The year in language and feminism, Part II: selected reading

I created this blog primarily as a vehicle for my own thoughts and opinions, but what I write for it is always informed by other people’s research, and by ideas I’ve encountered in other people’s writing. So, to complement my recent review of the year, I’d like to share ten things I read in 2017 which I found interesting, informative and thought-provoking—and which aren’t too technical to be accessible to non-specialists.

Four books

Mary Beard, Women and Power: A Manifesto. A short book which takes the long view on the silencing of women in patriarchal societies.

Emma Jane, Misogyny Online: A Short (and Brutish) History. An Australian journalist turned academic researcher examines the development and impact of online misogyny, and its characteristic linguistic register ‘Rapeglish’, from 1998 to the present.

Angela Nagle, Kill All Normies: Online Culture Wars from 4Chan and tumblr to Trump and the alt-right. Before anyone was talking about the ‘alt-right’, Angela Nagle was investigating the online subcultures from which it emerged, tracking the people involved, the platforms they used, the political positions they espoused and—from a linguist’s perspective most interestingly—the evolution of their distinctive communication style. This isn’t as distinctive as we might think: it has much in common with earlier celebrations of transgression (‘kill all normies’ is reminiscent of Baudelaire’s ‘il faut épater les bourgeois’), and its emphasis on men rebelling against the domesticating influence of women recalls the leftist counter-culture of the 1960s (think Jack Nicholson in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest). What this shows, Nagle argues, is that we shouldn’t equate being transgressive with being politically progressive. She thinks opponents of the ‘alt-right’ need to take a critical look at their own style of discourse.

Jennifer Sclafani, Talking Donald Trump. Another short book in which an interactional sociolinguist analyses Donald Trump’s use of spoken language during the contest for the Republican nomination. Sclafani doesn’t say much about Trump’s performance of masculinity (which became more salient after he won the nomination and was pitted against a female opponent, Hillary Clinton), but what she does do, by concentrating on small but interactionally significant details, is get beyond the linguistically superficial received wisdom (‘he’s inarticulate/ can’t construct a proper sentence/ has a vocabulary as small as his hands’) to show what’s actually distinctive (and effective) about Trump’s style of public speaking.

Six shorter reads

Language, gender and politics

Unsurprisingly, 2017 produced many reflections on the outcome of the 2016 presidential election, and one issue some of these reflections addressed was the role played by gendered language in shaping responses to the candidates. Among the most intriguing approaches to the question was a dramatic experiment asking ‘What if Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton had swapped genders?

Speaking while female in the workplace

Though working women in 2017 continued to be lectured about their dysfunctional ‘verbal tics’, the idea that inequality in the workplace might not be the result of women’s own linguistic shortcomings appears to be gaining more traction. The research reported in ‘A study used sensors to show that men and women are treated differently at work’ led the researchers to conclude that the problem is ‘bias, not differences in behavior’.

Representing violence against women

Watching the TV adaptation of The Handmaid’s Tale, which was one of the feminist cultural events of the year, prompted Emma Nagouse, who researches Biblical and contemporary rape narratives, to write ‘Handmaids and Jezebels: anaesthetising the language of sexual violence’, about the way language is used to normalise sexual violence and exploitation in the fictional world of Gilead. Later in the year it would become apparent that language serves a not dissimilar purpose in our own world. In ‘The complicated, inadequate language of sexual violence’, Constance Grady reflected on the difficult linguistic choices writers face in reporting women’s experiences of sexual harassment.

Language, gender and artificial intelligence

There was a steady stream of commentary this year on the rise of intelligent machines and what it might mean for the future of humanity. A question of interest to feminists is whether the Brave New World of AI will look any less sexist than what preceded it. In her short but pithy ‘What is a female robot?’, Gia Milinovich asked what it means to treat a  machine as ‘female’. Another memorable piece about the way gender affects human-machine relationships was ‘Siri is dying. Long live Susan Bennett’. Susan Bennett is the woman whose recorded voice was used, without her knowledge, to create the first version of Apple’s virtual assistant Siri. There’s nothing feminist about the writer’s take on her story, but for a feminist reader it contains plenty of food for thought. You could think of it as a Pygmalion narrative for the 21st century, set in a technologically advanced world where women are still seen as raw material to be shaped and improved on by male ingenuity.

Bonus: something to listen to

One of my professional sheroes, the cognitive neuroscientist Sophie Scott, gave 2017’s Royal Institution Christmas lectures for young people. In the run-up to the lectures she made this podcast, which is interesting on a range of frequently asked questions about language, evolution and the brain, and includes some trenchant debunking of  myths about male-female differences.

As Sophie Scott observes, challenging popular beliefs about men and women is an uphill struggle. Though I’ve only mentioned a few by name in this post, I want to salute all those women (and men) who have, nevertheless, persisted.




Sexism on the brain

In 2008, a group of researchers at Yale did an experiment which they wrote up and published under the title ‘The seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’.  Their subjects, a mixture of experts and non-experts, were presented with descriptions of psychological phenomena, each followed by an explanation, and asked to indicate how satisfying they found the explanation. The researchers had included both good and bad explanations, and in half the explanations of each type they had also inserted a logically irrelevant reference to neuroscience. The experts were not impressed, but the non-experts were: they rated explanations with neuroscience more convincing than those without. The effect was particularly striking with bad explanations, where the inclusion of irrelevant information about the brain seemed to stop people from noticing quite basic logical flaws.

The ‘seductive allure’ of neuroscience has been harnessed for all kinds of purposes by all kinds of people. For every scientist doing her best to communicate the complexity of contemporary brain research, there are a hundred non-scientists—self-help gurus, life-coaches, marketing consultants—churning out what has been labelled ‘neurobollocks’, a species of discourse that purports to be scientific, but is actually, in the words of one article on the subject, ‘self-help books dressed up in a lab coat’.

One flourishing branch of neurobollocks (dubbed ‘neurosexism’ by the psychologist Cordelia Fine) deals with the perennially popular topic of differences between men and women, which it explains with reference to the idea that human brains come in two distinct varieties, male and female. According to this literature, it’s because they have female brains that most women are rubbish at parking and maths, but great at multi-tasking (unless, presumably, they’re attempting to park a car while solving equations). And it’s also because they have female brains that women are better with language than men.

The language connection explains why over the years I have felt obliged to read such classics of neurosexism as Why Men Don’t Iron, which proclaimed on its cover in 1999 that ‘men’s brains are built for action and women’s for talking: men do, women communicate’; and The Female Brain, a bestseller in 2006, whose author was so convinced that women’s brains are built for talking, she reproduced the invented statistic that men on average utter 7000 words a day whereas women on average utter 20,000.  (As I explained in an earlier post, real research shows that women don’t talk more than men: where there’s a difference, it usually goes in the other direction.)

But the King and Queen of brain-sex bollocks are the husband-and-wife team Allan and Barbara Pease, authors of a series of advice books for heterosexual couples with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps. The Peases specialize in taking familiar self-help platitudes and mashing them up with exactly the kind of irrelevant (and in their case usually garbled) neuroscience which the Yale researchers used in their experiment.

In Pease-world you encounter some quite remarkable claims. At one point in Why Men Don’t Listen they inform readers that

When a male talks, MRI scans show that his entire left hemisphere becomes active as it searches to find a centre for speaking, but is unable to find much. Consequently, men aren’t much good at talking.

Women, on the other hand, are endowed with conversational superpowers:

With a greater flow of information between left and right hemispheres and specific brain locations for speech, most women can talk about several subjects simultaneously—sometimes in a single sentence.

At a guess, what’s being referenced here is the (much disputed) claim that language functions are more strongly lateralized (i.e. concentrated in a single hemisphere, typically the left one) in male brains than in female ones, along with the (even more disputed) claim that the corpus callosum, a structure which connects the two hemispheres, is larger in female brains than male ones. This is supposed to explain why females have more advanced verbal skills than males. (Or as the Peases prefer to put it, with impeccable scientific rigour, why ‘men aren’t much good at talking’.)

But I said ‘at a guess’ because the Peases’ garbled rendition of whatever research findings they might be alluding to bears little resemblance to any kind of science. Taken literally, the statements I’ve quoted are so ludicrous, they make me laugh every time I read them—until I remember that there are US states where this kind of weapons-grade bollocks has provided a rationale for teaching boys and girls separately, using methods that supposedly suit their brains (like having girls share their feelings about the laws of physics, and not expecting boys to read much literature). In Britain, too, I’ve met school teachers who’ve encountered a less extreme version of the same ideas in professional development courses—and who often didn’t realize there was anything scientifically questionable about them, since they’re always presented as the real deal.

But researchers are now challenging not only the nonsense peddled by popular writers like the Peases, but the scientific consensus it is (however loosely) based on. At the end of last month, the mainstream media were full of headlines like ‘Scans prove there’s no such thing as a “male” or “female” brain’ and ‘Men are from Mars, women are from Venus? New brain study says not’.

What occasioned these headlines was a research study which looked at a large number of structural features on MRI scans of over 1400 people’s brains, and found that only a small minority of those brains displayed consistently ‘male’ or ‘female’ characteristics. The majority were a mixture: they showed some of the characteristics previous research has associated more with male than female subjects, and some of the characteristics that previous research has associated more with female than male subjects. The conclusion the researchers drew was that if you examine the brain as a whole, there aren’t two distinct types that could sensibly be described as ‘male’ and ‘female’.

If this eventually becomes the consensus among scientists, what will become of the people who have made lucrative careers out of describing brains as ‘male’ and ‘female’? Will they feel obliged to admit they got it wrong, and either change their approach or shut up shop?

Maybe they should, but I very much doubt they will, because this is not the kind of popular science that’s written for laypeople with an interest in science. As the article quoted earlier observes, it’s more like self-help in a lab coat. Rather than starting from current debates in neuroscience, writers begin with familiar gender stereotypes (things like ‘men don’t listen’ and ‘women talk all the time’), and then cherry-pick a few studies whose results appear to support the argument they want to make (that these behaviours are ‘hard-wired’ in the brain).

It’s often assumed that the reason writers do this is because they are hacks who just don’t understand the science. But while some, like the Peases, may be genuinely clueless, many if not most of the books in my collection were written by people who have no such excuse. The Female Brain, for instance, is the work of a practising neuropsychiatrist, who presumably knows her way around an MRI scan.

But what these writers also know is their audience. Readers who buy books with titles like Why Men Don’t Listen and Women Can’t Read Maps are not looking for a nuanced, scientific discussion of sex and gender. They’re looking for a story that confirms their beliefs about how men and women are different, and reassures them that men and women will always be different no matter how much feminists shout and scream. It’s not about the science, it’s about the politics.

At the moment, the story these readers find most compelling comes from neuroscience, but in the past many other scientific stories were pressed into service to explain why men and women were both different and unequal. Genetics, evolutionary science, neurology, endocrinology and psychoanalysis have all had their moments—and let’s not forget gynaecology, whose practitioners warned women in the 19th century that stressful activities like higher education and public speaking would cause their reproductive organs to shrivel.

Every generation of scientific sexists disclaims the errors and biases of its predecessors and assures us that today’s science is different. Yet in one fundamental respect it isn’t different at all: contemporary scientists may be offering a new explanation for sex-differences, but the differences they’re trying to explain are the same old collection of stereotypes and myths. Occasionally one of these does fade into obsolescence (no one today suggests that education shrivels the ovaries); but many are in the category of ‘zombie facts’ which have been around forever (sometimes they’re older than science itself), have never been supported by good evidence, and still refuse to die.

The belief that women are the ‘more verbal’ sex is a case in point. Every time I encounter yet another discussion of what neuroscience might have to tell us about this (and such discussions appear in the scholarly literature as well as the popular bollocks), I feel as if I’m reading an account of how unicorns evolved. How compelling I find the explanation is beside the point: there are no unicorns, and women don’t talk more than men.

That’s why I’m cautious about hailing the ‘no such thing as a male/female brain’ study as a great leap forward, politically as well as scientifically. I do think the findings of the study are interesting, and I’m glad to see research evidence casting doubt on the idea of brain-sex. But I don’t think that gets to the root of the problem. The beliefs that are most damaging to women are not beliefs about the brain as such, they’re beliefs about sex-specific abilities and behaviour (like ‘women are no good at maths’ or ‘men can’t express their feelings’) which at the moment are often justified by appealing to supposed facts about the brain. Those beliefs may be reinforced by ‘the seductive allure of neuroscience explanations’, but they existed long before those explanations became available, and they could survive if those explanations were discredited.

So, yes, it’s important for feminists to challenge neurosexism. But if we only focus on what’s wrong with the story it tells about the brain, we’re in danger of conceding too much to the story it presupposes about the way men and women think, feel and behave. Without that other story, the brain story would cease to serve any purpose. Because the core of neurosexism isn’t the neuro, it’s the sexism.