In my last two posts of 2015 I’m going to tap into the seasonal zeitgeist and review some of the highlights (and lowlights) of the year. In the second of these round-ups I will emulate some of the great linguistic institutions of our time, such as the American Dialect Society and the publishers of major dictionaries, by nominating my Words of the Year. But first, I return to what has proved to be one of this blog’s most popular subjects: bullshit.
Sexist bullshit about language was ubiquitous in 2015. When I started this blog, in mid-May, the people of Britain had just endured almost two months of what you might call the ‘soft’ variety, in which women’s allegedly superior communication skills are ‘celebrated’ in an endless string of patronizing stereotypes. The objects of this treatment were three female politicians who had led their parties into the General Election—Nicola Sturgeon, Natalie Bennett and Leanne Wood. Following their appearance in the first set of nationwide TV election debates ever to feature anyone with two X chromosomes, these women were repeatedly said to have shown us what civilized political discussion looks like: no shouting, interrupting, talking over your opponents or trading personal insults. In the words of the Daily Telegraph, the women ‘brought a measure of dignity to an occasion that could have descended into chaos and rancour’.
This assessment may have been gallant, but it was also inaccurate, as I discovered when my fellow-linguist Sylvia Shaw and I actually analysed the TV debates for a forthcoming book about language and gender in the General Election. When the book comes out I’ll post about our findings in more detail. But let’s just say that the women’s behaviour didn’t match what we read about it in the papers.
Nicola Sturgeon was, on many measures, the most combative of the seven party leaders who took part in the debates. She interrupted more often than anyone else except Nigel Farage, and she was a master of the withering put-down. Sometimes her target was Farage, who was treated as fair game by everyone (the first leader to round on him was Leanne Wood), but she also got in some digs at Cameron and Clegg, and she was relentless in her goading—there’s really no other word for it—of Ed Miliband.
Sturgeon is a skilled exponent of the classic, adversarial style of political debate: in other words, she can beat the men at what’s supposed to be their own game. But instead of giving her credit for that, the commentators wittered on about how warm and empathetic women politicians are, how unconcerned with scoring points and getting into heated arguments.
That might sound like a compliment, and it might even be intended as one, but it’s only the other side of the same coin that gets women the media don’t like labelled ‘aggressive’, ‘shrill’ and ‘strident’. Of course women shouldn’t have to behave exactly like men to be accepted in positions of power, but nor should they have to conform to stereotypical notions of ‘feminine’ linguistic behaviour. Rather than praising them for civilizing men’s conversations, we should let women participate in those conversations on their own terms, as men’s equals. Which is pretty much what Nicola Sturgeon did: if I were handing out awards, she’d be my Woman Speaker of the Year.
Summer arrived in June, and with it came news that women weren’t such great communicators after all. (Bullshit does not have to be internally consistent.) There was a spate of articles about what’s wrong with women’s speech, and what they need to do to fix it if they expect people to take them seriously. Stop saying ‘just’ all the time! Quit apologising! Cut out the uptalk and the vocal fry!
These pieces purported to be feminist (one, written by Naomi Wolf, was framed as a plea to the most ‘empowered’ generation of women in history not to throw it all away in a bid to sound like Kim Kardashian). But as I pointed out in a series of posts (see here, here and here), what they actually did was continue a long tradition of sermonizing on the general theme ‘a woman’s place is in the wrong’.
It turned out I wasn’t the only one who’d had enough of this finger-wagging dressed up as ‘empowerment’. Collectively the three pieces I wrote on this subject got nearly a quarter of a million page-views, and throughout July and August there was a steady stream of other blog posts and articles making similar points (this satirical take headed ’13 tips on how to speak while female’ was one of my favourites).
By December, even Business Insider—the publication responsible for publicizing the ‘stop saying just’ article that first prompted me to call bullshit—ran a piece with the uncompromising title ‘’There’s a war on the way women talk–and it needs to end’. I don’t suppose that will put an end to it, but it’s encouraging to see so many women talking back. ‘Next year I will ignore anyone who tells me to change the way I speak’ would make an excellent feminist new year’s resolution.
But I don’t want to give the misandrist impression that the field of sexist bullshit this year was totally dominated by women. They did make a strong showing in the ‘empowering you by telling you you’re shit’ subcategory, but in the ‘common or garden misogyny’ division the most outstanding performances came from men.
A particularly impressive contribution came from the cartoonist Scott Adams, who complained in the course of a lengthy rant about how tough life is for men in ‘female-dominated’ western societies that
Women have made an issue of the fact that men talk over women in meetings. In my experience, that’s true. But for full context, I interrupt anyone who talks too long without adding enough value. If most of my victims turn out to be women, I am still assumed to be the problem in this situation, not the talkers. The alternative interpretation of the situation — that women are more verbal than men — is never…
I’m afraid I’ll have to interrupt Adams there, as his arrogant mansplainy whining isn’t adding enough value to this discussion. He evidently forgot to read my post ‘Why women talk less’, which contains links to numerous studies demonstrating that in mixed-sex groups it’s men who are ‘more verbal’ than women.
That point also escaped another of the year’s most notable linguistic misogynists, the guy whose family Christmas card showed his wife and young daughters tied up with fairy lights and gagged with festive green duct tape, while he held up a blackboard bearing the message ‘Peace on Earth’. (You probably saw it, since it went viral on social media, but even if it’s shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted, I refuse to link to a degrading image of children who cannot possibly have given informed consent to its public circulation.)
In his essay ‘On Bullshit’, the philosopher Harry G. Frankfurt suggests that the defining characteristic of bullshit is its complete indifference to questions of truth and falsehood. The true bullshitter isn’t deterred by anxiety about getting things wrong:
He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.
One of my aims when I started this blog was to make this slightly harder to get away with. Sexist bullshit is difficult to kill (it has, after all, been around for centuries), but it doesn’t have to go undetected and unchallenged. Or in some cases, unlaughed at.
I’ve done what I can for this year; but I’ll be back for more (because there will be more) in 2016.