A message to our sponsors

My feelings about International Women’s Day are a bit like my feelings about Christmas: what’s meant to be a celebration all too often degenerates into internecine squabbles and vacuous corporate messaging. At Christmas companies spout pieties about peace on earth; on IWD they spout platitudes about women’s empowerment. Sometimes these are embellished with eyecatching gimmicks, and sometimes this strategy backfires. This year, the energy company Shell announced that it was temporarily rebranding itself as ‘She’ll’—a gesture so lame that for a while people believed a tweet which claimed it was a prank played on the company by someone else.

In the run-up to IWD 2020 I was approached by a couple of PR consultants myself. They asked if, in exchange for a sum of money, I would put my name, my expertise, and in one case this blog, in the service of a language-themed corporate campaign. The first of these correspondents told me the identity of the client was confidential: it would only be revealed to me if I agreed to be involved. Since I declined, I will never know who I was being asked to get involved with. The second identified the client as Avon, the world’s fifth-largest beauty company and its second-largest direct sales company. I said no to that as well. Just to be clear, I would say no to any proposal of this kind. But I’d never expected to actually get a proposal, let alone two in quick succession.

Maybe I should have seen it coming, though, because I do know the corporate world is obsessed with language as a tool for empowering women. I’ve written many times about the pervasiveness of the ‘deficit model’, according to which women are prevented from achieving their true potential by their weak and unauthoritative style of speaking. This idea has spawned a large and lucrative industry devoted to fixing (sorry, ‘empowering’) women through workplace training, personal coaching, self-help books and articles in women’s magazines. If you read this blog regularly, you’ll know what this advice consists of: lose the high squeaky voices, the uptalk and the vocal fry, cut out all the ‘justs’ and ‘sorries’ and stop larding your emails with emoji. You’ll also know what I think of it: that it’s linguistically naïve, sexist nonsense whose main effect is to make women feel self-conscious, anxious and inadequate.

But this remains a minority view. Whenever I criticise the deficit model I always get pushback from women who say they find the narrative of empowerment through language uplifting and inspiring. That’s probably why the narrative is also used to market other kinds of products to women.

A few years ago I came across an example on an Indian website. It started like this:

If you think about it, women are always apologizing – even when it’s not their fault. Especially when it’s not their fault. In the boardroom. When asking if someone’s got a moment to talk. When accidentally bumped by the gent who just sat in the next chair. While handing baby to daddy. In the process of recovering their legitimate share of the quilt at bedtime. While opening the passenger door of the car. It’s like they are genetically hardwired to apologize for being there, for bringing themselves to notice, for leaving the kitchen, for abdicating parenting responsibility however brief it may be, for being greater than the sum of the parts society (mostly the male bits) expects them to be. It’s the residual guilt of generations of conditioning.

In this text, the deficit-model claim that women apologise too much is presented in a less judgmental way. The writer seems to be commiserating with women rather than blaming them for being such wimps. But while it wasn’t hard to follow her line of thought, I couldn’t quite see where the writer was going with it. What message, exactly, were readers meant to take away?

And then all was revealed:

Stop it, says this advertisement by shampoo brand Pantene. Don’t be sorry. If anything, be sorry about not being sorry. Instead of apologizing, shine strong – like your Pantene-shampooed hair.

What I was reading was an ‘advertorial’, or in more contemporary parlance ‘native advertising’. It was designed to look like regular editorial content, but in fact it was part of a global campaign promoting Pantene shampoo. Embedded in the text was a link to a video of the TV ad, ‘Sorry not sorry’, that had launched the campaign in the US. The ad presents a series of vignettes (the same ones rendered verbally in the text already quoted) in which women apologise unnecessarily, followed by the ‘stop saying sorry and shine strong’ message. US audiences reportedly loved it, and it also got a lot of attention in the media. Clearly, as the trade publication Adweek commented,

talking about sexism and feminism and female empowerment is a great way for brands to build buzz.

Actually, the Pantene campaign doesn’t so much talk about sexism and feminism as obliquely allude to them; in the text I’ve quoted the clearest reference to sexism (‘mostly the male bits’) is literally a parenthesis. But since 2016 the buzz has got louder, and the brands, or at least some of them, have got bolder.

Avon’s IWD campaign is a case in point. It’s called #SpeakOut (notice the echo of recent feminist hashtags like #MeToo and #TimesUp), and it’s explicitly about a form of sexism. As the company’s website explains:

Through conversations with our global network of women, we have discovered that in languages and cultures across the world there are words and phrases used specifically to describe, criticise and negatively stereotype women. For example, being called ‘Lippy’ in English, ‘Vorlaut’ in German, or ‘Mandona’ in Spanish, to name but a few. Through the #SpeakOut campaign, we are urging women to reclaim this stereotyped language and be proud to speak out and share their stories.

In Britain the campaign has produced a promotional feature in Marie Claire magazine headed ‘It’s time to reclaim the words used against us with the #SpeakOut campaign’. The words ‘in partnership with Avon’ appear just below this title, making it clear that this is commercially sponsored content. Unlike in the Pantene example, however, what’s being promoted isn’t Avon’s products, but rather its ethos and history as a company which has always believed in empowering women. It’s given generations of women whose domestic responsibilities precluded regular employment a way to earn money selling products to their friends and neighbours; in 1955 it established a Foundation for Women which supports breast cancer charities and organisations working to end domestic violence. Now it’s taking up the cause of women’s ‘equal right to voice’ and encouraging them to be ‘proud to speak out’.

The core of the feature is a conversation in which a group of women–and one man, from the male allies’ group Good Lad–share their stories and their views. One of the women is a linguist, and she is given the role of explaining what research has shown (for instance that women’s speech tends to be evaluated less positively than men’s). The others are a rapper, a journalist, a trans woman who’s an Avon representative, the CEO of Avon and the editor of Marie Claire. They talk about their experiences of being silenced, ignored or dismissed, and affirm the importance of ‘amplifying women’s voices’.  Apart from one predictable irritant (there’s a lot of emphasis on how important it is to bring men into the conversation—because god forbid there should be even one day of the year when women don’t have to tell men they’re important) I thought this was basically fine. It’s not my kind of feminism, but it’s certainly an improvement on the cynical faux-feminism of ‘stop apologising and buy our shampoo’.

Campaigns like these raise a larger question: whose interests are being served when companies take up feminist concerns and use the language of feminism in their messaging? Obviously they’re not just doing it out of the goodness of their hearts, but because they think there’s something in it for them. But should we condemn this corporate appropriation of feminism as inauthentic, self-serving and axiomatically antithetical to our goals, or is it possible to see it as enlightened self-interest, something which—if it’s done right—can serve women’s interests too?

With Pantene and ‘Sorry not sorry’ (or Shell and ‘She’ll’) I think it’s clearly self-serving: it’s the feminist equivalent of ‘green/pinkwashing’, using symbolic resources (logos, packaging, advertising copy) to associate your brand with a cause while doing absolutely nothing practical to advance it. But Avon is arguably a more complicated case. It does have some claim to be a historically woman-centred business, it puts a fair chunk of money where its mouth is, and I’m sure many of the women who work for it are genuinely committed to the causes it supports. But this pro-woman stance contains a number of contradictions which are hard for feminists to overlook.

First and most obviously, Avon is part of the beauty industry, which has long been criticised by feminists for relentlessly exploiting women’s anxieties and insecurities. Clearly the company is aware of this, and it attempts a quasi-feminist defence in a section of the website called ‘The Power of Beauty’. Beauty, it says, is ‘not vain or frivolous, for many women it is key to building confidence and self-belief’. In other words, it’s empowering. But this misses the point of the feminist objection, which is not that the beauty industry encourages vanity and frivolity: the  problem is rather the role the industry plays in defining what will count as a desirable or even just acceptable way for women to look. Not only does this ideal demand a significant investment of time, attention and money, it’s also sexist, ageist and (if we look globally) racist and colourist. Why should women’s ‘confidence and self-belief’ depend on conforming to oppressive beauty standards?

Another contradiction emerges if we consider Avon’s business model—recruiting women to sell products to other women in their own communities. The prototypical Avon representative is a woman whose main occupation is unpaid care-work in the home, and who is looking for a way to make money which is compatible with her domestic role. It’s true that Avon is meeting a need by providing earning opportunities for women in this position, but it is also profiting from the patriarchal social arrangements that create the need in the first place.

Avon’s feminism, and indeed corporate feminism in general, exemplifies what Catherine Rottenberg calls ‘neoliberal feminism’. This doesn’t focus on large-scale structural issues like the exploitation of women’s unpaid care-work, but rather ‘exhorts individual women to organise their life in order to achieve “a happy work-family balance”’.  Unlike 1990s ‘post-feminism’, which suggested that women (at least in the West) were already equal and no longer needed feminism of any kind, neoliberal feminism does acknowledge the continuing existence of gender inequality and injustice. But the solutions it proposes are ‘individualised–such as encouraging individual women to speak out against sexual harassment and abuse’.

The #SpeakOut campaign is clearly in this mould. As I’ve already said, I don’t disagree with its general aims; nor do I dispute that individual ‘speaking out’ can be a powerful gesture (think of #MeToo). But if it isn’t a prelude to any kind of collective action, it’s hard to see what the gesture accomplishes. Second wave feminists also held ‘speak outs’ on issues like rape and illegal abortion, but they were clear that this wasn’t just an end in itself: it was meant to deepen their understanding of the problem so they could figure out what needed to be done about it. The work of actually changing things came later, took longer, and demanded a serious commitment from the activists involved.

The corporate messages we get on International Women’s Day generally aren’t a prelude to anything. They’re just a fleeting moment of feelgood celebration before it’s back to business as usual until next year. Shell’s ‘She’ll’ campaign, for instance, has produced a video in which images of girls and women are overlaid with uplifting statements that begin with the words ‘she will’, like ‘she will be respected’, and ‘she will be heard’. In future, they’re telling us, women will be equal. But when will this happen, and how will it come about?

That’s a detail too far for the people who make these ads, but feminists know the answer: it will happen, if it does happen, through the efforts of women themselves. Today and every other day, it’s those efforts we should be celebrating.

Gentlemanly sexism

Writing in the Law Society Gazette this week, Joshua Rozenberg asked why Lady (Brenda) Hale, who was president of the Supreme Court of the UK from 2017 until her retirement last month, did not get the job in 2012 when she first put herself forward. He draws on the account given by an insider, Lord Hope, who retired in 2013 and has since published his diaries. What he says is revealing, not just about the workings of the Supreme Court, but about a particular kind of sexism and the language that goes with it.

Below are some of the statements Rozenberg quotes from the parts of Lord Hope’s  diaries where he talks about Lady Hale. Most date from 2012, the year when she put herself forward for the presidency of the court but was not selected, and 2013, when she succeeded Lord Hope as deputy president.

  1. [She is] a formidable, vigorous person with a strong agenda of her own.
  2. Another colleague said that, if she is so touchy, it must be doubtful whether she would be a suitable president.
  3. The picture that she presents of the relationship between men and women is not one which most women share. This is a pity, as she is such an excellent lawyer and does so much that is good for the court.
  4. Her time will no doubt come, but not now.
  5. The in-house vote was strongly in favour of Jonathan, probably because Brenda is not easy to deal with, frightens some people and is so relentless in her pursuit of her agenda about women.
  6. There are some tense moments with Brenda, of course, but she is not at all untrustworthy or unreliable. She is just confrontational and sharp when she senses an inefficiency or a gender issue which the rest of us do not understand. Those brief moments take nothing away from the immense contribution which she makes to the work of the court.

Is this what it looks like at first glance–a balanced assessment of a colleague’s strengths and weaknesses, offered by someone with no axe to grind–or is it something else? There are clues in the language: three things, in particular, are worth taking a closer look at.

First, let’s look at the adjectives Lord Hope uses to describe Lady Hale. Only one of these–‘excellent’ in ‘such an excellent lawyer’–is strongly and unequivocally positive: the rest cover a spectrum from weakly or equivocally positive to clearly negative. Under ‘weakly or equivocally positive’ I’d put ‘a formidable, vigorous person’, because ‘formidable’ belongs to a set of code-words I’ve talked about before, which are used to suggest that a woman is capable but intimidating. An even more equivocal assessment is ‘not at all untrustworthy or unreliable’. At best it’s the faintest of faint praise (‘trustworthy and reliable’ seems like a pretty low bar for a Supreme Court justice); at worst it implies that Lady Hale might be suspected of untrustworthiness/unreliability (why defend her against an accusation no one would dream of making?) Then we have ‘touchy’, ‘not easy to deal with’, ‘relentless’, ‘confrontational’ and ‘sharp’. All of these are clearly–and with the exception of ‘not easy to deal with’, quite strongly–negative.

Most of the negative adjectives (e.g. ‘touchy’, ‘confrontational’, ‘sharp’) relate to what the HR department would call ‘interpersonal skills’: we’re being told that Lady Hale, though ‘an excellent lawyer’, is difficult to work with. That criticism is amplified in a series of statements about the effect she has on others–though Lord Hope does not specify who those others are, leaving us to infer that what he’s describing is not just his own reaction, but everyone’s. For instance: ‘Brenda is not easy to deal with’ (not easy for who to deal with?), ‘she frightens some people’ (which people?) and ‘there are some tense moments with Brenda, of course’ (who gets tense at these moments? Why ‘of course’?) Since ‘Brenda’ is the only person mentioned specifically, she is effectively being portrayed in these statements as the sole source or cause of any conflict.

The third thing that’s interesting about Lord Hope’s comments is their rhetorical structure. In many of the examples I’ve quoted he constructs himself as impartial and even-handed using sentences with a two-part structure, where one part makes a negative assessment and the other qualifies it with something more positive:

This is a pity / as she is such an excellent lawyer and does so much that is good for the court

There are some tense moments with Brenda, of course / but she is not at all untrustworthy or unreliable

She is just confrontational and sharp when she senses an inefficiency or a gender issue which the rest of us do not understand. / But those brief moments take nothing away from the immense contribution she makes to the work of the court

Sometimes the order is the opposite, apparent approval followed by something that undercuts it:

[She is] a formidable, vigorous person / with a strong agenda of her own

This rhetorical structure, in which every negative is juxtaposed with a positive, is what produces the impression of balance or even-handedness. But if we look beyond the structure, we might think that the balance is not even. Whereas the negative points are clear and specific (‘frightens some people’; ‘confrontational and sharp’), the positive ones are either equivocal (‘not at all untrustworthy or unreliable’) or else they are fulsome but vague generalities like ‘does so much that is good for the court’, or ‘the immense contribution she makes’. This is the kind of phraseology you might use in a recommendation letter for someone you either don’t know very well or don’t think very much of–it’s bland, formulaic and lacking any genuine enthusiasm.

The other thing that tips the balance towards the negative side is the repeated references to Lady Hale’s ‘agenda about women’. In this judicial context, the word ‘agenda’ itself has negative connotations of partiality and bias; to make matters worse, Lady Hale’s agenda is ‘strong’ and her pursuit of it ‘relentless’. Her concerns are also by implication obscure (involving issues ‘which the rest of us do not understand’), and unrepresentative of the constituency she claims to speak for (‘the picture she presents….is not one which most women share’). Lord Hope does not explain how he knows what most women think, or why he considers himself better qualified to speak for them than Lady Hale. Perhaps he thinks it’s because he doesn’t have an ‘agenda’.

Lord Hope’s comments on Lady Hale exemplify something I’m going to call ‘gentlemanly sexism’, meaning a form of sexism which is prevalent in institutions dominated by ‘gentlemen’, members of what might be called the ‘establishment’. These men, often though not always from a privileged social class, are highly educated, self-confident and accustomed to getting what they want, but their style is understated: they value courtesy, civility, fairness and emotional control. Their sexism isn’t aggressive or vulgar, but it is sexism nevertheless; and since it’s the sexism of men who wield a fair amount of power, it’s by no means inconsequential.

Lord Hope’s comments on Lady Hale have two characteristics which I think of as hallmarks of gentlemanly sexism. First, there’s the effortless superiority–the way he unselfconsciously, or perhaps unconsciously, positions himself ‘above’ Lady Hale. Though she is a peer rather than a subordinate, he takes it for granted he is both qualified and entitled to make authoritative pronouncements on her strengths and weaknesses, her prospects, and the legitimacy or otherwise of her concerns. His assessments, both positive and negative (‘an excellent lawyer…her time will no doubt come…not easy to deal with…not at all untrustworthy or unreliable’), are presented less as personal opinions, of the kind everyone is proverbially entitled to, and more as definitive judgments delivered from on high. The language may be measured, but the gesture itself is presumptuous.

Second, there’s his mastery of the gentlemanly art of undermining people while appearing to be scrupulously fair or even generous (‘such an excellent lawyer…does so much that is good for the court’). The weapons gentlemen prefer are subtle: it’s all about what they don’t say, the faintness or blandness of their praise, the cautionary ‘but’ clause–‘she’s clearly very able, but she’s not easy to deal with’, or ‘a formidable person, but she has her own agenda’.

I don’t want to suggest these tactics are only used against women. Essentially they’re used to exclude or limit the influence of people who are seen as potentially disruptive, and not all of those people are women. Conversely, not all women are seen as disruptive. But Lady Hale evidently was seen in that way, particularly after she put herself forward for the presidency. According to Joshua Rozenberg her colleagues on that occasion wanted ‘anyone but Brenda’; a year later she wasn’t their first choice for deputy president either. Even when her time did come, her ‘agenda’ remained contentious. As recently as last summer, Rozenberg tells us, she felt impelled to address the issue in a speech:

What is this “Brenda agenda” and why should voicing it arouse such feelings? It is, quite simply, the belief that women are equal to men and should enjoy the same rights and freedoms that they do; but that women’s lives are necessarily sometimes different from men’s and the experience of leading those lives is just as valid and important in shaping the law as is the experience of men’s lives.

To a feminist this is not particularly controversial. But it’s not surprising if it ‘arouses feelings’ among men like Lady Hale’s colleagues, who may well have spent large parts of their lives in predominantly or exclusively male institutions, and who have undoubtedly benefited from the worldview she is challenging, according to which men are the default humans and their perspective is simply neutral, the proverbial ‘view from nowhere’. For some men that challenge causes deep discomfort, and they react by casting the challenger as an obsessive, a nag and a bully–or in more gentlemanly language, ‘relentless in her pursuit of her agenda’. It reminds me of the way some men complain that women talk ‘incessantly’, when in reality they talk less than men: this only makes sense if we assume the men are measuring women’s volubility not against their own, but against the belief that women should be silent. Similarly, the charge that Lady Hale harped ‘relentlessly’ on women might only mean that she broached the subject occasionally rather than never.

Now she has retired, perhaps Lady Hale will also publish her diaries, and give us her perspective on those ‘tense moments with Brenda’. But I suspect she probably won’t– either because she’s got more important things to do, or because she’s more of a gentleman than the gentlemen.

Gurus, language scolds and comma queens

Last year I read Cathleen Schine’s novel The Grammarians, the tale of identical twins who share a lifelong passion for words. As babies they develop their own secret 48132246._UY200_language; a few years later their most beloved possession is not a stuffed animal but an edition of Webster’s Dictionary. As adults, however, their paths diverge. The older twin, Laurel, becomes a poet whose work celebrates the riches of the vernacular. The younger one, Daphne, finds fame as ‘the People’s Pedant’, an arch-prescriptivist whose writings become so popular she ends up writing a column for the New York Times.

I found that column hard to believe in. Not just because the story takes place at a time when William Safire, who wrote the Times’s ‘On Language’ column for 30 years, was still alive (he died in 2009 and the column was retired not long after). A fictional world doesn’t have to reproduce every detail of the real one. But I still couldn’t imagine the Times, that august ‘paper of record’, giving the slot it created for Safire to a woman. Safire was the kind of commentator who is often described as a ‘language guru’, meaning a person whose pronouncements on the use and abuse of language carry a particular kind of cultural weight. And when I say ‘a person’, Schine’s novel made me realise, what I actually mean is ‘a man’.

Don’t women write language columns too? The short answer is yes, sometimes. I can only think of one woman who’s done it for a major newspaper (Jan Freeman, who was the Boston Globe’s language columnist for more than a decade), but in today’s more diversified media landscape there are more women producing language commentary of all kinds (including some of the most popular language podcasts). But none of them are like Safire: they’re not seen, and wouldn’t want to be seen, as arbiters of usage or defenders of linguistic standards. Today’s media language commentators, men as well as women, are more interested in explaining than in opining or prescribing. In spirit they’re far closer to Laurel than to Daphne.

But the gurus still flourish in another part of the cultural forest–as purveyors of guidance on the rules of correct usage and the secrets of good prose style. In the anglophone world, the most revered authorities of this type are not only men, they’re also dead, white and upper-class. In Britain they include Henry Fowler (whose Modern 1plainwordsEnglish Usage first appeared in the 1920s), Sir Ernest Gowers (author of Plain Words, originally published in 1948 as a guide for civil servants), and George Orwell, whose rules for good writing in ‘Politics and the English Language’ are still endlessly quoted nearly 75 years on. In the US the list is headed by (William) Strunk and (E.B) White, whose 1959 book The Elements of Style is still held in such high regard by many educated Americans, Time magazine included it on a list of the 100 most influential nonfiction books published since 1923 (the year the magazine was founded). It also appears regularly on the many online lists which direct aspiring authors to ‘the X best books on writing’.

But on those lists the dead have some competition from the living. One popular recommendation is Stephen King’s On Writing; some compilers give a nod to Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style; and the most recently-updated lists acknowledge this genre’s newest star, Benjamin Dreyer, whose style-guide Dreyer’s English was published last year. Dreyer, a professional editor whose publicity describes him as ‘one of Twitter’s leading language gurus’, has been hailed as an authority for our times: he’s less patrician, less pedantic and less peremptory than his predecessors. But he too is, of course, a man. It’s hard to think of a woman who has been elevated to this status—whose pronouncements are quoted by the cognoscenti, or whose name has the kind of cachet that would prompt a publisher to commission ‘Jane Doe’s English’.

On the face of it this seems odd, since women are well represented in the professions gurus typically come from (editing, journalism, literary writing and teaching). As editors and teachers they are heavily involved in enforcing stylistic norms, and they may even be the hidden hands directing major corporate enterprises (like the Associated Press stylebook, whose current lead editor is Paula Froke). But few of the women who have made careers in this field have become the public faces of linguistic authority; and even those who have tend to be accorded a different (and lesser) status.

Consider, for instance, Kate L. Turabian (1893-1987), the creator and original author of A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses and Dissertations. To call this text ‘widely used’ would be an understatement: it has sold over nine million copies (five million of them during its author’s lifetime), and a recent survey of over a million college syllabi found that Turabian was the most frequently assigned female author (ahead of Toni Morrison, Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf), and the 18th most frequently cited author overall. If these figures are indicators of authority and influence, then Kate Turabian should be up there with Strunk and White. But that doesn’t seem to be quite how she’s remembered.

Turabian’s story is unusual, in that she didn’t come to style-guide writing by any of the 220px-Turabian_A_Manual_for_Writers_Ninth_Editionusual routes. Her formal education ended when she graduated from high school, and when she embarked on what would become her life’s work she was employed as a secretary at the University of Chicago, in the office that dealt with graduate students’ dissertations. Her experience in this role led her, in 1937, to produce a short pamphlet setting out the style rules dissertation writers should follow. She took or adapted these from the Chicago Manual of Style, produced for authors and editors by Chicago University Press. In 1947 the press itself began distributing her guide; over time the text expanded, and it was published in book form in 1955.

By the time Turabian died she was sufficiently well-known to merit obituaries in various newspapers. But some of these tributes seem remarkably condescending. Take this one, which originally appeared in the Seattle Post-Intelligencer:

Kate L. Turabian was our trusted guide and mentor, the absolute authority, the one who knew all there was to know about the strange world of proper term papers.… Our writing on term papers might be weak, our research haphazard, our insights sophomoric, but, thanks to Kate L. Turabian, our footnotes could always be absolutely flawless.

Turabian is memorialised as the First Lady of the Footnote, an ‘absolute authority’ on the dullest and least important details. It’s clear that the writer is poking fun at his younger self, but is he not also trivialising his subject (who did, undeniably, care about citation, but not to the exclusion of all else)? There’s a whiff here of the old stereotype of the schoolmarm, whose obsession with minutiae symbolizes her limited horizons. The same figure hovers over an appreciation written by a former colleague, who recalls Turabian as ‘a devout Episcopalian, an accomplished cook, an enthusiastic and adventurous traveller and a voracious reader’, and goes on to praise her ‘years of devoted service to the university, trudging in her sturdy oxfords from her apartment on the south side of the Midway to her office on the third floor of the administration building’.

The idea that women specialise in sweating the small stuff did not die with Kate Turabian. Mary Norris, for instance, writes on language for the New Yorker, where she was a copyeditor for many years, under the soubriquet ‘Comma Queen’. This is obviously a joke (self-deprecating wit is also a feature of the pieces themselves, as in this account of a copyeditors’ conference where a highlight was the announcement of some new rules about hyphenation); but it still trades on a stereotype of women like Norris (who has also published on subjects ranging from ancient Greek to mud-wrestling) as Miss Prisses whose main talent is fussing over trifles.

Another woman who has been dubbed ‘the queen of commas’ is Lynne Truss, whose 2004 bestseller Eats, Shoots and Leaves was entirely devoted to the subject of punctuation. What’s striking in her case is the hostile reception she got from heavyweight commentators and reviewers. Even her fellow-prescriptivists criticised what they perceived as her schoolmarmish bossiness (‘Ms Truss’, complains one such reader on Amazon, ‘came across as obsessive and lecturing’), while anti-prescriptivists denounced her as a fundamentalist, a bully and a fascist.

It’s true that Truss is, by her own account, a ‘stickler’; but is she really any more of a stickler, or any more obsessive about it, than any other popular prescriptivist? I can’t help wondering if the anger her book provoked reflected the same resentment of female authority we see in commentary on female politicians, who are also derided as bossy schoolmarms (the word ‘lecturing’ was used repeatedly about Hillary Clinton). Women who claim authority are always liable to be perceived as ‘uppity’ and unlikeable; and that’s a problem for prescriptivists, as it is for aspiring presidents, because laying down the law is what they do.

Some women have managed to avoid the ‘bossy schoolmarm’ trap. ggA good example is Mignon Fogarty, the former science writer and editor behind the ‘Grammar Girl’ brand. What she produces is a fairly traditional kind of content—advice on grammar, spelling, punctuation, commonly misused words, etc.—but it’s packaged in a less traditional way, using a persona, Grammar Girl, whose ponytailed and bespectacled avatar suggests a combination of the cutely girly and the slightly geeky. Grammar Girl’s advice is, in her own words, ‘fun and friendly’: she sounds less like a schoolmarm, and more like a friend or a classmate sharing tips she’s found helpful with her peers. Her selling point, in short, is not authority but approachability.

Approachability is also important to Ellen Jovin, proprietor of the Grammar Table, which22GRAMMARTABLE01-facebookJumbo-v2 she sets up on the streets of New York City so passing strangers can literally approach her. Her advice-giving persona, like Grammar Girl’s, is that of a friendly and non-judgmental peer. ‘I’m not there to make people feel bad’, she says. ‘I don’t like thinking, “Oh, you don’t know this thing, and that marks you as uneducated”‘.

But not all women are so eager to downplay their authority. The fictional Daphne seems to revel in hers: ‘I’m a language scold’, she announces, ‘and I like it’. ‘Scold’, of course, is not an entirely gender-neutral word (there used to be a bridle for that), but the kind of ‘scolding’ she’s talking about has a long history of being done by men. In modern times it’s been the particular province of right-wing curmudgeons like Kingsley Amis and John Humphrys. And recently a woman–the novelist Lionel Shriver–has placed herself squarely in that tradition. Last August she published a classic curmudgeonly piece in Harper’s complaining about what she referred to as ‘semantic drift’ (aka ‘people not using words properly’), and she has since followed up with a hatchet-job on ‘lefty lingo’. If the timing fit better I’d suspect that Daphne was modelled on her.

But surely, I hear you cry, you’re not defending Lionel Shriver’s reactionary bullshit, or Lynne Truss’s ‘zero tolerance’ for misplaced apostrophes? Well, no: I’m not a fan of either. I’m also not a fan of Orwell, Strunk and White, or in fact any of the gurus, living or dead. But another thing I’m not a fan of is double standards. Whatever you think of the enterprise itself, there’s no good reason why the women who engage in it should be treated any differently from the men. They may be no better, but they’re also no worse–no bossier, no more snobbish and no more obsessed with trivia. They deserve parity of esteem, and (if we feel that way) parity of abuse.

Deeper and down: verbal hygiene for men

Like every other feminist in recorded history, I sometimes get asked, ‘But what about the men? Why do you only write about the linguistic injustices suffered by women?’

The short answer is that we live in a world that treats men as the default humans, and that is reflected both in our use of language and in our public conversations about it. Of course men’s speech may attract negative judgments if they belong to a group that’s a perennial target for this kind of criticism (like ‘young people’ or ‘foreigners’ or ‘speakers with working-class accents’), but they are rarely targeted specifically because they’re men. We don’t, for instance, see men’s employers sending them on courses to learn to speak more like women. And when did you last read an opinion piece in a newspaper criticizing some irritating male ‘verbal tic’?

But while men’s language doesn’t attract the same relentless scrutiny as women’s, that doesn’t mean it isn’t policed at all. Masculinity in general is pretty heavily policed, as any man or boy will tell you who’s ever been bullied for his failure to measure up to its exacting standards. But what those standards embody is the same sexist and misogynist belief-system that oppresses women. They police the boundary between the dominant and the dominated, with a view to maintaining the patriarchal status quo. Hence the Prime Directive of masculinity, from which no self-respecting male may deviate: ‘don’t be like a woman’. Don’t throw/run/play like a girl. Don’t like girly things. Don’t cry, or show weakness, or talk about your feelings. Don’t be a sissy, a pussy, or anybody’s bitch.

There are forms of language policing which are clearly related to the Prime Directive. For instance, while researching my last post, about the woman who allegedly faked a ‘deep baritone voice’, I stumbled into a part of the internet where men seek advice, or offer other men advice, on how to make their voices deeper. This quest is based on a simple assumption: the deeper the voice, the more masculine the man. Going lower is desirable, not only because it underscores the all-important difference between men and women, but also because it enables men to claim a higher status among their peers.

As I explored this subgenre of verbal hygiene, I found two things particularly striking. First, it seems to be an all-male affair, a case of men policing other men. Though I can’t claim to have made an exhaustive survey, I didn’t come across a single case where the advice-giver or self-proclaimed expert was a woman. Second, a surprisingly high proportion of it is undisguised quackery, a mixture of old-fashioned snake-oil cures (‘why not buy my patent voice-deepening vitamin supplement?’) and Viz Comic-style top tips, some predictable (‘breathe deeply and speak from the diaphragm’) and others less so (‘use a mentholated chest-rub when you go to bed and your voice will be lower in the morning’).

Of all the top tips I read, I think my favourite was probably this one:

How to Instantly Get a Deeper Voice

Step 1: Tilt your head back as far as you can.
Step 2: Recite the sentence “Bing, Bong. Ding, Dong. King Kong.” slowly, stretching/elongating the “ng” sound for each.
Step 3: Repeat step 2 but at a deeper pitch
Step 4: Repeat again, this time at your deepest possible pitch.

Congratulations, you now have a deeper, manlier and sexier voice. At least for the next day or so. Enjoy.

Reader, I laughed: it’s difficult not to laugh at the picture this conjures up, of men around the world throwing their heads back and intoning ‘Bing bong, ding dong, king kong’. But while the activity itself may seem harmless (if absurd), what’s behind it is arguably not so funny. What I haven’t told you yet is where I found this top tip: it was posted on a forum for followers of the pick-up artist Roosh V. Like other denizens of the manosphere—incels, MGTOWs, crusading men’s rights activists—PUAs buy into a toxic ideology of masculinity and male power, and their obsession with deep voices is clearly part of that. As the giver of the ‘bing-bong’ advice explains,

A deep voice is an inherently masculine strait [sic], being a symptom of both size and testosterone levels. Deep voices elicit attraction from women and respect from men.

Other sources clarify that these two benefits are linked: what really commands the respect of your peers is the ability to attract the ‘right’ women, the ones men regard as trophies (which is also to say, not as people. In this video, for instance, the presenter promises men who follow his voice-deepening instructions that ‘you’ll have your pick of the litter to sleep with’.) What PUAs call ‘game’, meaning ‘manipulating women for sex’, is a contest that pits men against both women and each other: the gratification it provides is at least as much about power and status as it is about sex per se.

But though the game by definition produces winners and losers, a recurring theme in all the advice I looked at is that everyone can be a winner: alpha-male status is not reserved for a few men who’ve won the genetic lottery, but can be achieved by any man who’s willing to make the effort. This classic self-improvement message makes a lot of voice-deepening advice seem very old-school, reminiscent of those 1950s ads where some former teenage wimp who’d had sand kicked in his face once too often explains how, with the help of Charles Atlas, he turned himself into the Incredible Hulk. Along those lines, the PUA prefaces his ‘bing bong’ advice with some personal testimony:

I was born…with a typical, merely average pitched voice. I was also born with a perfectionist streak which when met with discovering game and self-improvement meant maximizing all my attributes as best I possibly could, so having a merely average pitch voice was no longer good enough.

Mr Bing Bong represents the amateur end of the spectrum; at the other end is the slicker, more professional approach adopted by entrepreneurs like Dr Sam Robbins, the purveyor of a formula designed to deepen men’s voices permanently by increasing their testosterone levels ‘naturally’. As he explains in this promotional video, what he’s offering is a more expensive option than chanting or breathing deeply, but it’s also far more effective. And if you do buy the product, you won’t just be rewarded with the respect of your peers and the attentions of attractive women. Your investment will be repaid in actual money. Like the actor James Earl Jones, who was once paid a million dollars just for uttering the words ‘This is CNN’, you will benefit from the scientifically-proven fact that deeper-voiced men earn more than their higher-pitched peers.

This wasn’t the first time I’d encountered the claim that lower-voiced men earn more, and I was starting to wonder where it came from. So I did a bit of digging, and eventually concluded that in this case the source was probably an article published in 2013 under the title ‘Voice Pitch Predicts Labor Market Success among Male Chief Executive Officers’. This article reports on a study that examined the relationship between the pitch of a male CEO’s voice and the size of the company he worked for. Analysis revealed, as the researchers had predicted, that larger companies typically had lower-pitched CEOs. These deep-voiced men did earn more than their higher-voiced counterparts, but the income differential was not directly linked to voice-pitch. Rather it was a by-product of the link to company size, reflecting the fact that big companies generally pay their executives more.

There are a number of problems with this study which I won’t dwell on, because for the purposes of this discussion they’re a side-issue; but even if we took the findings at face value, they still wouldn’t license the conclusion implied by Sam Robbins’s sales-pitch–that men can increase their earnings by lowering their voice-pitch. Apart from anything else, the study only makes claims about one particular group of men, namely CEOs of public companies. Why would we expect a deep voice to confer the same financial benefits on Joe the Plumber or Jon the IT guy? Yet I’d guess it’s mostly the Joes and the Jons who are keeping Sam the Snake-Oil Seller in business.

Clearly, Sam’s business model works because so many men share his enthusiasm for the deep male voice. In America it would be fair to say that this enthusiasm is the cultural norm. But there are a few dissenters, one notable example being Dr Morton Cooper, a practising speech pathologist who is also the author of a best-selling self-help book called Change Your Voice, Change Your Life. Cooper is a controversial figure in his profession, not only because of his celebrity clients and his popular writing, but also because he is seen as a crank. One reason for this is his forcefully-expressed belief that a cultural bias towards deep voices is leading millions of Americans to damage their vocal apparatus by speaking at an unnaturally low pitch.

Not being a speech pathologist, I can’t say whether the preference for lower-pitched voices is having the harmful effects Cooper suggests, but I don’t think he’s wrong to say this preference exists. Apart from the ideological evidence provided by verbal hygiene advice (in both its male and female-directed forms), empirical investigations in a number of countries suggest that the average pitch of the female voice has fallen over time, to a degree which can’t be explained in purely physiological terms (e.g. as a side-effect of better nutrition or increased use of oral contraceptives). If, as some researchers think, it’s a response to social changes which have brought women into more direct competition with men, that could also be a factor driving the popularity of voice-deepening advice among men themselves.

But to judge from the items I reviewed while writing this post, the main reason voice-deepening advice is popular is not that it promises men increased earnings or higher social status; in most cases its central message is that going lower will improve your sex-life. The proposition that deeper-voiced men are more attractive to women is generally presented as a truism: why else, after all, would this form of sexual dimorphism have evolved? As it turns out, though, this is one of the many mysteries of human evolution about which scientists do not agree. There are competing theories, and the evidence is not clear-cut.

One frequently-cited piece of research on this subject is a 2007 study conducted with the Hadza, a hunter-gatherer group in Tanzania, which found that deeper-voiced male members of the group (where according to the researchers no one used any kind of contraception) fathered more children than those with average voice-pitch. This is compatible with the theory that women prefer lower-voiced men as mates, but as one of the researchers pointed out, it could also be explained in other ways—it’s possible, for instance, that men with lower voices (which implies higher testosterone levels) begin having children earlier.

The same researcher, Coren Apicella, went on to investigate Hadza women’s preferences directly, by playing them recordings of male voices and asking them whether they thought each speaker (a) was a good hunter, and (b) would make a good husband. Low-voiced speakers were generally judged to be better hunters, but there was no clear preference for them as husbands. In fact, when Apicella divided the women into two subgroups, those who were currently nursing infants and those who were not, she found that the nursing mothers actually preferred men with less deep voices. This was puzzling, because women do less foraging while they’re breastfeeding, and are consequently more dependent on the food provided by men. Why wouldn’t women in this position prefer the low-pitched good hunters? Apicella speculates that less deep male voices might be associated with ‘pro-social behaviour’—there’s no advantage in marrying a good hunter if he’s not committed to sharing.

Some scientists believe that the low-pitched male voice did not evolve to make men more attractive to women, but rather to make them more intimidating to other men; a super-low voice suggests high levels of testosterone, which are potentially associated with high levels of aggression. Evolutionary scientists often assume that women are attracted to aggressive men, but feminists might think there are reasons to question that assumption.

Clearly the evolution question has not yet been definitively answered; but whatever the answer turns out to be, it’s unlikely to change my belief that voice-deepening advice for modern men is bullshit. Not only because the advice itself is bullshit (though I’m certainly sceptical about herbal formulas and mentholated rubs), but also because, like verbal hygiene for women, it exploits and magnifies insecurities which are themselves a product of sexism. The response I recommend to men is the same one I’ve spent three decades recommending to women: don’t buy it, either literally or metaphorically. Don’t let a bunch of quacks, conmen and PUAs tell you what’s ‘manly’. Their ideas on that subject belong in a museum, and their advice belongs in the bin.

Sexism’s greetings

Last week on Twitter I suggested that if you were looking for a potted guide to patriarchy you could try spending ten minutes in a high street card shop. I meant it, too. Since the 1970s feminists have been relentlessly critical of the sexist messages communicated in advertising, in the packaging of toys and the design of children’s clothes; yet we seem to have had much less to say about the sexism of mass-market greeting cards.

Maybe it’s because cards are ephemeral, displayed for a short time and then discarded. But in Britain particularly, we buy a lot of them: according to industry sources we’re the world’s most enthusiastic consumers of greeting cards, sending about 30 per person per year. Mother’s Day alone accounts for about 29 million sales, and the UK market overall is worth an annual £1.7 billion. Nor will it surprise you to hear that an estimated 85% of all these cards are bought by women. The job greeting cards do–maintaining relationships with family and friends–is a form of emotional labour which is generally considered part of women’s work. And the occasions they mark (births, marriages and deaths, anniversaries and other yearly celebrations) are part of the domestic or personal sphere with which women are traditionally associated. Which makes it all the more infuriating that so much of what’s on sale addresses women in ways that range from patronizing to outright misogynist.

What prompted my comment on Twitter was a photo someone posted of this pair of cards–I assume they’re Valentines, or at any rate intended for courting couples.

card twit

The person who posted the photo commented: ‘ah yes, the two sides of heterosexuality, commerce and toil’. Which is true enough, and sexist enough to be going on with; but what it doesn’t point out is that ‘make me a sandwich’ (or ‘sammich’) is a popular meme in the online manosphere, where it’s used as a put-down meaning ‘shut up woman, don’t you know your place is in the kitchen serving men?’ There’s no comparable implication of subservience in the boy-to-girl card. They might look like two versions of the same thing–one blue, one pink, both displaying the text in the same pseudo-handwriting with hearts instead of dots over the i–but on closer inspection they’re not.

This pair of cards exemplifies three patterns which are common across the whole greeting card genre. First, there’s the fact that the card addresses (or if you’re a fan of Louis Althusser you might say ‘interpellates’) the recipient, and often also the buyer/sender, as a gendered being.  That rule applies at every point in the human life-cycle. Want to congratulate someone on the birth of a baby? Great, but you’ll need to know the newborn’s sex so you can choose the right pastel shade (yep, we’re basically talking about blue and pink again) and the right words–as we all know, there are girl words and boy words. This gendering will continue when you select birthday cards for the child, and later the adult. Even the saccharine verses in birthday cards for older relatives use clearly gender-differentiated language–grandma is sweet and kind, while grandad is funny or ‘brilliant’.

You might think that this gendering is only natural: kinship terminology is systematically gender-marked, and the neutral words that do exist (e.g. ‘parent’, ‘sibling’) feel too impersonal for family occascard friendions. But on its own that doesn’t explain why there’s such a stark difference in the message (the colours, images and words designers select), nor why so many cards addressed to friends rather than relatives are also gendered. The one on the left, for instance, has pink type, butterflies, cupcakes, and the word ‘lovely’–so although it doesn’t say explicitly that it’s meant for a female friend, a competent card-consumer will understand that.

Male friends aren’t ‘lovely’: they don’t listen, understand and support, they joke and josh and take the piss. A quick look at the male friendship cards available via Amazon suggests that humour rather than soppy stuff is the norm,  and offensive humour is particularly favoured (see the masterpiece below, which is described on the site as ‘perfect for male friends and brothers’). card maleThis is the second general pattern–a tendency to make use of the crassest imaginable stereotypes of masculinity and femininity.  Even if you’re looking for a same-sex wedding or civil partnership card you’ll find it hard to avoid gender stereotyping (though you will find rainbows instead of straight-up pink or blue).

But it’s the third pattern that’s most problematic from a feminist perspective:  the use made by card designers of a set of ancient tropes about heterosexual relationships, which appear with monotonous regularity, particularly though not only on cards marking heterosexual milestones (engagements, weddings, anniversaries).  Here’s a husband-to-wife example. card wifeIt’s the old cliché of the ‘battle of the sexes’, the idea of marriage, or more generally heterosexuality, as a never-ending struggle for supremacy between adversaries who also need, desire and depend on one another. From the middle ages to the present, this cliché has often incorporated the idea that even if it’s supposedly men who rule the world, we all know that in reality it’s women who have the upper hand–talking incessantly, bossing men around and spending all their hard-earned money (sorry, what century are we in again?) Men put up with this because they love women: it’s a case of ‘can’t live with them, can’t live without them’.  Or as this card, spotted a couple of years ago in a university bookshop, put it:

women

Call me old-fashioned, or maybe just a humourless feminist, but it’s difficult to find this joke amusing when you know that in Britain the number of women killed by men–the majority of them current or former partners–is 2-3 a week. When that point was put to the manager of the bookshop, she agreed, and said she’d stop displaying the card. But most examples of ‘battle of the sexes’ humour aren’t as shocking as this one, and their banal sexism continues to flourish unimpeded.

card christmas maleThe other recurring heterosexual trope could be summed up as ‘all men are only after one thing, and all women are always gagging for it’. This kind of humour is probably most familiar from ‘saucy’ seaside postcards, but it also has a history on Christmas cards (some of them designed by the most famous of the seaside postcard artists, Donald McGill).

 

Today the language can leave less to the imagination.  card bushcard rudeLike the ‘I’d buy you flowers/make you a sandwich’ cards at the beginning of the post, these two Christmas cards (intended to be sent, respectively, from wife to husband and husband to wife) form a complementary set: one speaks in the voice of a female, the other in the voice of a male. But once again, these two voices aren’t just saying the same thing in slightly different words. As in so many representations of heterosex, the male speaks as an active sexual subject,  whereas the female adopts the receptive position. Incidentally, the website where I found these explains that the designer is a woman: she draws the images, and they are then ‘digitally enhanced by my rather clever husband’. You don’t have to be male to make your living from old-fashioned sexism.

Nor do you have to be female to be a target.  As one man reminded me indignantly on Twitter, cards are prone to stereotyping men as ‘fat, incompetent drunks who only like cars and football’.  He’s right, except that the range of things men are meant to like is slightly wider than cars and football–a glance at any ‘for men’ range will also turn up other objects with engines and/or wheels, such as motorbikes, boats and steam trains. The men who populate ‘humorous’ greeting cards are as one-dimensional as the women; and since anything soppy is off limits, there are even more of these joke cards addressed to men. What those cards don’t do, however, is propose to give men ‘a good stuffing’, or ‘shoot them and bury them in the garden’. Jokes about useless male slobs whose wives boss them around are a rather different thing from jokes about women making sandwiches or waiting for a ‘Christmas male’–because it’s male rather than female dominance that’s built into the social and sexual order. In any case, the feminist analysis isn’t ‘insulting women is bad, but insulting men is good’; these are two sides of the same patriarchal coin.

So what other options do we have?  A number of the women who responded to my tweet reported refusing to buy–and instructing their families not to buy for them–the patronizing, pinkified products on offer for birthdays, anniversaries and Mother’s Day; instead they chose more ‘neutral’ cards featuring artworks or animal pictures, with the inside left blank for the sender’s own message. And you can get actual feminist cards if you’re buying for feminist friends. But as some commenters pointed out, these ‘alternative’ products don’t cater for all the needs addressed by the mass market–for instance, one said she’d found it more or less impossible to source a card congratulating someone on the birth of a child that eschewed the usual gender stereotypes (or even came in a colour that wasn’t either pink or blue).

But while there’s some demand for alternatives to the sexist crap you see on the high street, or on Amazon, what I find really depressing is the continuing buoyancy of the market for sexist crap. Even at its most jaw-droppingly offensive (like the ‘can’t shoot them and bury them in the garden’ card) this stuff just doesn’t seem to generate the same kind of criticism as sexist adverts, toys and clothes. Some women evidently are voting with their purses, but is it time to actually say we’re Not Buying It? Should we be leaving sarky reviews on Amazon, and stickering offensive examples in card shops the way we used to put ‘this ad degrades women’ stickers on dodgy adverts in tube stations? If women really do purchase most of the greeting cards sold in Britain each year, then we ought to be able to send a message to the industry about the messages it’s sending us.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Language and the brotherhood of men

I started writing this post on what one Facebook friend called ‘a sad day for women and for justice’: Brett Kavanaugh had been sworn in as a Supreme Court justice in spite of Christine Blasey Ford’s testimony that he was one of two men who sexually assaulted her at a high school party in 1982. As in 1991, when Anita Hill testified to being sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas, the Senate hearings were a stark reminder of pretty much everything feminists object to about the patriarchal treatment of women—their bodies, their experiences and, not least, their speech.

The speech of Christine Blasey Ford featured prominently in media commentary. A couple of journalists contacted me with questions about her speech patterns, and I know of at least one other linguist who was asked for her expert opinion. As this colleague remarked, it was telling that these requests were all about Ford. Nobody asked us to comment on Brett Kavanaugh’s speech patterns, or the language of the male Senators on the Judiciary Committee. That’s usually the way it goes. People don’t tend to treat a male speaker as a generic representative of his sex: they’re more likely to ask what his speech patterns say about him as an individual. Women’s linguistic performances, by contrast, are routinely treated as performances of gender—and this is true whether the commentator is feminist or anti-feminist, sympathetic or hostile to the woman concerned.

One tactic right-wing anti-feminist commentators couldn’t easily use in this case was the one they used against Hillary Clinton in the 2016 election campaign, namely decrying a woman speaker as ‘shrill’, ‘abrasive’, ‘bossy’, ‘harsh’, ‘strident’, etc. Ford’s vocal performance was, by common consent, none of those things. But for the right wing pundit Rush Limbaugh that in itself was a reason to be suspicious:

It’s an odd speech pattern for an accomplished woman. I’m not denying that it could be legit. But it’s a speech pattern that garners sympathy. …she comes off as an up-talker, ends sentences with an upward inflection, which is how young girls — young teenage girls — come off. It makes the speaker sound uber-nice and harmless, non-aggressive, sensitive, vulnerable and so forth, like there’s not a mean bone in their body.

This is an attempt to discredit Ford’s testimony by suggesting that her performance was inauthentic. Why would this middle-aged academic use uptalk, an intonation pattern which is stereotypically associated with teenage girls, if not to manipulate us into thinking she was ‘uber-nice and harmless’? The message is ‘don’t be fooled: this is a plot to bring down an innocent man’. Other hostile comments on Ford’s uptalk and her so-called ‘baby’ or ‘little girl’ voice (like the ones quoted in this Economist piece) conveyed a more familiar but equally negative message: ‘don’t be impressed, it means she’s not a reliable witness’.

Feminist commentary on Ford’s speech was dominated by the idea (first popularized in the 1970s by the linguist Robin Lakoff) that her performance reflected the way women are socialized from girlhood to communicate. Here’s a typical example from the Huffington Post:

For countless women watching, her gestures struck a chord. Every knee-jerk “thank you” and “I’m sorry” felt like words so many had uttered before, part of a familiar display of courtesy we’d all performed at some point ― out of sheer necessity. Out of a desire to make other people, not ourselves, feel comfortable at all costs. …From an early age, girls learn that authority figures will reward them for being amenable and punish them for being “too” assertive.

There are problems with this ‘We Are All Christine Blasey Ford’ line of argument, an obvious one being that we are not all Christine Blasey Ford: women, their ways of speaking, and even the prejudices that confront them when they speak, come in more than one variety. And it was clear that not all women identified with Ford. Some evidently felt more sympathy for Kavanaugh, or for the husbands/sons/brothers they could imagine being in his position.

But in any case, why was there so much emphasis on Ford’s speech patterns? For me, what made the hearings so revealing was the light they shone on men: they showed how men, or more exactly a particular subgroup of highly privileged men, use language to perform both gender and power.

As many commentators noticed, the account Ford gave of her assault suggested that what motivated her assailants, Brett Kavanaugh and his friend Mark Judge, was less a desire for sexual gratification, or even power, than a need to impress and to be approved of by one another. Lili Loofbourow dubbed it ‘toxic homosociality’: two men abusing a woman ‘to firm up their own bond’.

One telling detail in this regard was Ford’s vivid memory of the two men laughing together as they held her down.  According to the neuroscientist Sophie Scott, laughter evolved as a social bonding behaviour: research has found that

you laugh more when you’re with other people and you want them to like you; it establishes that you like them, that you are part of the same group as them, and that you agree or understand.

Language can fulfil the same functions. The New Yorker writer Jia Tolentino commented that what Kavanaugh and Judge were doing in their assault on Ford seemed a lot like what Donald Trump and Billy Bush were doing in the purely verbal exchange that was captured on tape in 2005, and made public a few weeks before the 2016 presidential election. I agree: as I said in my own post about the tape, the speech genre Trump called ‘locker room banter’ is all about male homosocial bonding. It’s another case of men using women’s bodies (in this case, talking about them and what you have done or would like to do to them) to ‘firm up their own bond’.

Banter was clearly part of the culture Brett Kavanaugh and his high school buddies inhabited. Their yearbooks were full of sexual boasting, joking and slang terms that expressed contempt for women. Since written evidence had survived, Kavanaugh could not deny that he was familiar with words like ‘boof’ (anal sex) and ‘devil’s triangle’ (intercourse involving two men and one woman); but when questioned he chose instead to lie about what was meant by these terms (glossing the first as ‘flatulence’ and the second as the name of a drinking game). On the face of it this seemed odd, given that the terms were not part of a secret code known only to his immediate circle; millions of people knew their real definitions. But this is how fraternal loyalty works: as with Fight Club and the Mafia, the rule is that you don’t talk to outsiders, and if you’re forced to talk to them you obfuscate or lie, trusting that your brothers will have your back.

In my post about Trump’s banter I argued that fraternal loyalty is central to the workings of modern patriarchy: its effects are felt far beyond the proverbial locker room. And I would argue that they were felt at the Senate hearings, which became, during Kavanaugh’s testimony, another arena for male bonding. Though it was Kavanaugh’s performance that drew most attention, he was not left to defend himself alone: other men, especially the Republican men who dominated the committee, collaborated in this effort. Of course their support for him was politically motivated; but it was also gendered, expressed in terms of what they shared as men.

One thing the Senators evidently identified with was Kavanaugh’s performance of the role of the devoted family man who has been unable to protect his family from the damaging effects of the accusations against him. In this role he was angry and tearful, prompting some feminists to remark on the double standard which allows men to emote in public without being labelled hysterical or crazy. Several Senators got quite emotional on his behalf: Ted Cruz, for instance, said that

watching your mother’s pained face has been heart-wrenching as she’s seen her son’s character dragged through the mud after not only your lifetime of public service but her lifetime of public service as well. And I know as a father, there’s been nothing more painful to you then talking to your daughters and explaining these attacks that the media is airing.

Another thing that resonated with these men was the idea that any man could find himself in Kavanaugh’s predicament—facing the loss of his career because of something he did as a teenager. Boys, after all, will be boys: who hadn’t got drunk and done stupid things in high school?  (If the stupid things in question were sexual assaults, one answer to this question might be ‘women’.) And as the 85-year old committee chair Chuck Grassley said in a TV interview, who could remember what happened 35 years ago? (Again, one answer might be ‘a woman who’d been sexually assaulted’.)

Their loyalty to Kavanaugh was also evident in the way they responded to his testimony, which was very different from Ford’s. She had been an extremely co-operative witness, answering questions directly when she could and stating clearly when she could not; she didn’t shout, interrupt, argue, ramble, attack the questioner or turn the question back on them. Brett Kavanaugh, by contrast, did all those things–and in most cases he wasn’t challenged. However aggressive, evasive or irrelevant his answers were, his Republican brothers had his back.

I don’t think anyone’s use of language had much impact on the outcome of these proceedings. That was a political decision, and with hindsight we might well think that nothing anyone said during the hearing (short, perhaps, of Kavanaugh confessing to the assault) was ever going to make any difference. But in another way, language was central to this story: it was all about the power of speech.

The ability of men to abuse women with impunity relies on two things: the support of other men and the silence of women. Breaking that silence is a powerful act: in speaking about what was done to her, the woman who was treated as an object becomes an agent. In this case, her decision to speak made Christine Blasey Ford a threat–not only to Brett Kavanaugh’s ambitions, but also to the hopes of the politicians who were using him to advance their agenda. These men worked together to neutralize that threat. And they succeeded, in the sense that their candidate was confirmed; but only because they had the numbers. Not because their speech was more powerful. It wasn’t, and I think some people who supported Kavanaugh–people like Susan Collins and Rush Limbaugh, who were noticeably reluctant to call Ford a liar–knew that. So did all the women who looked at him and saw the faces of their own abusers.

So, appalled though I am by the elevation of Brett Kavanaugh, I do also see some reason to be hopeful. In 2018 as in 1991, a woman testifying at a Supreme Court confirmation hearing told the truth about her life, and the world did not split open. But one day, if women keep on speaking, it will.

Note: quotations from the Senate proceedings are taken from this transcript, which is available on the website of the Washington Post

2017: the year in language and feminism

Back in 2015, in this blog’s first end-of-year round-up, I noted that the year had started inauspiciously, with Time magazine putting ‘feminism’ on its list of annoying words that deserved to be banned.  The label was overused, they said; celebrities in particular were guilty of ‘throwing it around like ticker-tape at a Susan B. Anthony parade’.

To say that the mood has changed since then would be an understatement. No-one seemed surprised when a leading US dictionary, Merriam-Webster, named ‘feminism’ as its Word of the Year. ‘Feminism’, the announcement explained, was one of the most looked-up words of 2017, and spikes in the number of look-ups coincided with important news stories, from the anti-Trump women’s marches in January to the #metoo campaign this autumn. As for Time, its current cover features ‘the silence breakers’–a group of women, feminists, and in some cases celebrities, who spoke out about sexual harassment and who have collectively been chosen as the magazine’s Person of the Year for 2017.

But I’m not feeling the urge to crack a bottle of celebratory champagne. While it’s good to see the F-word being used without apology, it’s hard to avoid the rather depressing conclusion that what has done most to raise feminism’s profile over the last 12 months is the resurgence of an equally unapologetic anti-feminism. This was not a year when women forged ahead, it was a year when things got bad enough to prompt them to fight back. The display of defiance was cheering; the conditions that produced it were not.

Those conditions were reflected in what I blogged about this year. Looking back, I see that one recurring theme was the way women are let down by the language used to report or comment on sexual harassment, abuse and violence. In July I wrote about the banal sexism of the clichés used in reporting so-called ‘family tragedies’, where a man kills his partner and their children, and sometimes follows this by taking his own life. Later, as attention focused on sexual harassment in Hollywood, in the Houses of Parliament and in a host of more ‘ordinary’ workplaces, I criticised the media’s use of vague, euphemistic terms like ‘inappropriate behaviour’.

Without denying that this is a challenging subject to report on, I’m increasingly convinced that wrapping the ugly realities up in bland, inexplicit language is not the answer. It doesn’t help the ‘silence-breakers’ to feel heard, nor the wider public to understand what’s really happening. What inexplicitness does do, however–and we’ve seen plenty of examples–is make it easier for defenders of the status quo to minimise the problem or recycle popular myths about what causes it (Will Saletan’s suggestion that we should teach girls to ‘say no firmly’ was the starting point for one of my most-read posts this year).

One of the many things that’s wrong with the ‘just say no’ approach is that a lot of men do not respond well to a woman telling them what to do. (Plenty of women don’t like it much either.) Our ingrained cultural resentment of female authority was another subject I addressed in several of this year’s blog posts. This attitude shows up in what I called the gender ‘respect gap’, a tendency to downgrade women’s status which is manifested in, for instance, the non-use of professional titles for women doctors and academics, or the automatic assumption that married women should be called by their husband’s last name. These small insults are difficult to challenge, partly because individual women may not realise that their own experience exemplifies a more general pattern, but also because complaining about them seems petty or self-aggrandising.

There are also, of course, less subtle ways of using language to put women in their place. These are especially common in the political sphere, where they are also difficult to challenge because their targets are afraid of appearing ‘weak’. Women know they are vulnerable to the charge of being ‘over-sensitive’, too delicate to cope with the proverbial ‘rough and tumble’ of democratic debate—though few male politicians have any first-hand experience of the kind of abuse their female colleagues have to deal with.

Speaking in Parliament in July, the Labour MP Diane Abbott quoted one of the many abusive tweets she had received during the recent General Election campaign, saying she should be hung ‘if they can find a tree big enough to take the fat bitch’s weight’ (and that was a rare case where the sender didn’t throw in the N-word). The Prime Minister Theresa May has been described by her own Conservative colleagues as ‘mummy’ and ‘a bloody difficult woman’, while the press has depicted her as a stiletto-heeled dominatrix and, in one recent cartoon, the 1950s ‘call girl’ Christine Keeler. You don’t have to admire May or support her party (ditto for Abbott and hers) to see this kind of verbal and visual representation as an attack on all women who hold, or might aspire to hold, positions of authority and power.

On the other side of the gender respect gap live men who have somehow convinced themselves and others that their every random thought, no matter how commonplace, foolish or offensive, deserves our fullest attention and most enthusiastic applause. This year’s notable examples included the whiny and verbose Google memo-writer James Damore, the Uber director David ‘No Filter’ Bonderman (whose response to the idea of recruiting more women to the Board was to worry that more women would mean ‘more talking’), and the PR guru Richard Edelman, who suggested, during an all-male panel discussion at the industry’s annual ‘Hall of Femme’ [sic] event, that if women wanted to be successful they should try ‘speaking up more loudly’. It’s true that these men’s contributions did not go unchallenged (Damore was fired, and Bonderman resigned), but it’s also true that their brand of masculinity—glib, cocky, untroubled by self-doubt—remains our cultural prototype for what leadership looks like.

Mary Beard has pondered this phenomenon in her recently-published book Women and Power: A Manifesto, where she points out that its roots are very deep: ‘as far back as we can see in Western history there is a radical separation—real, cultural and imaginary—between women and power’.  She doesn’t, however, advocate the liberal solution which I’ve criticised so frequently on this blog, encouraging women to be more like men. As she observes,

You cannot easily fit women into a structure that is already coded as male; you have to change the structure.

Changing the structure has always been the project of feminism, at least in its more radical forms. But as we’ve seen very clearly over the last year and a half, patriarchal power structures are resilient: they persist, and they adapt. We will need to do the same. Happy New Year, and don’t let the bastards grind you down.

 

 

On being explicit

Note: towards the end of this post there are some examples of sexually graphic and threatening language.

It’s almost exactly a year since I first read Emma Jane’s book Online Misogyny: A Short (and Brutish) History. It does exactly what it says on the tin: in just over 100 pages it tracks the development of online misogyny from the late 1990s to the present. And it doesn’t spare us the details. On the very first page we’re given several examples of the distinctive register Jane calls ‘Rapeglish’. To the question she knows some readers will be asking–‘why didn’t you give us a content warning?’–she replies that there was no warning for the women these messages were sent to.

Jane believes that if we’re serious about tackling online misogyny, we need to know what it looks like and what it feels like:

We must bring it into the daylight and look at it directly, no matter how unsettling or unpleasant the experience may be.

This point doesn’t just apply to online abuse. In recent weeks, sexual harassment has been high on the mainstream news agenda; and this has sparked debate on what kind of language to use in reporting it.

As regular readers may recall, in early November I published a post criticising the mainstream media for their endless repetition of the formulaic phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’–a bland, all-purpose euphemism whose effect is to minimise the seriousness of the issue. I feel the same about another media favourite, ‘sexual misconduct’. This is slightly less mealy-mouthed than ‘inappropriate behaviour’ (since it doesn’t totally erase the sexual element), but it’s still an affectless, catch-all term which allows us not to look directly at what the perpetrator actually (or allegedly) did.

Not long after I wrote my post, Vox published a piece entitled ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, in which the journalist Constance Grady laid out the dilemma she faces when reporting on sexual harassment:

You can make your language clinical but vague, or you can make it graphic but specific. … I have found that the less specific my language is, the more invisible the violence becomes. But I also worry that the more specific I get, the more sensationalized my language feels.

There is no easy solution to this problem. Grady doesn’t want to downplay the violence, but being specific in this context means being sexually explicit, and that can cause problems of its own:

A survivor…could easily be triggered; even if you’re not a survivor, reading multiple graphic images…can be emotionally trying or even numbing. Such descriptions can also swing the other way, and become luridly fascinating in a way that feels exploitative, as if I am writing pornography rather than reporting on a sexual assault case.

‘Respectable’ mainstream news outlets do generally try to avoid sexually explicit language–not because they share Grady’s feminist concerns, but for more traditional reasons of ‘taste and decency’. Hence their fondness for such bland, generic formulas as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ and ‘sexual misconduct’.

This isn’t just a journalists’ dilemma, it’s also a longstanding problem for feminist campaigners on the issue of sexual violence. To make women’s experiences speakable you have to name them; but if you want them to be speakable in a court of law, or in the New York Times (whose masthead famously proclaims that it reports ‘all the news that’s fit to print’), the words you use have to be acceptable, not (porno)graphic or otherwise offensive. That, however, increases the risk that over time they will be depoliticised, used in such vague, euphemistic or trivialising ways that they no longer serve their original feminist purpose.

In October the New York Times published an op-ed piece which made exactly this argument about the current usage of ‘sexual harassment’. The author asserted that since it first acquired mainstream currency in the mid-1970s, this originally feminist coinage had been ‘co-opted, sanitized [and] stripped of its power to shock’. Corporations, she argued, had taken ‘a term that once spoke to women about revolution’ and made it into a piece of ‘corporate-friendly legalese’, the stuff of HR manuals and training courses designed less to advance the cause of workplace equality than to protect employers from lawsuits.

This criticism is all the more damning if we consider the identity of the critic. The words I’ve just quoted are the words of Lin Farley—the woman who literally wrote the book on sexual harassment at work, and who is credited with introducing the term into mainstream public discourse. Farley now wants feminists to reclaim and re-politicise it. How does she think we should do it?

By talking about the details — every time. By making the reality of what it looks like clear. …In this context, the most valuable part of the exposures of men like Harvey Weinstein and Roger Ailes may lie in the excruciating, unforgettable details. This is where the heart of understanding the truth of sexual harassment resides.

Emma Jane is also in favour of talking about the details. In Online Misogyny she reproduces not only ‘a multitude of examples, but….a multitude of unexpurgated examples’. Her insistence on quoting abusers’ own words reflects her belief that when academics or the media skate over the details–when they simply describe messages as ‘graphic’ or ‘threatening’, without repeating their actual content–they are unwittingly contributing to the problem. The refusal to be explicit tells women who are experiencing abuse that the details should not be aired in public; it also allows people who have not experienced abuse to go on believing that it’s really not that serious–that women who get upset are just ‘princesses’ who need to ‘toughen up’.

Women who have been targets of abuse have made similar points themselves. The classicist Mary Beard, for instance, who was viciously attacked after a TV appearance in 2013, told an interviewer:

You never know what it’s like, because no mainstream paper will print it, nobody on the radio will let you say it…

Though Beard had received numerous rape and death threats, along with other sexually graphic messages, what the media reports foregrounded was the abusers’ insulting comments on her appearance. Consequently, she said, her concerns were decried as trivial:

It came to look as if I was worried that they’d said I hadn’t done my hair.

A few months later there was a sustained attack on Caroline Criado-Perez, the feminist who had successfully campaigned for a woman to be represented on a Bank of England banknote. The abuse Criado-Perez experienced was so intense and so threatening, two of those responsible would eventually be sent to prison. But while it was actually happening, as she recalls in her book Do It Like A Woman, the news reports ‘spoke vaguely of online abuse’, and whenever she was interviewed she was warned to keep her language ‘polite’.  ‘I was forced’, she writes,

to shield members of the public from something from which no one had been able to shield me. And I have been labelled a ‘delicate flower’ by certain commentators as a result. They thought I was just complaining that someone had sworn at me.

She goes on to reproduce a few of the messages she received, and at this point I am going to do the same (I’ve avoided it so far, but complete avoidance is starting to feel hypocritical):

FIRST WE WILL MUTILATE YOUR GENITALS WITH SCISSORS, THEN SET YOUR HOUSE ON FIRE WHILE YOU BEG TO DIE TONIGHT. 23.00

I have a sniper rifle aimed directly at your head currently. Any last words you fugly piece of shit? Watch out bitch.

SHUT YOUR WHORE MOUTH…OR ILL SHUT IT FOR YOU AND CHOKE IT WITH MY DICK

How can you make people understand the effect of receiving thousands of messages like this in the space of one weekend if you cannot repeat them, or say any of the words they contain?

We are back to Constance Grady’s dilemma: repeated exposure to sexually graphic and violent language may cause readers and listeners distress, but shielding them from the reality of abuse by wrapping it up in linguistic cotton wool means that women’s experiences will be trivialised or denied.

It may also mean that perpetrators are given the benefit of the doubt. Vague language has been a gift to apologists like Matt Damon, who has talked about ‘a spectrum of behaviour’ (meaning, OK, there are extreme cases like Harvey Weinstein, but most men who’ve been accused of ‘misconduct’ have done nothing really wrong). By contrast, it would hardly be convincing to talk about ‘a spectrum of threatening to shoot a woman in the head’, or ‘a spectrum of whipping your penis out and forcing a woman to watch you masturbate’.

Violent men throughout history have not only relied on women’s fear to keep them compliant, they have also relied on women’s shame to keep them silent. In the last few weeks many women have broken their silence (in some cases a silence that had lasted years); but when their accounts are presented in a veiled, inexplicit language, that subtly reinforces the idea that their experiences are somehow shameful. We cannot put that shame where it belongs–with the perpetrators, not their victims–if we cannot describe the details of what was done and what was said. So, while I don’t dismiss the problems Constance Grady discusses, I am ultimately of the same opinion as Emma Jane, Lin Farley and Caroline Criado-Perez: it’s important to be explicit.

Men behaving inappropriately

In Britain we are currently in the grip of an epidemic of something called ‘inappropriate behaviour’.  Stories about this worrying disease were all over this week’s newspapers. The Sun reported that Deputy Prime Minister Damian Green had been accused of ‘inappropriate behaviour towards a woman 30 years his junior’. The Independent informed its readers that Conservative Party aides had compiled ‘a list of three dozen Conservative MPs accused of inappropriate behaviour’. ITV news, meanwhile, quoted Labour MP Kelvin Hopkins, who ‘absolutely and categorically’ denied allegations of, you guessed it, inappropriate behaviour.

It wasn’t just politicians: this infection originated in the entertainment industry (with Harvey Weinstein as Patient Zero), and a week before things kicked off at Westminster, the British theatre director Max Stafford-Clark had issued a statement in which, according to The Stage, he ‘wholeheartedly apologised for any inappropriate behaviour towards members of staff’ at the theatre company he previously ran. As the virus spread, another theatre, the Old Vic, was accused of ‘turning a blind eye’ to the inappropriate behaviour of its former director Kevin Spacey.

Clearly there’s a lot of it about. But what exactly is ‘inappropriate behaviour’?

According to one website I consulted,

Inappropriate behavior is any behavior that is not in line with societal standards and expectations.

Really? Murder, torture and terrorism are ‘not in line with societal standards and expectations’, but we would hardly describe them as ‘inappropriate’. A murderer who tried to express remorse by saying ‘I wholeheartedly apologise for my inappropriate behaviour towards the person I stabbed to death’ would display a total lack of understanding of the gravity of the crime. The thing about ‘inappropriate’ as a criticism is that it has little, if any, moral force. Being ‘appropriate’ is a matter of decorum, observing the correct social forms for a given setting or occasion. ‘Inappropriate’ is what you call a solecism or a breach of etiquette, like turning up to a formal dinner in running shorts when the invitation specified black tie.

The definitions given in dictionaries for ‘appropriate’ and ‘inappropriate’ reflect this association with what’s ‘good manners’ or ‘good taste’. Merriam-Webster’s illustrative examples for ‘appropriate’ are things like ‘red wine would have been a more appropriate choice with the meal’; its list of synonyms includes the words ‘applicable’, ‘apt’, ‘befitting’, ‘becoming’, ‘felicitous’, ‘proper’ and ‘suitable’. ‘Inappropriate’ is illustrated with ‘her informal manner seemed totally inappropriate for the occasion’. But my intuitions tell me that the usage exemplified by the news reports I’ve quoted, where ‘inappropriate’ doesn’t just mean ‘indecorous’ or ‘unsuitable’, has become a lot more common in recent years.  When did we start using the word this way, and why? How did bad behaviour become ‘inappropriate’?

I can’t claim to have done a comprehensive analysis, but one thing I did do was search COHA, the Corpus of Historical American English (a large sample of authentic US texts spanning the period 1810-2009), looking for the phrase ‘inappropriate behavior’. This search returned no examples earlier than 1988. At that point, and continuing into the 1990s, the examples begin to proliferate: they turn up in a range of text-types including fiction and journalism as well as academic or scientific writing. And what they suggest is that ‘inappropriate behavior’ belongs, or originally belonged, to the register of psychology and therapy.  Here are a few examples taken from different kinds of sources:

At the time I thought he was displaying inappropriate behavior, Jason said. I thought he was paranoid and delusional (source: fiction)

This variable assesses the extent to which the parents have to exert external control…to reduce the child’s level of activity, negative emotion, inappropriate behavior, and misconduct (source: academic text)

Ask yourself whether your anticipated discomfort stems from your sister’s inappropriate behavior as your guest in the past (source: magazine problem page)

Notice that none of these quotes refers specifically to sexually ‘inappropriate behavior’. The first (and in fact, the only clear) example of that usage in COHA comes from a 2004 academic article on sex addiction:

We should also consider the possibility that this self-description may be reinforced through the culture of sex addicts groups providing a form of excuse, if not justification, for their inappropriate behavior.

For academic psychologists and therapists, the attraction of the term ‘inappropriate’ lies precisely in its avoidance of overt moral judgment. Though it isn’t entirely nonjudgmental (calling behaviour ‘inappropriate’ is clearly a negative assessment), it is less loaded than, say, ‘deviant’ (let alone more everyday evaluative terms like ‘bad’, ‘disgusting’ and ‘sickening’), and this allows the user to maintain the appearance of scientific objectivity (‘I’m not making my own judgment on this behaviour, I’m just pointing out that it is “not in line with societal standards and expectations”‘).

But when this language gets taken up in other contexts, from news reporting to everyday conversation, its deliberate blandness has a different effect. ‘Inappropriate’ becomes a euphemism, a way of downplaying or concealing what is really going on (which in many recently reported cases is physical and/or sexual assault). And because of the word’s long association, outside therapy-speak, with matters of etiquette or decorum, the description of sexual harassment as ‘inappropriate behaviour’ reinforces the idea (unselfconsciously expressed by a number of men who have been interviewed on the subject this week) that calling a woman ‘sugar-tits’ or touching her body without her consent is nothing more than bad manners or poor taste. It’s a breach of proper workplace etiquette rather than a breach of the other person’s rights.

Recent media reports have been full of expressions which trivialise the issue of sexual harassment and–let’s not mince our own words here–sexual violence. ‘Sleaze’, for example. And the tone-deaf tabloidism ‘sex pest’.  But to my mind, ‘inappropriate behaviour’ is the worst, most insidious offender.  Because it isn’t just a tabloid cliché. In fact, it’s more like the opposite– a formula that makes its user sound educated, serious, and disinterested–untouched by the combined prurience and moralism with which the tabloids approach anything to do with sex.

Of course, it’s not just journalists who use the phrase ‘inappropriate behaviour’: often they’re quoting other sources, like the political parties’ announcements that yet another MP has been suspended, or the statements made by MPs themselves. It’s also a common formula in workplace policies and guidelines. It’s become established across a whole range of expert discourses (scientific, therapeutic, educational, managerial), because it’s both usefully generic (covering the proverbial multitude of sins) and emotionally flat. It conjures up no vivid picture, evokes no visceral response: it isn’t exactly neutral, but it’s bloodless and bureaucratic.

Yet if recent events have shown us anything, they have surely shown us that the bureaucratic approach to sexual harassment has got us precisely nowhere. All the policies and procedures and guidelines and hotlines have not delivered justice to the complainants who tried to use them, or curbed powerful men’s enthusiasm for behaving ‘inappropriately’. By contrast, the stories which have circulated under the banner of #metoo have been specific, visceral, and shocking–and they have forced at least some organisations to take decisive action.

There are many things we will need to change if we are to make endemic sexual harassment a thing of the past. But we could start by changing our language: in particular, we could stop calling harassment ‘inappropriate behaviour’. It isn’t ‘inappropriate’, it is wrong, unjust, abusive and harmful. In its most serious forms it’s also criminal. I said earlier that no one ever describes murder as ‘inappropriate behaviour’; actually that’s just as true of less serious and non-violent crimes like burglary or embezzlement. The fact that we do habitually describe even the most egregious cases of sexual harassment in this bland, euphemistic, minimizing language is a sign of how little regard we have for those who suffer it, and how much we are (still) willing to concede to the perpetrators.

In the last few weeks, to be sure, a lot of individual perpetrators have been publicly named and shamed. But we also need to name and shame the larger phenomenon–or institution–which they are part of.  People don’t lose their jobs, their reputations and at the extreme their liberty, because their behaviour was ‘inappropriate’. Even low-level harassment is a misuse of power, and the kind that attracts sanctions causes serious harm. The language we use should not deny, diminish or excuse that.

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.