Rhetorical questions

With the annual round of party conferences in full swing, it’s peak season for old-fashioned political speech-making, with speeches crafted in advance to be delivered in person to a live and often boisterous audience. I say ‘old-fashioned’ because in the age of TV, Twitter and TED talks, the traditional art of political oratory is often said to be in decline: there’s little doubt that it’s become less important as other genres and media have become more so. But ‘great’ political speeches still have an iconic cultural status, as Phillip Collins, a former speechwriter for Tony Blair, reminded Times readers last week when he published a list of his all-time top ten. They were:

  1. Winston Churchill, ‘This was their finest hour’ (1940)
  2. Martin Luther King, ‘I have a dream’ (1968)
  3. Abraham Lincoln, the Gettysburg Address (1863)
  4. Queen Elizabeth I, speech to the troops at Tilbury (1588)
  5. Jawaharlal Nehru, ‘A tryst with destiny’, speech greeting India’s independence (1947)
  6. Nelson Mandela, ‘an ideal for which I am prepared to die’, speech to the South African Supreme Court (1964)
  7. John F. Kennedy, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you’, Inauguration speech (1961)
  8. Emmeline Pankhurst, ‘The laws that men have made’ (1908)
  9. William Wilberforce, ‘Let us put an end to this inhuman traffic’, anti-slavery speech in Parliament (1789)
  10. Barack Obama, ‘I have never been more hopeful’ (2012).

This list (though limited to speeches made in English—lest we forget, other languages are available) is in many ways traditional and predictable. It obeys, for instance, the unbreakable rule that any ranking compiled for a British publication must put Churchill in first place (whereas the US equivalent will always give that honour to an American). It includes a number of speakers who turn up on just about every list of this type—not only Churchill, King and Kennedy but also Lincoln, Mandela and–increasingly–Obama. And as is also traditional, there are not many women on it.

In fairness to Phillip Collins I should say that two women is actually a higher number than most list-compilers manage. Trawling through a sample of other ‘greatest speeches of all time’ lists reveals that most of them feature just one token woman, while some contain none at all. Elizabeth I, Collins’s first female choice, quite often fills the token woman slot, despite the fact that she may never have made the speech in question (the text we are familiar with–the one about having the heart of a King in the body of a weak and feeble woman–appeared in a letter written nearly 40 years after the event). Other popular picks include the ‘iron ladies’ Margaret Thatcher (‘the lady’s not for turning’) and Golda Meir. The more progressive list-compilers sometimes award the prize, as Collins does, to a suffragist/suffragette like Emmeline Pankhurst, Susan B. Anthony, or occasionally Sojourner Truth.

It is not surprising that men predominate in the historical canon of great speeches. The speeches we remember as ‘great’ are typically delivered by someone in a position of authority (six of the speakers in the Times top ten spoke as the monarch, president or prime minister of their country), often on some solemn national occasion (like the moment preceding or following a battle, the inauguration of a president or, in Nehru’s case, a new independent state) and in an august public setting (like the courtroom for Mandela, or Parliament for Churchill and Wilberforce). With few exceptions, until the 20th century, women were excluded from most of the roles and many of the public forums where this kind of ‘high’ oratory was practised.

Emmeline Pankhurst’s immediate predecessors, the abolitionist and suffragist women of the 19th century, fought a prolonged battle for their right to advance their causes through public speaking. The problem they faced was that women’s public speech, particularly if the audience was mixed and the subject political, was not merely disapproved of, it was considered scandalous, and condemned in much the same terms as adultery and prostitution. In the 1830s, Congregationalist ministers in the USA issued a letter warning that a woman who presumed to give lectures, or address a political meeting, would ‘not only cease to bear fruit, but fall in shame and dishonour in the dust’. This attitude provoked considerable anger among politically active women. In 1848, when delegates assembled in Seneca Falls for the first Convention on Women’s Rights, they adopted two tartly-worded resolutions hitting back at their critics and insisting on their right to a public platform:

Resolved, That the objection of indelicacy and impropriety, which is so often brought against woman when she addresses a public audience, comes with a very ill grace from those who encourage, by their attendance, her appearance on the stage, in the concert, or in the feats of the circus.

Resolved, therefore, That, …it is demonstrably the right and duty of woman, equally with man, to promote every righteous cause, by every righteous means; and especially in regard to the great subjects of morals and religion, it is self-evidently her right to participate with her brother in teaching them, both in private and in public, by writing and by speaking, by any instrumentalities proper to be used, and in any assemblies proper to be held.

But that was 170 years ago. Today, though women continue to be attacked for speaking out (the contemporary weapons of choice being rape and death threats rather than warnings of infertility and eternal damnation), they do now have a voice in all the forums which once excluded them. They speak in courtrooms, to congregations, in Parliament and at party conferences. So why don’t they feature in lists of great speakers from the late 20th and 21st centuries? Do we really have to go back to 1908, let alone 1588, to find a truly memorable speech by a woman?

The Centre for Women and Democracy (CWD) says ‘of course not’. They point out that there’s a vicious circle: women don’t get included in the standard lists and anthologies of great speeches, so their words aren’t preserved and studied, and that just reinforces the idea that women don’t do oratory. To redress the balance, the CWD website offers its own list of thirteen outstanding political speeches by women. It includes most of the usual suspects (no Elizabeth I, but we do get Emmeline Pankhurst, Sojourner Truth and Margaret Thatcher), along with notable speeches by Aung San Suu Kyi, Barbara Castle, Benazir Bhutto, Hillary Clinton (her Beijing ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech), Bernadette Devlin, Indira Gandhi, Maire Geoghegan-Quinn, Mary Robinson, Anita Roddick and Ellen Johnson Sirleaf.

There are many more of these ‘alternative’ lists of great speeches by women. A blog about women and public speaking called The Eloquent Woman has an index which runs to 262 entries, and a series of lists (with links to transcripts, video clips and expert commentary) organised by theme, genre and type of speaker (the selection includes speeches made by activists, athletes, entertainers and scientists, as well as politicians). Some of the historical choices were new to me (I hadn’t previously come across Nellie McClung, a Canadian suffrage campaigner who staged a debate on the question ‘Should men vote?’ in 1914); others were useful reminders about the oratorical skills displayed by women like Fannie Lou Hamer, Barbara Jordan and Eleanor Roosevelt. And there is also a decent selection of speeches by contemporary women activists like Malala Yousafzai and Caroline Criado-Perez.

Interest in this subject is not confined to educational and political websites. In March this year Marie Claire magazine published its own all-female top ten, which featured Virginia Woolf, Emmeline Pankhurst, Elizabeth I, Hillary Clinton, Sojourner Truth, Nora Ephron, Aung San Suu Kyi, Gloria Steinem’s 1971 ‘Address to the Women of America’Julia Gillard’s 2012 ‘misogyny speech’ and Maya Angelou’s performance of her poem ‘On the pulse of morning’ at the inauguration of President Bill Clinton in 1993. Many of the same selections turn up in most of the all-female lists I’ve looked at, suggesting that in effect there is a parallel ‘women’s canon’.

The fact that such a thing can be constructed must surely give the lie to the (still widespread) belief that women are less skilled in the art of oratory, or that they are simply not very interested in it (an idea which has been promoted both by evolutionary psychologists, who argue that flashy verbal performances of all kinds are an evolved male strategy for attracting mates, and by some feminists, who contend that women prefer collaborative forms of exchange, or that they are less concerned with orating and more concerned with getting shit done). Of course, it’s true that not everyone is equally good at public speaking: truly gifted performers are relatively rare, and there are many people who find any kind of public utterance a hideous ordeal. But I don’t think there’s a clear-cut male-female divide here. It does women no favours to suggest that there is something inherently male about the ability to use language to persuade, inspire or move an audience.

But in that case, you might ask, what keeps all but a tiny handful of women speakers off ‘all-time greats’ lists like the one in the Times? If they’re really as good as men, why do they need to be separated off into a parallel canon of their own?

This is, of course, a question which has also been asked in the past about art, literature, philosophy and science, and the answer usually turns out to be at least partly about sexism and double standards. In the case of public speaking, one thing that works against women is the ingrained cultural resentment of female authority which I’ve written about here, and the associated tendency to judge women’s linguistic performance negatively, using criteria which are not applied to men (those shrill voices! That grating tone! And just look at that face/hair/pantsuit/those tits!) Not only does this kind of criticism lead to an unjust downgrading of women’s actual verbal skills, anticipating and trying to pre-empt it can affect the quality of their performance, by making it more difficult for a female speaker to feel at ease when addressing an audience.

I also think there’s another kind of sexism which comes into play when people are choosing great political speeches. It’s clear when you look at the lists that greatness isn’t just about the speaker’s (or the speech-writer’s) rhetorical skill. ‘Great’ speeches are also remembered for defining a historical moment, while at the same time expressing an idea or a sentiment which transcends its time and place to convey some more universal human truth. Here, women—and more especially feminists, whose subject is their own and other women’s condition—encounter a version of the more general ‘default male’ problem: whereas men’s political concerns are seen as universal, women’s are seen as particular to women. It’s striking in this connection that over half of the speeches selected by the Centre for Women and Democracy are specifically about women’s rights—even though many of the speakers (politicians like Benazir Bhutto, Barbara Castle and Hillary Clinton) made speeches on other subjects too. It seems women speakers are most likely to attract attention when they stay in their allotted female lane, but at the same time it is held against them that they are ‘only’ talking about ‘women’s issues’. Even something like Hillary Clinton’s ‘women’s rights are human rights’ speech in Beijing (ironically, since the whole point of it was to assert women’s equal claim to the status of human beings) gets relegated to the category of the non-universal, and therefore the not-really-great.

In the end, though, does it really matter how many or how few women appear on lists of great orators? These lists may make good clickbait, but in the end they’re surely meaningless: real politics is not a varsity debating competition in which Churchill faces off against Lincoln, King takes on Mandela, Emmeline Pankhurst competes with Sojourner Truth. These were different individuals responding to different situations (on three continents over a period of 200 years), and ranking them against each other is absurd.

It might also be argued, as I said at the beginning, that this particular genre—the set-piece formal speech—has ceased to matter much at all. Eloquence is not the valuable commodity it once was: today’s most successful politicians are not the ones who can deliver a fine oration, but the ones who know how to use contemporary media to put their messages, and their personalities, across. Just look at the present occupant of the White House, perhaps the least eloquent US president of all time. Then again, it’s only about a decade since the US first elected Barack Obama, whose eloquence the list-compilers now compare to Kennedy’s and Lincoln’s–and whose inspiring way with words was clearly a major asset in his campaign. Jeremy Corbyn, too, though not in Obama’s league as an orator, has shown with his packed public meetings and rallies that there is still something very powerful about the live, unmediated connection between a political speaker and the audience which has come together to hear them.

So, I don’t think it’s true that speeches no longer matter. They aren’t the only form of political communication that matters, but they remain part of our political culture, and indeed of our culture more generally (tweets and memes have not replaced speeches at weddings, funerals, retirement dos and the like). And if the ancient tradition of speech-making still has a place in modern life, then it does matter whether women are acknowledged in the record of that tradition. The inclusion of a single token woman on every list does not do their contribution justice. Aficianados of political oratory could learn a lot from some of the items in The Eloquent Woman‘s index–beginning with the fact that they exist.


Postscript: I asked readers to nominate inspiring women/feminist speakers, and here are some of their suggestions.

The earliest speech anyone mentioned was Helen Keller’s call to ‘Strike against war’, from 1916. The main thing most people know about Helen Keller concerns the way she learnt to communicate after a childhood illness left her deaf and blind; but as an adult she was a committed socialist who campaigned actively for workers’ rights, women’s suffrage and world peace. This stirring speech, made in Carnegie Hall in New York City, attacked the then-ongoing campaign to prepare Americans for war, on the grounds that war would sacrifice workers’ lives to protect the interests of capitalists.

Moving on to the second half of the 20th century, several readers nominated Angela Davis as a powerful and compelling speaker (‘even when I don’t agree with her’, added one). Here’s a speech Davis made in 1969–a call to resist war abroad and fight oppression at home which has something in common with Helen Keller’s oration more than 50 years earlier. And here you can watch Davis speaking at this year’s Women’s March in Washington DC. That event was prompted by the election of Donald Trump; another memorable attack on Trump, which several readers mentioned, was made during the campaign, in a speech delivered by Michelle Obama in New Hampshire last October. (Of all the recent speeches I watched while writing this postscript, this was the one which I thought displayed the most impressive ability to connect with an audience both intellectually and emotionally.)

But it wasn’t all about women from the US. Among British politicians, readers nominated Green MP Caroline Lucas, and Labour’s Emily Thornberry, as skilful and inspiring speakers. Some also reminded me that many excellent women speakers have been trades unionists, citing Unite’s Julie Phipps as a contemporary case in point. And one reader drew my attention to the speech made at this year’s Labour’s conference by 16-year old school student Lauren Stocks. Her impassioned performance–and the ovation it received–underlines my earlier point that the art of speech-making is still alive, still relevant, and still capable of reaching people in a way other forms of communication do not.



Are women over-emojinal?

To mark World Emoji Day on July 17, the Empire State Building was lit up in emoji yellow, and Leah Fessler wrote a piece for Quartz* about why feminists should stop using emoji. She’d realised, she explained, that larding your messages with smiley faces, love hearts and thumbs-up signs (as well as exclamation points, which she treats as honorary emoji) is yet another form of emotional labour the world demands from women.

From childhood, women are conditioned to smile and nod to ensure that others feel comfortable and confident. This dynamic translates in digital communication through emoji and exclamation points.

Fessler was determined to break her emoji habit, but initially she found it hard; she felt ‘rude and awkward’ replying to messages with a simple ‘OK’ or ‘sure’ rather than a cheery thumbs-up or an enthusiastic ‘absolutely!’ But a few days in, she found she was starting to reap the benefits. Ditching the emoji, she reports, ‘wasn’t just a relief—it was empowering’.

Ah, the E-word–so often the canary in the coalmine of language-policing bullshit. Despite its use of sociological terms like ‘conditioning’ and ’emotional labour’, this is still basically an example of the formula I’ve analysed in previous posts about ‘just’, ‘sorry’, uptalk et al. First, you identify something women do, or are believed to do, more than men; next, you explain why that’s a problem for women; finally, you exhort women to empower themselves by changing their behaviour. Embellish the basic argument with some personal anecdotes, finish with an Uplifting Thought (‘even the smallest changes can alter the way others view you, and more importantly, the way you view yourself’)–et voilà, job done.

But enough of the snark: let’s try to unpick the argument.

Since emoji came into widespread use, their merits or otherwise have been extensively discussed, and opinion has been divided. On one hand they’ve been lauded in pieces (misguidedly) proclaiming them a new universal tongue, ‘the world’s fastest growing language’; on the other they’ve been belittled in comments like this one from the New York Times:

Given their resemblance to the stickers that adorn the notebooks of schoolgirls, not to mention their widespread adoption as the lingua franca of tweens and teens everywhere, some people wonder whether grown men should be using [emoji] at all.

This has something in common with the popular response to other linguistic innovations, like uptalk and vocal fry, which are associated with young women. When a linguistic form is stereotyped as a ‘girl thing’, you can bet that people will disparage it–and also that they will project a meaning onto it which reflects their ideas, or prejudices, about girls. Uptalk, for instance, has persistently been interpreted as a sign that the speaker doesn’t know what she really thinks, and/or is desperate for others’ approval–a story we’d find less intuitively plausible if it were told about something middle-aged men did. (If you want to know why linguists who’ve studied uptalk don’t buy this interpretation, see here).

By likening them to the decorative stickers young girls put on their school notebooks, the writer quoted above implies that women’s enthusiasm for emoji is of a piece with their more general fondness for frivolous embellishments. In scholarly discussions you’re more likely to encounter a different stereotype: women use emoji more than men because they’re more ’emotionally expressive’. Apart from being suspiciously circular (is there any evidence that women are more emotionally expressive apart from the kinds of emotional expression which their emotional expressiveness is meant to explain?), this argument presupposes that expressing emotion must be the function of emoji. Which might seem to be self-evident (isn’t the clue in the name?), but is actually an oversimplification.

That emoji are neither purely decorative nor all about the expression of emotion becomes clearer if you know something about their history. The precursors of emoji, emoticons (the earliest of these were smiley and winky faces made by combining ASCII characters, and they were invented by a grown man, or so he claims) were taken up by participants in early online forums to address a problem in what was then a new communication medium. Written language offers fewer resources than speech for signalling how you intend your message to be taken. In speech you’ve got the pitch, tone, loudness and quality of your voice (plus in face-to-face contexts facial expressions and body language), but in text-based interaction you’ve got none of these. This was leading to conflict when messages that were meant to be ironic or humorous prompted angry reactions from others who read them ‘straight’. Emoticons were ‘meta’ devices which enabled writers to signal their intentions more explicitly.

Today’s emoji are more diverse than emoticons in both their forms and their functions. They do provide resources for emotional expression, but that isn’t the only thing they’re used for. They’ve retained their usefulness as indicators of ironic or humorous intent, and they can also serve as tools for managing the mechanics of text-based interaction. On Twitter, for instance, the heart is often used simply as an acknowledgment token, to let someone know you’ve seen a tweet rather than to express your feelings about its content. In that case its affective meaning (‘heart = love’) is irrelevant, and competent users understand that. The same applies to the office conventions Leah Fessler complains about, like acknowledging meeting reminders with a thumbs-up emoji. Though the thumbs-up gesture conventionally symbolises enthusiasm, in this context it’s no more likely to mean ‘I’m really excited about this meeting’, than the Twitter heart is to mean ‘I’m in love with this tweet’. Using it is less a form of emotional labour than a labour-saving device (it’s quicker and easier than composing a verbal acknowledgment).

But if emoji aren’t just about emoting, or decoration, how do we explain women using them more than men? Actually, let’s go back a step: do women use them more than men?

Some of the evidence presented to support this claim should be approached with caution, because it comes from studies which asked people to report on their emoji use rather than analysing their actual output. Self-reports vary in accuracy, and they’re liable to be influenced by the subjects’ beliefs about who uses what kind of language (if a form is associated with women, that in itself may lead men to under-report their use of it). However, the generalisation that women use emoji more than men does have some credible research evidence to back it up. One frequently-cited study was done in Texas in 2012: researchers analysed 124,000 real text messages produced by subjects who granted access to their phones without knowing what the research was about. Women in this sample were twice as likely as men to include emoticons in a text–though their overall frequency was low for both sexes (only 4% of the texts sampled contained any).

But research also shows that gender is not the only variable affecting how, and how much, emoji are used. You can’t easily generalise across genres, platforms and devices–text messages aren’t the same as emails, and what goes for Tinder doesn’t apply to Twitter. Nor can you sensibly talk about ‘women’ or ‘men’ as homogeneous categories, without reference to intersecting variables like age and social background. It can also make a difference who the messages are addressed to. One early study of emoticon use in newsgroups (which were important online forums before Web 2.0 and smartphones) found that women in all-female or female dominated groups used more emoticons than men in all-male or male dominated ones. In mixed newsgroups, however, there was no significant difference: women used emoticons at much the same rates as they did in all-female groups, but men used them much more frequently when they were participating in a mixed group. This is not an unusual observation. Masculinity and femininity are often performed differently in single-sex and mixed sex interaction, where people are responding to different kinds of peer pressure, and where they may also be having different kinds of conversations.

In sum: ‘women use emoji more than men’ is probably true as far as it goes; there’s also plenty of evidence showing that certain emoji are used more by women and others are used more by men. However, these descriptive generalisations (like all statements about ‘men’ and ‘women’) mask significant variation within each group. And no descriptive generalisation (if you’ll forgive me for stating the obvious) constitutes an explanation of the facts it describes.

As I’ve already said, there’s a tendency for researchers to go straight for the ‘women are more emotionally expressive’ explanation. But as I’ve also already said, this is not entirely satisfactory. And there are other possibilities which fit at least as well with things we know about gender and communication in other contexts. For instance:

The difference might be a matter of style (a word which shouldn’t, in the context of language, be taken to denote something trivial). Online and offline, language is one of the symbolic resources which people draw on to create a distinctive persona, and to mark themselves as members or non-members of particular social groups or subcultures. Many small differences in pronunciation do this job: different variants of the same sound may be used to differing degrees or in different ways by speakers of different ages, classes, ethnicities and genders. The same principle might explain why men and women use an overlapping but non-identical range of emoji, and why women use them more frequently overall. You could compare it to the way we style our clothes or our hair: with emoji as with clothes, it seems that mainstream masculinity is less flamboyant than the feminine equivalent. (Interestingly, a study that investigated the perceived gender of the most popular emoji found that the ones ranked most ‘feminine’ included ‘face throwing a kiss’ and ‘face with tears of joy’, while the most ‘masculine’ were the more prosaic ‘thumbs-up’ and ‘OK’ symbols).

The difference might also be a by-product of the fact that men and women, if we insist on considering them as aggregates, tend to be members of different social networks in which they have conversations about different things. This is a point demonstrated in many tedious Big Data studies of vocabulary: I wish I had £10 for every article I’ve read which announces that ‘men and women use different words’, when all the research really shows is that people generally use words which pertain to the subject under discussion. Amazingly enough, women posting family news on Facebook tend to use more words relating to kinship and family occasions (like ‘grandma’ and ‘wedding’) than men debating current affairs or the performance of Arsenal Football Club. Most emoji are less subject-specific in their application than most words, but it’s still reasonable to think that which and how many of them you use might have something to do with who you’re talking to and what about.

It’s also possible that women’s more frequent use of emoji exemplifies the common pattern where innovations which are destined to spread through the whole population become visible first among young women. Because of that, we start out assuming they’re a ‘girl thing’ and looking for explanations which connect them to femininity; but as they spread it becomes apparent that they weren’t so much a girl thing as a new thing that girls got onto first. This is what has happened with uptalk: once a Valley Girl signature, it’s now heard among young and even middle-aged speakers, of both sexes, in many parts of the English-speaking world. Maybe the emoji gap between men and women will also narrow over time, making the question of why women use more emoji redundant.

This is not a multiple choice test where there’s only one right answer: the social life of language is too complex for one-size-fits-all explanations. And that’s an especially important point to bear in mind when you’re trying to explain gendered behaviour, because the categories ‘men’ and ‘women’ are so internally diverse–different subsets of men and women may be using or not using emoji for different reasons. I know I keep on saying this, but it really can’t be over-emphasised: no single thing can explain the behaviour of every member of a group which comprises half of humankind.

Do I think Leah Fessler is describing a real phenomenon? Yes. I think the pressure to be relentlessly upbeat and positive is a feature of many workplace cultures, and I also think there are good reasons to be critical of it (if you’re interested, this is the subject of Barbara Ehrenreich’s book Smile or Die). But do I think it follows that women should stop using emoji? No. Emoji are not the problem here. Like other attempts to ’empower’ women by changing their behaviour rather than the conditions it’s a response to, the ‘feminist case against emoji’ is fundamentally a pile of poo.

*Thanks to Mercedes Durham for drawing my attention to the Quartz piece.

Politics, by definition

That troublesome word ‘woman’ has been causing controversy again.

Last week, a Twitter user who goes by @ShoelessJoe1910 shared two responses from the makers of Collins Dictionaries to people who’d contacted them about the dictionary entry for ‘woman’. One correspondent had received a reply that looked like a standard piece of boilerplate:

As lexicographers, our duty is to report the language as it is used… Whilst we do welcome all feedback received from our users, any changes we make to our definitions are the result of a detailed review process and evidence-based linguistic research.

Another correspondent who raised the same subject got a different response:

Thanks again for contacting us about the definition of ‘woman’. …We are currently reviewing all our gender-related vocabulary to make sure that we accurately reflect the evolution in the vocabulary of gender and sexuality. This review will be completed in the coming months, and your comments will most certainly be taken into account. We always welcome feedback from our users, so do not hesitate to contact us if you notice any other inaccuracies and omissions.

The subject of both communications was whether a dictionary entry for ‘woman’ should define the word as meaning ‘an adult female human being’ (as Collins currently does), or whether it should (also) inform users that ‘woman’ denotes a person who identifies as a woman. The first correspondent wanted the lexicographers to maintain the traditional definition; the second wanted them to change it.

What initially bothered @ShoelessJoe1910 was the contrast between Collins’s dismissive treatment of the first correspondent, a woman, and the deferential manner in which they addressed the second, presumed to be a man (it was later clarified that this correspondent was actually a trans woman). But what drew people into the thread was the question about how ‘woman’ should be defined. Most comments endorsed the traditional definition, and criticised the dictionary for considering any other. Some thought this was an Orwellian plot to cut the cord which tethers language to reality. One was sufficiently incensed to call for a boycott of HarperCollins’s products.

And what, I hear you ask, does this blog think? I think I’m about to piss off both sides in this argument by explaining why I believe it’s pointless to pursue your political objectives by lobbying lexicographers about dictionary definitions.

If you’ve read any of my previous posts about dictionaries, you’ll know that I don’t regard them as just objective and apolitical works of reference. They have historically exhibited all kinds of biases, including androcentrism and casual sexism, and there are some traces of that history which I think it’s reasonable to ask them to get rid of—especially their unreflective use of sex-stereotyped examples illustrating the current usage of words, which is neither necessary nor helpful to their users.

Other kinds of sexism are more difficult for dictionaries to eliminate while still fulfilling their core functions. For instance, if you read Collins’s current online entry for ‘woman’  you’ll see not only some thoroughly sexist example-sentences in the illustration section, but also some secondary senses of ‘woman’ (e.g. ‘domestic servant’; ‘wife, mistress or girlfriend’) and some idioms containing the word (e.g. ‘little woman’, ‘woman of the streets’) which feminists might well find objectionable. But their inclusion is not a mark of the lexicographers’ own sexism, it’s a reflection of the sexism of the community whose usage they’re describing. We might query the range of idioms selected—they’re a pretty dated-looking set—but even if some of them are no longer in common use, they still appear in sources (like Victorian novels) which 21st century language-users encounter fairly frequently. Dictionaries have quite exacting criteria for declaring a usage obsolete, and one consequence is that they are rich sources of evidence about the prejudices of the past.

But whatever you think about the retention of old usages which offend modern sensibilities, one thing it’s not reasonable to ask lexicographers to do is ignore the development of new usages which express more contemporary attitudes. I’ve given this example before, but it bears repeating: what would we think of an entry for ‘marriage’ that defined it, in 2017, as ‘the union of a man and woman’ or ‘the relationship between a husband and a wife’? That’s what it used to mean, and it’s also what quite a lot of people think it should still mean. But theirs is no longer the majority view: in many parts of the English-speaking world the law has changed to permit same-sex marriage, and the usage of ‘marriage’ reflects that. Dictionaries have therefore felt the need to update their entries for the word. Collins’s, for instance, though it makes no explicit reference to same-sex marriage, is written in pointedly gender-neutral language.

Similarly, the gender-identity-based definition of ‘woman’ now reflects the usage of at least some people in at least some contexts. Whether that usage merits recording in a general-purpose dictionary will depend on the criteria the dictionary uses to decide if something has entered ‘general’ or ‘common’ usage: I assume that’s what the Collins lexicographers will be looking at in their review of gender-related vocabulary. I also assume that if they do decide to record the identity-based sense of ‘woman’, what they’ll do is add this definition to their revised entry, not substitute it for the current one. I’m confident the evidence is not going to show that English-speakers have stopped using ‘woman’ to mean ‘adult female human being’.

In my view, what Collins told the first correspondent was right: ‘thanks for your input, this is a question that’s on our radar, but our decision will be based on analysing a large sample of relevant linguistic data, not on random emails from a few individuals who feel strongly enough to lobby us about it’. That’s also what they should have told the second correspondent. If your policy is to base definitions on corpus evidence about word-usage (and if it isn’t you’re basically just Urban Dictionary) then you should spell that out to everyone who contacts you—ideally without implying that you regard them as either out-of-touch, prescriptive bigots or oracles of wisdom. (Of course, that means that when you say ‘we welcome all feedback from our users’ you’ll be lying about 99% of the time, but such is life for lexicographers. Some of the feedback they get makes the comments in the Daily Mail look sensible.)

If I were in charge of all things linguistic, what I’d want to change with a wave of my magic wand would not be the principles of descriptive lexicography (even if some of its practices could be improved), but the popular attitude which makes dictionaries perennial targets for political lobbying. By treating lexicographers as linguistic quality controllers—if a word or sense makes it into the dictionary that’s taken as a stamp of approval, a vote of confidence, a Papal Bull proclaiming that we should all be using/understanding the word that way—we give them and their products more authority than they deserve.

The view that dictionaries are or should be arbiters rather than just recorders of usage has a long history (interestingly discussed in Anne Curzan’s book Fixing English), and you can still see it reflected in things like Merriam-Webster’s periodic reports on its most popular online ‘look-ups’. The words M-W’s users look up tend to reflect what’s currently in the news: this summer, for instance, the solar eclipse prompted a spike in look-ups for eclipse-related terms like ‘penumbra’, while the ongoing drama of the Trump presidency had people searching out words like ‘impanel’ and ‘recuse’. In these cases, involving technical terms drawn from the registers of science and law, we can imagine people who were previously unfamiliar with a word going to the dictionary’s website to find out what it meant, or maybe how it was pronounced or spelled. But in other cases that’s an unlikely scenario. It’s hardly plausible that all the people who looked up ‘science’ during the row about Trump’s policy on climate change, or those who looked up ‘fact’ after Kellyanne Conway’s infamous reference to ‘alternative facts’, were just trying to remedy their ignorance about the meaning, spelling or pronunciation of these common words. More likely they were engaged in some kind of argument about what ‘science’ did or didn’t cover, or whether ‘alternative facts’ was a contradiction in terms, and had turned to the dictionary for an authoritative ruling.

I’m sure we’ve all at some point been involved in a political argument which someone has proposed to settle by looking a word up in a dictionary. But this will never definitively settle it, because the meanings of words (or at least, the sorts of words that provoke arguments) are always variable and contested; and anyway what you’re arguing about isn’t ultimately the words themselves, it’s the differing ideologies which lie behind the competing senses. Lobbying lexicographers on behalf of your preferred definition is fighting a political battle by proxy. What you need to do to win the battle is change the real-world usage of the word in question (something that will usually go along with  other, nonlinguistic social changes). If the dictionary definition is the only thing that shifts, your victory will be purely symbolic.

You might be thinking: but if people with a political agenda manage to change the definition given in dictionaries, won’t that in itself have an impact on real-world usage? In some cases the answer may be ‘yes’, but only if we’re talking about the sort of obscure word which is typically acquired through instruction rather than through the experience of hearing words used in context. ‘Woman’ is not that kind of word. It’s a basic item of English vocabulary, one of the thousand most common words listed in Collins’s dictionary.

If every dictionary in the world changed its definition of ‘woman’ tomorrow, that still wouldn’t stop future generations from understanding and using it to mean ‘adult female human’. That meaning, still the dominant one, will survive because it will continue to be acquired by children in the course of their everyday interactions. Whether they will also acquire the identity-based meaning is another question, and the answer to it doesn’t depend on the dictionary definition of ‘woman’ either: they’re more likely to be taught it in school, or to encounter it in the media, than to learn it by looking up ‘woman’ in a dictionary.  And if kids are learning the new sense from other sources, keeping it out of the dictionary will do nothing to halt its spread.

I’m not suggesting that all arguments about word-meaning are pointless (if I thought that I’d be in the wrong line of work); what I’m questioning is the equation of a word’s meaning with its dictionary definition, and the associated belief that if you can persuade a dictionary to change (or not change) a definition, you have thereby changed (or safeguarded) the language itself. This attitude to dictionaries is another interesting example of how conservative, when it comes to language, political radicals can be. It’s no good petitioning the King (especially as he abdicated long ago). The struggle for meaning is a grassroots campaign.

A memo to my co-workers

To: All staff

From: Jane Demure

Here at Words, Inc.—an acknowledged global leader in the verbal communication industry—we value diversity and strive to be inclusive. That goes without saying, which is why we say it so often. But some of us feel excluded by a left-leaning culture which only values certain points of view, while deeming others illegitimate. Important issues are not being addressed because people are afraid to speak openly about them. We should not be intimidated or shamed into silence by groupthink and political correctness. Honest discussion with those who disagree can highlight our blind spots and help us grow, which is why I wrote this document.

In the field of verbal communication we are regularly told that men have not achieved parity with women because of bias, stereotyping and rigid gender norms. I’m willing to believe there’s some truth in that, but it is far from being the whole story.

On average, men and women differ biologically in numerous ways. These differences are not just socially constructed: they are universal across human cultures, can often be related to the effects of prenatal testosterone, and are exactly what we would predict from the perspective of evolutionary psychology.

Of course, we must remember we’re dealing with averages here. I’m not suggesting that all male individuals exhibit the same characteristics, or denying there’s overlap between men and women.  But at the level of whole populations, their preferences and abilities do differ, in part due to biological causes, and these differences may explain why men are basically rubbish at verbal communication under-represented at Words, Inc.

On average, women are more verbal than men: they talk more, and attach more importance to talking. This is exactly what an evolutionary psychologist would expect, since it reflects what must have been the case while our species was evolving many thousands of years ago. Early human females had plenty of time to gossip with each other as they foraged, whereas men, the hunters, needed to stalk their prey in silence. We modern humans have inherited our prehistoric ancestors’ genes: our lifestyles may be different from theirs, but human nature doesn’t change.

Women favour (on average, of course) a co-operative, rapport-building style of verbal interaction, one which puts group consensus and conflict-avoidance above the pursuit of individual advantage.  Men’s preferred style is more aggressive, competitive and status oriented. This is why a lot of men are not very good at listening, and why they enjoy shouty arguments more than women.

All employees at Words, Inc. have highly developed verbal skills—this world-leading company does not hire the merely average—but we still need to recognise that women have a natural advantage. A large body of research confirms that girls and women on average outperform boys and men on a range of measures of verbal ability. The difference may only be very slight (some experts suggest it’s equivalent to about one tenth of one standard deviation), but when you’re a world-leading verbal communication company you can’t afford to overlook anything that might give you a competitive edge. Lowering the bar so we can hire or promote more men is bad for business, and also demoralising for the company’s female majority.

If we take proper account of all the relevant data, we will surely have to acknowledge that the marginal position occupied by men at Words, Inc. has very little, if anything, to do with anti-male bias. Apart from the fact that more women than men meet the company’s exacting standards, there’s also the question of their differing preferences and life-goals.  A lot of men just don’t want to work with words all day: it’s not where their talents and their interests lie. Of course there are some men who are capable communicators, but even they might well think that it’s easier and less stressful to do something more traditionally male, be it writing computer code or biting the heads off chickens.

Unfortunately, we as a community have allowed our left-leaning biases to cloud our thinking on this issue. In addition to the affinity we feel for underdogs in general, there’s a strong tendency among humans (especially female ones, whose brains tend to be wired more for empathy than logical thinking) to defer to men’s wishes, protect their feelings and overestimate their accomplishments. This tendency most likely evolved because men have a lot of testosterone in their system, and they’re apt to beat the shit out of anyone they think is disrespecting them.

I know some of you will find these observations distasteful or even shocking, but I’m not going to apologise for using the B-word, nor for paying attention to what research has revealed about the unalterable biological differences between the sexes. On average, men just aren’t as good as women at the kinds of things we do here—nor as passionate about the work. Maybe the reason they’re not getting ahead is because they aren’t driven to put in the long hours and the unstinting effort which success at this company requires. No one should blame men for having other priorities—that’s only natural—but nor should the rest of us be blamed for discriminating against them when it’s actually all about their own aptitudes and choices.

Another thing I’m not going to apologise for is circulating this memo to thousands of my co-workers, some of whom will inevitably be men. If you’re a man reading this, I’d just like to remind you that you shouldn’t take it personally, because that would be completely unreasonable. I recognise that some of you may have experienced discrimination in the past: ten years ago, the women who worked at Words, Inc. didn’t even pretend to think that most men were anything but inarticulate gibbons. But today we are far more enlightened. We even force everyone to spend at least two hours a year examining their unconscious biases in diversity training workshops.

That’s a good thing, of course (I value diversity, did I mention that?) but it’s possible to take it too far. Valuing diversity shouldn’t mean abandoning the principles of meritocracy, free speech and common sense. And it certainly shouldn’t mean ignoring the insights offered by science, which deals in objective facts rather than prejudices or feelings. Once we acknowledge that not all differences are socially constructed or due to discrimination, we open our eyes to a more accurate view of the human condition which is necessary if we want to solve problems.

I know a lot of people here at Words, Inc., agree with me, they just don’t dare to say so. I too have felt the fear, but I’ve decided to do it anyway. If it all goes pear-shaped, at least I’ll be remembered as someone who broke out of the ideological echo-chamber and had the courage to stand up for her unfashionable beliefs. [Presses Send and thinks of Galileo]


Note: this post was inspired by (and in places is directly lifted from) a memo sent to his co-workers by the (now ex-) Google employee James Damore, the text of which is available here.  All the claims made in the post about sex-differences in linguistic behaviour are taken from the published (and sometimes peer-reviewed) work of real scientists, though the phrasing is my own. However, the fact that I repeat certain claims for the purposes of satire should not be taken to mean that I endorse them. (If you want to know what I really think about this body of work, this article lays it out: it also contains references for the sources I’ve used here without attribution. There’s also a (shorter and less ‘academic’) discussion in my book The Myth of Mars and Venus.)

The Google memo has prompted many non-satirical responses: among those I’ve read, the ones I’ve found most enlightening are this piece by the physicist Chanda Prescod-Weinstein, and this one by the computer scientist Cynthia Lee.

Not a safe word

Last weekend a writer named Will Saletan stirred up a hornet’s nest when he tweeted some advice for parents:

Teach your daughters to say No firmly, and mean it. Men sense women’s willingness to yield. Make clear you mean business.

Like other feminists, I saw this as a classic case of a man weighing in with very little understanding of the issue at hand, and no appreciation of the reasons why he was bound to provoke a storm of criticism. But the exchanges the tweet prompted, on Twitter and elsewhere, reminded me of another, perhaps less popular opinion I hold: that discussions of sexual consent and refusal very often present the issue of ‘saying no’ as less complicated than it really is.

In 2015, just before I started this blog, I wrote something on this subject which I never found a home for. In fact, I’d more or less forgotten it, until Saletan’s tweet made me remember why I’d felt the need to write it.  So I pulled it out, reworked it slightly, and—for whatever it’s worth—here it is.


In BDSM subcultures, participants in sexual encounters may agree in advance on a ‘safe word’—a word which can be uttered at any time to communicate the message ‘stop this now’. In theory, any word will do: all that matters is that the parties know it and agree to respect its meaning. But there are some words that can’t be used, and one of those words is ‘no’.

The fantasies played out in BDSM involve a dominant partner imposing their will on a submissive one. But the pleasure of imposing your will can only be experienced fully if the other appears to be unwilling. A show of resistance is part of the fantasy, enhancing the erotic charge for both partners. ‘No’, the prototypical verbal token of refusal, is used (along with other prototype expressions like ‘don’t’ and ‘stop’) to enact this simulated resistance. Consequently it cannot be a safe word, the word you utter when your refusal is real.

This principle doesn’t just apply in dungeons. When I was at primary school in the late 1960s, the girls had a playground chant that went: ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me’. The game was to repeat this chant, leaving out the last word each time, like this:

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch me!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not touch!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!

Oh, Sir Jasper, do!

Oh, Sir Jasper!

Oh, Sir!


I now know that these are the words of a rugby club song which is thought to date from the early 1950s. In its original form it includes a chorus after each line: ‘she lay between the lily-white sheets with nothing on at all’. The scenario evoked in the song has echoes of the popular Victorian melodramas in which an innocent girl is ‘seduced’ (i.e., raped) by an aristocratic villain. In the song, though, she isn’t innocent. Her resistance is simulated, there to be overcome.

At the age of 9 or 10 ‘Oh, Sir Jasper’ was just a game: we didn’t know where the song came from or understand what it was really about. (Today a 10 year-old might have more idea, but we were still pretty ignorant.) With hindsight, though, chanting these words was part of our informal education in the patriarchal rules of heterosexual conduct. We were absorbing the idea that a good girl refuses a man’s sexual overtures (and certainly does not make overtures to him). But we were also learning that her refusal is not sincere: really, she wants what he wants, she just can’t admit it straight away. The man’s job is to wear her resistance down, to persist until ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do not!’ turns into ‘Oh, Sir Jasper, do!’

A decade after leaving primary school I would find myself in another group of women chanting a different set of words: ‘However we dress/ Wherever we go/ Yes means yes/ No means no’. ‘Yes means yes, no means no’—these are statements of the obvious, self-evident truths, tautologies. But when you put them together with the cultural script I’d first encountered as a young girl, they do not look quite so obvious, nor quite so simple.

The script says that whatever they want, women should offer some token resistance. If they say ‘yes’ too easily they risk being branded as sluts. (In an age when Teen Vogue promotes the joys of anal sex you might be thinking this rule no longer applies, but there is plenty of evidence that the charge of being a ‘slut’ (or ‘slag’ or ‘skank’) has not lost its power: it is a basic and ubiquitous component of the sexual bullying endured by thousands of teenage girls). The script also presupposes that it will be the man who asks the question, while the woman’s role is just to answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’. If she does the asking she is not just a slut, but potentially a ball-breaking nymphomaniac. For as long as these conventions persist, the unpalatable truth is that some women, sometimes, will offer resistance which is not meant as an absolute refusal. And some men will get pleasure from overcoming that resistance.

I want it to be crystal clear what I’m not saying here. I am not saying that women are to blame for being raped because they don’t always say ‘no’ and mean it as an unequivocal refusal. Nor am I suggesting that men can be excused for ‘misunderstanding women’s signals’ and believing women consent when they do not. Those defences are both used in rape cases, and I reject them absolutely (I’ll say more about why later on). What I’m saying is that the context in which heterosexual encounters take place is (still) one in which men are defined as sexual subjects, while women are defined as sexual objects. That understanding of their respective roles affects what each participant is allowed to say, and how their words will be understood. In this sexual and linguistic economy there can be no guarantee that a woman’s ‘no’ is always and by definition an unequivocal refusal, nor that her ‘yes’ is always and by definition an active, uncoerced expression of desire.

Of course it is entirely possible for a woman to intend to refuse sex or to consent to sex, and to express that in terms that she herself considers unequivocal. But the thing about language is, you’re never a free agent—at least, not when you’re talking to someone other than yourself. Humans are not mind-readers: we do not have direct access to other people’s intentions, but only to the words they utter. And to understand what other people mean we have to do more than just decode their words. We also have to make inferences about how the words were intended. What is meant may be quite different from the literal meaning of what is said (as in irony or sarcasm); the key to what is meant may lie in what is conspicuously not said (as in hinting or sulking).

Figuring out the meaning behind the words is the hearer’s job, and to do it s/he uses both contextual information and common-sense assumptions about the world. That last part is where the problem arises. Will Saletan’s claim that ‘Men sense women’s willingness to yield’ implies that men just respond to cues they detect in women’s behaviour, but in reality, the men he’s talking about assume women’s willingness to yield. They’re working from the script in which ‘women say “no” when they don’t mean it’ is a common-sense assumption, a truism. This is not a problem with the way individual women express themselves. It is a problem with the world in which they do it.

Men who have been accused of rape will often point out that they can’t read women’s minds. ‘She didn’t say “no”, so what was I supposed to think?’ And in many cases it will be true that she didn’t utter the actual word ‘no’. But it doesn’t follow that she wasn’t refusing. English-speakers very rarely communicate refusals by saying ‘no’, firmly or otherwise.

Refusing is one possible move in response to a proposal or an invitation; the other is accepting. These two options form what conversation analysts call a ‘preference system’. One response, acceptance, is ‘preferred’, and you can express it very simply and briefly. If a colleague asks me to go for a drink after work and I want to accept the invitation, I can say something like ‘great, see you in the pub’. It isn’t a problem that this response is brief and bald, because I can assume it’s what my interlocutor wants to hear (a person who issues an invitation is usually hoping it will be accepted). But if I don’t want to go to the pub I will need to take a bit more care, because (as it says on the old notice about not asking for credit), ‘a refusal may offend’.

Detailed analysis of real-life refusals shows there’s a formula we use to mitigate the offence. It goes: hesitate + hedge + express regret + give a culturally acceptable reason. As in ‘um, well, I’d love to, but I promised I’d be home early tonight’. Or ‘[pause] I’m sorry, but I’ve got a report to finish’.

Imagine responding to someone who suggests going for a drink after work with a simple unvarnished ‘no’. Or ‘no, I can’t’, or ‘no, I don’t want to’. The person you said this to would think you’d been raised by wolves. It’s curt, it’s rude, and it will be heard as arrogant or aggressive. Why would we imagine that saying ‘no’, firmly, is a reasonable thing to tell a woman to do in a situation where she has reason to fear the consequences of giving offence? Why would we blame her for trying to refuse diplomatically, when we’d do the same ourselves in far less risky situations?  And why would we believe that ‘men don’t understand anything less direct than “no”’? The formula for (non-sexual) refusals is used and understood by speakers of both sexes. It’s absolutely normal. Saying ‘no’ is not.

Since it’s not considered ethical to record people’s sexual encounters, linguistic researchers have no direct evidence about sexual refusals in real-life situations. But one study, carried out by Celia Kitzinger and Hannah Frith, gathered some indirect evidence by asking women in focus groups to talk about their experiences of refusing sex. The strategies these women said they used followed the formula for other kinds of refusals: they involved hedging, apologizing and giving acceptable reasons. In this context, an ‘acceptable’ reason was one that did not imply any lack of desire for the man who was asking. It was better to emphasize circumstantial obstacles—headaches, periods, early starts—or your own emotional problems (‘well, I’m flattered, but I’m just not ready for another relationship’). Most women agreed that ‘just say no’ was bad advice, especially if the man was putting pressure on you, because of the risk that it would make him angry, and prompt a physically aggressive response.

So, the issue isn’t whether ‘no means no’, and whether men understand that. And it’s certainly not whether women say it ‘firmly’ enough to show they ‘mean business’. The issue is whether men are capable of interpreting—i.e. inferring the intentions behind—the verbal strategies which are normally used to indicate a lack of enthusiasm for something another person proposes. And the answer to that question must be yes, since in all other contexts men use those strategies themselves.

Since Kitzinger and Frith’s study, other research has provided evidence that men are able to interpret refusals which don’t contain ‘no’. This points to another unpalatable truth: in most cases where men have sex with women who don’t want to have sex with them, the men must know that’s what they are doing. Some may persuade themselves otherwise (using the time-honoured script in which resistance is token, there to be overcome). Others just don’t care. None of them should be able to get away with it.

In the last couple of years a new consensus has emerged about the importance of educating young people about consent. Many universities are doing this, and in future it will be a required element of the Relationships and Sex Education curriculum in schools. Like most feminists, I’m in favour of this, if only because so many people still have no understanding of their basic rights and responsibilities under the law. But on its own, I think it will only make things slightly better (which I acknowledge isn’t nothing, given how bad they are at the moment). It may help to make refusals more intelligible as refusals—that is, challenge the part of the script which assumes ‘women’s willingness to yield’—but it won’t solve the problem of women saying yes, under social and emotional pressure, to sex they don’t really want, or being prevented from pursuing their own desires by the fear of being branded sluts.

Ultimately what we need to do is rewrite the whole script, not just the ‘saying no’ part. In an ideal world, sex wouldn’t just be consented to (like medical treatment, or the terms and conditions offered by internet providers). It would be an actively and mutually desired exchange between free and equal human beings. We are still a long way from that world; but while of course feminists must go on fighting for what women need in the present, we must also go on trying to imagine a more radically different, and better, future.



Banal sexism

Last month I wrote about David Bonderman, the billionaire businessman who resigned as a director of Uber after suggesting that appointing more women to the board would mean ‘more talking’. Allegedly he meant this comment as a joke; but even if no one present had been offended, you have to wonder who would have found such a hoary old cliché amusing. An enormous amount of sexism is like this: thoughtless, repetitive, trite and formulaic. What—as bad stand-up comedians say—is that about?

Back in 1995, Michael Billig wrote a book about a phenomenon he called ‘banal nationalism’. The term ‘nationalism’ is most commonly used to denote what Billig refers to as ‘hot’ nationalism—a political ideology driven by strong emotions, which is often associated with conflict and violence. But his point was that there’s a less overt, lower-level form of nationalism which we don’t generally call by that name. Unlike the ‘hot’ variety, its main function is not to foment conflict or hatred of the Other. It’s to maintain our awareness of ourselves as national subjects—keep ‘the nation’ as a concept ticking over at the back of our minds. In Billig’s words:

National identity is remembered in established nations because it is embedded in routines of life that constantly remind, or ‘flag’ nationhood. However, these reminders or ‘flaggings’ are so numerous, and they are so much a part of the social environment, that they operate mindlessly, rather than mindfully.

The word ‘flag’ in this quote is a pun: one obvious daily reminder of nationhood is the national flag, flying (or as Billig puts it, ‘hanging limply’) on hundreds of public buildings. But banal nationalism takes subtler forms too, and many of them have to do with language.  For instance, the use of first person ‘we/us’ to mean ‘the people of this nation’, whereas the people of other nations are referred to with the third person ‘they/them’. The presence on every high street of businesses with names like the ‘Nationwide Building Society’ and—until recently—‘British Home Stores’. TV programmes hailing viewers with ‘Good Morning Britain’. Formulaic phrases that reference people’s shared membership of a nation, whether explicitly (‘best of British luck’) or implicitly (‘it’s a free country’).

The same idea can be applied to sexism.  Sexism also has ‘hot’ forms, and those are the ones mainstream discourse finds it easiest to recognise and condemn. The western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of the Taliban and Boko Haram; the more liberal parts of the western media have no difficulty in recognising the sexism of Gamergaters and Donald Trump.  But what you might call ‘banal sexism’—ordinary, unremarkable, embedded in the routines and the language of everyday life—is a different story. It does often go unnoticed, and when feminists draw attention to it they’re accused of taking offence where none was intended or embracing ‘victim culture’. These knee-jerk defences are often delivered with an air of surprise—as if the people responsible hadn’t realised until that moment that anyone could possibly dissent.

The idea that women talk incessantly is a classic example of banal sexism—it’s something people trot out on autopilot, as if they were commenting on the weather.  Most remarks about the weather fall into the category of small talk, or what the anthropologist Bronisław Malinowski called ‘phatic communion’: their function is not to exchange information, but just to establish common ground and reassure others of our good intentions. That’s why statements like ‘lovely day today’ are almost invariably met with agreement: ‘Yes, beautiful!’ It would be odd to respond with something like ‘well actually it’s two degrees below the mean temperature for mid-July’. That might be an impressive demonstration of your meteorological knowledge, but it would also reveal your social incompetence, since you’d have missed the whole point of a phatic exchange. It’s the same with banal sexism: challenging the proposition (‘well, actually studies show that men talk more than women in most situations’) will be seen as a peculiar and hostile act. It’s especially hard to challenge a joke, because no one wants to be accused of lacking a sense of humour.

In my youth I didn’t understand this. I remember the first time I ever heard Chas & Dave’s pop classic ‘Rabbit’, a jolly cockney moan about women who give their husbands earache. It was 1980, and—at the age of 21—I had recently discovered my inner Radical Feminist. I thought, ‘you may sell that record today, but it won’t be long before you’re history’.  I was wrong: nearly 40 years later, the myth of the Woman Who Never Shuts Up remains ubiquitous in popular culture. Consider, for instance, this advertisementIMG_7139 for cruising holidays, which was recently photographed by a Swiss follower of this blog*:

Translated into English, this says: ‘Peace/quiet on holiday? Make your wife simply speechless’.  It’s a banal sexism double whammy, combining the old ‘rabbit, rabbit’ cliché with the idea that you can always shut a woman up by spending your hard-earned wages on something she wants. The ad’s presuppositions are both insulting and false (women don’t talk more than men, and according to one 2013 industry survey they make about 80% of household travel plans), but whoever came up with it seems not to have been concerned about offending potential customers.

Nor do I suspect its creator of deliberately courting controversy, though that’s certainly a strategy some advertisers have used. Banal sexism doesn’t provoke outrage. It occupies the part of the spectrum that runs from ‘seen but unnoticed’ (like the ‘default male’ convention which I discussed in an earlier post) through to ‘annoying but not worth getting all fired up about’. You might shake your head, roll your eyes, post a photo with a scathing comment on Facebook, but most people wouldn’t bother to make a formal complaint.

But sometimes the zeitgeist changes, and a form of sexism which has previously been tolerated gets moved from the ‘banal’ into the ‘hot’ category. Last year, for instance, a friend of mine spotted this greeting card, womenpart of a range addressed to men, in a university bookshop. Greeting cards in general are like a bottomless well of banal sexism, and ‘humorous’ cards like this have been around forever: though feminists have long found their message objectionable, most people have treated it in the same way as the ‘make your wife simply speechless’ ad, as an essentially harmless (if perhaps tasteless) joke based on the banal trope of ‘the eternal battle of the sexes’.

But recently more people have become aware (thanks in part to the work of feminists like Karen Ingala Smith and her Counting Dead Women project) that in the UK a man actually does kill a woman, most commonly a current or former partner, about every 2-3 days. If you’ve thought about that statistic, you’re less likely to let a joke about ‘shooting women and burying them in the garden’ pass without protest. I wasn’t surprised to hear that my (feminist) friend had complained, but I was pleasantly surprised to learn that the bookshop manager had agreed with her–and had promptly withdrawn the card from sale.

But the issue here is not just about the (un)acceptability of joking about male violence. Banal sexism is also exemplified by the formulas used in serious news stories about the killing of women by men. In France (where the statistics are similar to the UK’s), the journalist Sophie Gourion has set up a tumblr called Les Mots Tuent (‘words kill’) to document and criticise the linguistic ‘banalisation’ (‘normalisation/trivialising’) of violence against women and girls. She is exasperated by the constant repetition of phrases like crime passionel (‘crime of passion’, a category that does not exist in current French law), drame familial (‘family drama’, typically referring to ‘family annihilation’ cases where a man murders his partner and their children before killing himself) and pétage de plomb (‘blowing a fuse’, ‘flipping/freaking out’, ‘having a meltdown’). As she notes, these terms imply that the perpetrator was overcome by a sudden, uncontrollable impulse—whereas in fact many of these killings turn out to have been premeditated, not uncommonly by men who have long histories of domestic violence.

Similar formulas are well-established in the English-speaking media. In 1992, Kate Clark published an analysis of the Sun’s reporting of violence against women and girls, and found a pattern in the language used to label perpetrators and victims. In cases where ‘innocent’ women (in the Sun’s worldview that meant young girls or dutiful wives and mothers) were killed or assaulted by strangers, the perpetrators were given dehumanising labels like ‘beast’, ‘fiend’, ‘maniac’ or ‘monster’.  By contrast, reports of domestic violence, including homicide, tended to label men in ways that both humanised them and emphasised their own status as victims. One man who killed his wife and then himself was referred to as a ‘tormented’, ‘debt-ridden Dad’ (the word ‘tormented’ recurred in the reporting of so-called ‘family tragedies’); another who shot his wife and her mother dead was described as a ‘spurned husband’. Even the affectionate diminutive ‘hubby’ appeared in one report about a man whose 12-year history of domestic violence was revealed in court after he almost killed his wife.

Kate Clark’s data were taken from reports that had appeared in the late 1980s, but much of her analysis remains pertinent today. In Ireland last year, for instance, when a man named Alan Hawe stabbed his wife Clodagh to death, strangled their three sons and then hanged himself, the case was reported in both the Irish and British media as a ‘family tragedy’. The Mirror printed a photo which showed the family (in the words of the caption) ‘smiling together before all five lost their lives’.  ‘Lost their lives’ suggests an accident rather than the intentional killing which actually took place, but in the ‘family tragedy’ frame, as Clark’s earlier study found, the killer is usually portrayed as another victim, and often as the primary victim. In the Hawe case, again typically, much of the media’s attention focused on the mental ‘torment’ that must have driven Alan Hawe (described in numerous sources as a ‘real gentleman’ and a pillar of the community) to such extremes. Some commentators even portrayed him as a victim of sexism—the sexism of a culture which does not permit men to show weakness or express emotion.

This representation only began to be questioned after a blog post entitled ‘Rest in peace, invisible woman’, by the Dublin-based feminist writer Linnea Dunne, was picked up by the mainstream media. Dunne remarked on the way media reporting centred on the killer and his imagined state of mind (there was no actual evidence that Alan Hawe had any history of mental illness), while those he killed were treated as minor characters, or erased from the story entirely. Even the discovery of the family’s dead bodies was couched in terms that adopted the killer’s perspective: they were said to have been discovered by ‘his mother-in-law’ (aka Clodagh Hawe’s mother and the children’s grandmother).

By contrast with the keen interest they took in his mental state, reporters did not ask if Alan Hawe had a history of domestic violence. It would later turn out that he did: in the words of one family friend, ‘he controlled everything around him, he controlled how his family lived, he controlled how they died’. It would also emerge that Clodagh Hawe’s family, initially portrayed as grief-stricken but forgiving, had fought an eight-month battle to have the killer’s body removed from the grave in which he had originally been buried alongside his victims.

As time went on it became clearer and clearer that the framing of this story by most of the press had persistently obscured the material facts. And this is far from being an isolated example. This month, the UK press has been reporting on the case of Francis Matthew, a Briton living in Dubai, who killed his wife Jane with what the Emirati authorities described as ‘a strong blow on the head with a solid object’. Initially Matthew claimed that the attack had been perpetrated by burglars who broke into their home. Later, when it was clear this story would not stand up, he admitted that he had thrown a hammer at his wife during ‘a row’, but he continued to insist that her death was an accident. This example differs from the Hawe case in that there was only one victim: no children were involved and the perpetrator is still alive. But reports on it (like this one in the Telegraph) have used many of the same generic and linguistic conventions. For instance:

  1. The repetition of the words ‘tragedy’ and ‘tragic’. If the crime really had been committed by intruders, the reports would have used words suggesting anger and condemnation, but when murder is ‘all in the family’, the emotions we are directed to feel are sadness and pity for both/all parties.
  2. The centring of the (male) killer and the near-total erasure of his victims. Dead or alive, he is the main protagonist of the ‘tragedy’, while the victims exist only in relation to him. In the Telegraph’s report, for instance, we are told a fair amount about Francis Matthew’s life history, and we also learn that ‘the couple…were a fixture of Dubai’s social scene’, but nothing is said about Jane Matthew’s history, activities, interests or personality. Like Clodagh Hawe, she is rendered invisible.
  3. The presentation of the killing as a sudden, inexplicable eruption of violence into a previously happy relationship. In this case (as in the Hawe case before it, at least immediately after the murder), the message that Matthew’s act was ‘out of character’ is conveyed by reporting the reactions of others: ‘Friends and associates of Mr Matthew said they were astounded to hear that the genteel editor was under arrest. “He is the biggest teddy bear I know,” said one family friend’. Another acquaintance is quoted describing him as ‘relaxed, calm and laid back’. Though the Telegraph does mention that he has been charged with ‘premeditated murder’, it does not probe the apparent contradiction between this charge and Matthew’s own  claim to have killed his wife accidentally in the heat of the moment.
  4. The inclusion of multiple details which portray the killer as a man of good character and reputation. The Telegraph‘s report is headed by a photo of Francis Matthew shaking hands with the Emir of the UAE; it goes on to extol his educational and professional achievements, and makes several references to his standing in the expatriate community. This, we infer, is what makes the case so ‘tragic’. Not that a woman died following a brutal assault (and who knows how much other abuse in the months and years preceding it), but that a successful man’s life has been ruined by a momentary loss of control.

If I’m putting this kind of reporting in the category of banal sexism, it’s not because I think it’s trivial, but because I think it operates, as Billig says about banal nationalism, more mindlessly than mindfully. I don’t think there’s some media conspiracy to defend homicidal men: it’s more a case of reaching for the familiar formulas (the ‘family tragedy’ frame and the associated clichés—‘out of character’, ‘pillar of the community’, ‘lost their lives’) without ever thinking to interrogate the assumptions that lie behind them. It’s the news-story equivalent of the political discourse which Orwell, in 1946, compared to a ‘prefabricated henhouse’—assembled rapidly and unreflectively from a pile of standard, mass-produced components.

Let me hasten to make clear, though, that this analysis is not meant as an excuse for the journalists who produce these stories. On the contrary, I think this mindless recycling of familiar banalities about domestic violence is an absolute dereliction of their professional duty. Professionals who like to think of themselves as fearless seekers after truth should not be taking the conventional ‘family tragedy’ story at face value, particularly when—thanks to several decades of feminist activism and research—the facts which contradict it are readily accessible. There is ample evidence, for instance, that intimate partner killings like the murder of Jane Matthew are rarely ‘isolated incidents’, and that many men who are violent in private appear ‘calm and laid back’ in public.

Journalists are also professional language-users, and as such should be expected to make considered linguistic choices. Would anyone in any other context talk about ‘spurned husbands’ and ‘tormented dads’? It’s 2017, FFS: why are news reports still full of these archaic, tone-deaf clichés? If you call yourself a writer, you should try engaging your brain and actually thinking about the words you use.

Words may not literally kill, but that doesn’t mean they don’t have consequences. The banal sexism we see in the reporting of domestic homicide cases echoes, and so contributes to perpetuating, some of the same attitudes which are held more actively by men like Alan Hawe—like the idea that women are appendages rather than people who matter in their own right, and the view that violence is an understandable response to the pressures society puts on men. (‘Women. Can’t live with them, can’t let them live if they don’t want to live with you’.) I’m glad that this traditional formula is now attracting more outspoken criticism, and not only from the usual feminist suspects. It’s lazy, it’s sexist and no self-respecting news outlet should give it house-room.

*thanks to Martina Zimmermann

‘Men, shut up for your rights!’

If you haven’t spent the last decade living on another planet, I’m sure you will recognise the following sequence of events:

  1. A powerful man says something egregiously sexist, either in a public forum or in a private conversation which is subsequently leaked.
  2. There is an outpouring of indignation on social media.
  3. The mainstream media take up the story and the criticism gets amplified.
  4. The powerful man announces that he is stepping down.
  5. His critics claim this as a victory and the media move on—until another powerful man says another egregiously sexist thing, at which point the cycle begins again.

The most recent high-profile target for this ritual shaming was David Bonderman, a billionaire venture capitalist and member of Uber’s board of directors. It’s no secret that Uber has a serious sexism problem. Following a number of discrimination and harassment claims from former employees, the company commissioned what turned out to be a damning report on its corporate culture. At a meeting called to discuss the report, Arianna Huffington (who at the time was Uber’s only female director) cited research which suggested that putting one woman on a board increased the likelihood that more women would join. At which point Bonderman interjected: ‘actually what it shows is that it’s likely to be more talking’.

To call this remark ill-judged does not do it justice. In the space of 12 words it managed to (a) slander women collectively by recycling the idea they talk incessantly (when in reality, as a ton of evidence shows, it’s men who do more talking in mixed-sex interactions); (b) insult the only woman on the board by dismissing the point she had just made; and (c) undermine Uber’s attempt to look as though it was taking sexism seriously. What was needed from David Bonderman was a moment of silence—a moment when he considered his options and took an executive decision not to say what he was thinking. But that level of self-restraint was apparently beyond him. And he’s by no means the only powerful man who has this problem.

A few days before Bonderman’s comment made headlines, the trade publication PRWeek had held its annual, ickily named ‘Hall of Femme’ event celebrating women’s contributions to the PR industry.  This year, the organisers decided that what the event really needed was an all male panel, at which a group of male industry leaders would share their thoughts about women in PR. One of these men, Richard Edelman, made a particularly original and constructive suggestion: if women want to be heard they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’.

Once again, you have to marvel at the apparent inability of powerful men to practise the same kind of judicious self-censorship the rest of us routinely engage in. How could anyone with a functioning brain have prepared a speech containing this pearl of wisdom without ever thinking, ‘hang on, might there be something a bit dodgy about a male speaker on an all-male panel telling women they need to speak up?’ It’s even more ironic that this PR disaster was perpetrated by a leading PR professional, who apparently didn’t see it coming. Induct that man into PRWeek’s Hall of Shemme!

You can’t resign from a conference panel, so in this case the ritual only got as far as stage (2), public indignation. David Bonderman, however, was obliged to fall on his sword. His resignation statement took the form that’s become standard on these occasions: (1) apologise for causing offence; (2) deny that you really meant what everyone thinks you meant (one perennially popular version of this denial is ‘my remarks were taken out of context’, but Bonderman went for another cliché, ‘the way it came across was the opposite of what I intended’); (3) say that you’re stepping down because the controversy has become a ‘distraction’ (‘I do not want my comments to create distraction as Uber works to build a culture of which we can be proud’).

Every part of this is bullshit. The belated apology is rendered even less convincing by the accompanying denial of prejudiced intent, and the form of the denial adds insult to injury:  Bonderman appears to be claiming that when he said women talk too much, what he really meant was that women don’t talk too much—an interpretation even Humpty Dumpty might think far-fetched. (More likely he meant that he was joking, but that’s also an insult, implying that his critics have no sense of humour.)  The obligatory reference to ‘distraction’ is itself a distraction—very obviously in this case, where the issue from which Bonderman’s sexism had allegedly ‘distracted’ was—well, sexism.  The purpose of this formula is damage limitation: it’s an attempt to contain the criticism and draw a line under the affair. ‘OK, a rogue individual said something offensive, but he’s accepted his mistake and done the honourable thing. Problem solved. Time for the circus to move on’. Until the next time it happens, which will probably be within a week.

Increasingly I find myself wondering what good this ritual does. To me it doesn’t feel like much of a victory when a man like David Bonderman resigns: it feels more like cutting off the Hydra’s head when you know the Hydra will just grow a new one. If you really want to change a culture, you have to change the behaviour of the people in the culture: just replacing one director or CEO with another who’s cut from the same cloth is never going to solve the problem.

You might say, but at least Bonderman was held to account: he wasn’t just permitted to carry on as if nothing had happened. But you could equally argue that resigning is the easy option. Rather than having to change his behaviour, the offender just cuts his losses and walks away.

One day I’d like to see a powerful man in this position taking real responsibility for his actions by dispensing with the usual boilerplate and saying something more like this:

The asinine remark I made at yesterday’s meeting has prompted many people to call for my resignation. But instead of stepping down, I’ve decided I should try to step up.

For as long as I can remember, I have been given a license by the people around me to say whatever came into my head at any given moment, regardless of whether it was on point and with no thought for its effect on other people. But I’ve now realised that needs to change, and I have hired a consultant to conduct a year-long intervention. One of her responsibilities will be to interrupt me every time I begin to speak in a meeting. She will also arrange a series of corporate events at which male attendees will be obliged to listen to mainly all-female panels while having no opportunity to speak. In the Q&A men will be permitted to raise their hands, but the Chair will operate a policy of ignoring them.  A couple of panels will feature one token man: in those cases a woman will be tasked with talking over their contributions, then explaining at length what they’ve just attempted to say.

I know I can’t recreate other people’s experience of being ignored and disrespected from cradle to grave, but I hope even a small taste of my own medicine will make me less of an arse in future. Then perhaps I will have something to contribute to the creation of a culture we can be proud of.

This fantasy non-resignation speech was partly inspired by the title of a lecture once given by the artist Grayson Perry: ‘Men, sit down for your rights!’  In his book about masculinity, The Descent of Man, Perry argues that men—especially middle aged, middle class white ones—are lacking in self-awareness because they have gone through life taking their privileged position for granted. Being treated as the cultural default means never having to interrogate your own behaviour. But in a world which is moving towards greater equality, where maleness can no longer be regarded as an automatic ticket to the top, men will have to develop more humility and learn to, as Perry puts it, ‘sit down’.

One crucial element in this metaphorical sitting down will be learning to (literally) shut up. Because there is no form of privilege men deploy more frequently, more casually and more unselfconsciously than their assumed Divine Right to Talk—to monologue, to mansplain, to interrupt, to say whatever’s on their minds without considering the consequences.  This behaviour is everyday sexism at its most basic: it’s even commoner than catcalling, and its effects are felt by women of all ages, races and classes. Yet as I pointed out in my last post, the most popular way of addressing it involves telling women they should act more like men. Women are constantly exhorted to speak up. But who is making speeches telling men to pipe down?

Some mixed organisations are trying to grasp this nettle. Not long ago, for instance, a journalist told me about a small political party in Denmark which had introduced a rule to even out the distribution of speaking turns at its meetings. A male speaker cannot speak straight after another man, but must wait until after a woman has taken a turn.  Yes, there’s a degree of artificiality about this arrangement, but that’s true of any rule-governed system for managing the floor in a group—Roberts’s Rules of Order, or Parliamentary procedure, or the rules feminists of my generation sometimes followed in women’s groups to prevent the most confident and articulate women from dominating the discussion. Without analysing the evidence it’s hard to say how well the Danish rule works in practice (if anyone reading this can supply some data I’d love to hear from you), but even if it works imperfectly, its existence will at least be making people pay more conscious attention to their own behaviour.

The absence of self-awareness that Grayson Perry talks about is one of the hallmarks of the true alpha-male, and it is never more visible than when one of them is forced to apologise for some casually bigoted comment. These gaffemeisters always seem astonished by the outcry their words have provoked–it’s as if it had never occurred to them before that anyone might think they were arses. The sports star who used the N-word protests that he hasn’t got a racist bone in his body; President Donald ‘grab em by the pussy’ Trump declares that ‘no one respects women more than I do’. I don’t think they are actually lying, in the sense of saying something they believe to be false: I think they genuinely can’t see the world from anyone else’s point of view.

The question all this raises is why we go on putting these self-regarding solipsists in positions of power and influence, by choosing them as our leaders, our role-models, our cultural icons. Occasionally we punish one of them, but mostly we continue to reward them–if we didn’t, they wouldn’t keep reproducing themselves. In my youth they seemed like dinosaurs on the verge of becoming extinct; but 40 years later they are more powerful, and more popular, than ever. From Russia to the USA, and from the Philippines to Turkey, their star is once again in the ascendant. Mere indignation, however righteous, is not enough to turn the tide: it might even be as much of a distraction as the gaffes that set it off.