’s one belief feminism shares with self-help.

But there are also important differences. Feminist consciousness raising—the process of reflecting on experience and coming to understand it differently—is meant to lead to collective political action, the goal of which is to change the social structures that are ultimately responsible for women’s situation. Self-help, on the other hand, is committed to an ideology of hyper-individualism, whose two core tenets are (1) you’re in control of your own destiny, and (2) the only thing you have the power to change is yourself.

Not only does this mean that changing yourself has to be the solution to every problem, it also means that self-help has to downplay the social dimension of the problems that confront its readers. Women’s experiences of sexism in all its forms, from being ignored in meetings to being trapped in abusive relationships, are persistently presented as avoidable consequences of their own bad choices or self-destructive behaviour-patterns. The good news, however, is that women can solve their problems by making better choices and adopting different patterns of behaviour. You don’t have to ‘sound doormat’ forever: the remedy is in your own hands.

It’s not hard to understand why many women might find this message of individual empowerment more appealing than some old sourpuss like me banging on about structural inequality. But let’s just get real here. If you believe there is such a thing as society, and that one of its organising principles is gender hierarchy–male dominance and female subordination– then suggesting that women should deal with problems like workplace discrimination by changing their way of speaking will look less like empowerment and more like victim-blaming. It will also look like a mystification: not something that helps women to understand their situation, but something that stops them from seeing it clearly and working together to change it.

The amazing disappearing ‘women’

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September began with some good news: Purvi Patel, the woman sentenced to 20 years for ‘feticide’ by an Indiana court, was finally released from prison after her conviction was overturned. But the pro-choice organisation Planned Parenthood warned that the fight wasn’t over. ‘People’, it said, ‘are still being criminalized for their pregnancy outcomes’. The organisation had already commented on another welcome development, New York State’s decision to stop levying sales tax on sanitary products. Once again, though, there was a hitch: not all drugstores had implemented the change, and some ‘menstruators’ were still being charged.

Planned Parenthood is not alone in its careful avoidance of the word ‘women’. Last year the Midwives’ Alliance of North America rewrote its core competencies document using ‘inclusive’ terms like ‘pregnant individuals’, to acknowledge that some of the individuals in question do not identify as women. And let’s not forget the UK Green Party’s brilliant solution to the same problem—putting women, trans and non-binary people into a single category of ‘non-men’.

Expressions like ‘pregnant people’ and ‘non-men’ are controversial among feminists, not only because the political issue they relate to is controversial, but also because the terms themselves are still relatively new. With vocabulary it’s novelty that breeds contempt, while familiarity promotes acceptance: the more frequently we encounter a term, the less we stop to think about its implications.This makes it easy to overlook what isn’t new about expressions like ‘pregnant people’. These particular terms are of recent origin, but they exemplify two tendencies with a much longer history: the tendency to prefer inclusive to gender-specific language, and the tendency to avoid the word ‘women’.

Back in the 1970s, when feminists began campaigning for institutions like publishing houses, universities and local councils to adopt non-sexist language policies, one argument that was often used against them was that their proposals would just replace one form of bias (against women) with another (against men). In English-speaking communities, this concern about avoiding bias against either sex often led to a preference for gender ‘neutral’ or ‘inclusive’ terms which could, in theory, apply equally to both.  For instance, one set of 1980s guidelines proposed replacing ‘maternal instinct’ with ‘parental instinct’, on the basis that it was sexist to suggest that men had no natural urge to nurture their children. ‘Parental instinct’ didn’t catch on (perhaps because it misses the point about why ‘maternal instinct’ is sexist), but other expressions using the inclusive ‘parent’–notably ‘parenting’–have now become so normalised, it’s strange to think that they were once regarded as awkward ‘PC’ neologisms.

Some of the inclusive terms that were introduced between the 1970s and the 1990s are less familiar to the average English-speaker because they belong to a more technical or bureaucratic register. An example is the term ‘gender-based violence’, which is widely used by government bodies and NGOs to refer to what feminists would call ‘violence against women’ and/or ‘male violence’. In this case what prompted the adoption of the inclusive term wasn’t a concern about anti-male bias. Rather, humanitarian organisations in the 1990s felt the need for a more abstract umbrella-term to encompass the full range of issues they were working on. The choice of ‘gender-based violence’ did not, initially, change their understanding of the issue. Most early definitions of ‘gender-based violence’ explicitly say that it means ‘violence against women’.

If the two phrases are just synonyms, though, why prefer the gender-inclusive formulation to the more specific wording?  One organisation which attempts to explain this is the European Institute for Gender Equality (EIGE). The relevant section of its website says:

‘Gender-based violence’ and ‘violence against women’ are terms that are often used interchangeably as most gender-based violence is inflicted by men on women and girls. However, it is important to retain the ‘gender-based’ aspect of the concept as this highlights the fact that violence against women is an expression of power inequalities between women and men.

But to me, at least, it’s unclear why calling violence ‘gender-based’ should do more to highlight power and inequality than calling it ‘violence against women’. The most obvious characteristic of the inclusive term is its vagueness: it says only that some acts or types of violence are ‘based’ on ‘gender’, while leaving the nature of the connection unspecified. (Is it to do with the motive? The perpetrator’s gender? The victim’s gender? Both?)  Far from highlighting ‘power inequalities between men and women’, the non-specificity of ‘gender-based violence’ leaves room for an interpretation of it as something any gendered being might do to any other gendered being.

That’s also how it seems to be interpreted in some of the more recent official definitions. For instance, the guidelines published in 2005 by the IASC (Inter-Agency Standing Committee, an international co-ordinating body for humanitarian groups) say that

Gender-based violence is an umbrella term for any harmful act that is perpetrated against a person’s will, and that is based on socially ascribed (gender) differences between males and females.

I don’t think most people reading this definition would conclude that ‘gender-based violence’ means the same as ‘violence against women’.

You might think this is all just semantic hair-splitting: what difference does it make if the terms are specific or inclusive? One common answer to this question is that inclusive terms are problematic because they misrepresent the facts. Arguments about this become wars of statistics, with each side challenging the other’s claims about how many ‘pregnant people’ do not identify as women, or what proportion of ‘gender-based violence’ is perpetrated by women against men. But for the purpose of choosing linguistic labels, I don’t think the numbers are the point. Terms like ‘violence against women’/‘gender-based violence’ are not just labels for statistical trends we observe in the world, they’re conceptual categories we use to understand the world. From a feminist perspective the problem with inclusive terms is not statistical, it’s conceptual.

Feminists conceptualise male violence against women as a form of social control which helps to maintain men’s collective position of dominance. It’s not just a question of some individual men using violence to dominate some individual women. All women—including those who will never experience an actual assault—have to live with the fear of being assaulted by men, and with the restrictions that fear imposes on their freedom of movement, action and speech. Violence perpetrated by women against men, however heinous and individually deserving of punishment it may be, does not have the same political function. All men’s lives are not circumscribed by their fear of being attacked by women. This understanding is what motivates the feminist preference for gender-specific terms. Replacing those terms with non-specific, ‘inclusive’ alternatives is not just a superficial change in wording, it’s a rejection of the logic of the feminist analysis.

As one feminist remarked on Twitter, there’s a parallel here with the self-serving faux-inclusiveness of ‘All Lives Matter’, a slogan adopted by some white people in response to the ‘Black Lives Matter’ campaign. The substitution of ‘all’ for ‘Black’ is an attempt to delegitimize the campaign’s focus on institutional racism by presenting it as narrow and exclusionary. ‘Why do you only care about Black lives?  Shouldn’t we affirm the value of every human life?’  It’s neutralising the political challenge by reframing a specific problem as a universal one. ‘All lives matter’. ‘We’re all in this together’. ‘We don’t need feminism, we need humanism’. The effect is to make a problem of structural inequality–racism or class privilege or male dominance–disappear.

When feminist organisations adopt inclusive terms, their motives are different: they aren’t trying to make the problem of structural sexual inequality disappear. But the result is still a loss of analytic and political clarity. Planned Parenthood’s reference to ‘people being criminalised for their pregnancy outcomes’ is a case in point. Like feminist campaigns against male violence, feminist campaigns for reproductive rights are underpinned by a political analysis which sees the legal and religious policing of reproduction as a tool of patriarchal social control—and the point isn’t to control ‘pregnancy outcomes’, it’s to control the behaviour of women. Inclusive language obscures that: as Katha Pollitt has argued,

Once you start talking about “people,” not “women,” you lose what abortion means historically, symbolically and socially. It becomes hard to understand why it isn’t simply about the right to life of the “unborn.”

The proliferation of inclusive alternatives to ‘women’ has the cumulative effect of making it difficult to see the wood for the trees. If I can’t get an abortion I’m being oppressed as a ‘pregnant person’; if I don’t get a job because the employer knows I have young children I’m being discriminated against as a ‘parent’; if I’m paying tax on tampons the state is profiting from my status as a ‘menstruator’. Maybe we’ll soon be urged to refer to women who earn less than men with the same qualifications as ‘underpaid people’. Lots of people are underpaid, after all: why would we only care about some of them? Let’s not be so vulgar, so unreconstructedly essentialist, as to point out that certain forms of unjust treatment don’t randomly happen to ‘people’, and they certainly don’t happen to men: they happen to women, because they are women.

Why is it so difficult to say ‘women’? The objections I’ve focused on so far are political ones, to do with the exclusionary and essentialising nature of ‘women’ as a category label. But I can’t help wondering if those objections are the whole story, or if the avoidance of ‘women’ might also be connected to something much older, and less ‘politically correct’.

The first post I ever published on this blog was about the difference between ‘woman’ and ‘lady’. I recalled learning as a child that ‘lady’ was the ‘polite’ word, whereas ‘woman’ was disrespectful: it implied low social status, a lack of respectability and a failure to display proper femininity. Analysis of the contexts in which ‘lady’ and ‘women’ are most likely to appear reveals another reason for the impoliteness of ‘woman’: its association with the gross and unmentionable functions of the female body.

What this implies is that ‘polite’ substitutes for ‘women’ (like ‘ladies’, or ‘the fair sex’) function as euphemisms: like ‘elderly’ and ‘plus-size’ (aka ‘old’ and ‘fat’), they enable speakers to acknowledge the sensitivity of a taboo subject or concept by avoiding the word that refers to it most directly. That’s why an earlier generation of feminists were so insistent on being referred to as ‘women’. It wasn’t just that they disliked the alternatives: what they really disliked was the assumption that alternatives were necessary. They saw the avoidance of the plain word ‘women’ as expressing a kind of squeamish distaste for femaleness, and they saw that distaste as one expression of a more general cultural misogyny. To them it seemed important to challenge this attitude, even if people thought they were being petty when they snapped ‘I’m a woman, not a lady’ at someone who was only trying to be polite.

Yet today it’s feminists themselves who are treating ‘women’ as a taboo word. Katha Pollitt suggests this may reflect women’s ‘long history of minimizing themselves in order not to hurt [others’] feelings’. ‘We are raised’, she observes, ‘to put ourselves second’. But that doesn’t entirely explain the historical U-turn. It is not a small demand to make of a political movement that it should renounce the term which, more than any other, has defined its constituency and its purpose throughout its history. Is feminism not, by definition, a women’s movement, a movement that fights for the rights or the liberation of women?

Some feminists today would answer that question in the negative. Feminists like Laurie Penny, who complained last year that ‘feminism’s focus on women can be alienating to queer people and anyone questioning the gender binary’. Once upon a time, complaining that feminism focused on women would have seemed as odd as complaining that a baker’s shop sold bread. But what’s behind it is the belief that the old feminist goal–liberating women from the oppressive structures of patriarchy–has become outdated and politically reactionary. What feminism should be about in the 21st century is freeing individuals from the oppressive constraints of binary gender.

To people who think ‘feminism’s focus on women’ has no relevance to the politics of the 21st century, I say: try telling that to the Pope. Or to Mike Pence, Donald Trump’s Vice-Presidential running mate, who was responsible, as Governor of Indiana, for the law that was used to persecute Purvi Patel. Those guys don’t care how you identify, but they do still believe in women; they also believe in using their considerable power to ensure women are kept in their subordinate place. A feminism that can’t talk about that has nothing to say to most of the world’s oppressed people. It is living in a bubble, and talking to itself.