Pride, prejudice and pedantry

Last year I discovered the perfect gift for the supercilious arse in your life: a mug emblazoned with the legend ‘I am silently correcting your grammar’. grammar-mug The existence of this item testifies to the widely-held belief that sneering at other people’s language-use is not just acceptable, it’s actually a virtue. When the subject is language, you can take pride in being a snob; you can even display your exquisite sensitivity by comparing yourself to a genocidal fascist (‘I’m a bit of a grammar Nazi: I can’t bear it when people use language incorrectly’).

On Twitter there’s a ‘Grammar Police’ bot whose mission is to belittle random strangers by tweeting unsolicited corrections of their ‘defective grammar’. Because, according to its profile, ‘publishing defective grammar abases oneself’.

‘Abases *oneself*’? Try ‘one’, or better, ‘you’. And maybe get your thesaurus out, because I don’t think ‘abase’ is the word you want.

What I’ve just done is an example of what I’m going to take issue with in this post: criticising the way someone has (mis)used language as a proxy for challenging their actual message. This strategy has featured prominently in critical commentary on Donald Trump: he’s been lambasted as often for his limited vocabulary, fractured syntax and inability to spell ‘hereby’ as he has for his bigotry, dishonesty and megalomania. Linguistically speaking, a lot of this commentary is wide of the mark (for a more illuminating take on Trump’s speech-style,  try this). But the strategy was common long before Trump came on the scene. One of the first things I noticed when I joined Twitter in 2014 was how often liberal progressive types used the grammar-sneer to call out bigots. Like this*:

We should round all you feminazi’s up and put you on an island away from society.

we’ll be moving on to punctuation later this afternoon.

And this:

As a straight male how would u feel about yr child having a homosexual school teacher?! Who their around for 8hrs of the day?

If a gay teacher teaches my child the difference between they’re, their and there, I’m good.

The conflict that accompanied last year’s EU referendum produced a bumper crop of examples like this:

Britain was once a proud nation, but is now afraid to speak it’s own name.

and restore our ancient birthright of putting apostrophes where they don’t belong!

In the wake of the referendum, which the Leave side won, there was an upsurge of public racism and xenophobia—threats, vandalism, harassment, verbal abuse and violence targeting people perceived as ‘foreign’.  Facebook pages were set up where people could report incidents they’d experienced or observed. A number of these reports followed the same formula: first they described a racist white Briton telling a non-white or non-British person to ‘start packing’ or ‘go home’, and then they commented that the racist couldn’t even speak English properly. One writer reported that she’d stood up to a white woman who harangued her in a shop, by telling her, among other things, that ‘I speak better English than you’. She explained that she’d heard the white woman speaking to someone else, and noticed that ‘her grammar was appalling’.

I’m not going to blame someone in this situation for defending herself with whatever weapons are to hand. My question is why claiming to speak better English than your adversary is so often a weapon people reach for. Why does it seem more apt, and less crass, than (for instance) ‘I’m better looking than you’ or ‘I’ve got more money than you’?  Maybe it’s because it chimes with the idea that bigots are ignorant and stupid. It allows their critics to feel intellectually and culturally as well as morally superior (‘I’d hate my child to be educated by a gay teacher’. ‘Pity no one bothered educating you. Gotcha’). But however satisfying that may be, it raises the question of whether you can claim the moral high ground by using one unjust prejudice against another.

If you describe someone you’ve heard speaking in a shop as using ‘appalling’ grammar, the only thing you can mean is that s/he speaks a nonstandard dialect. In Britain, speaking a nonstandard dialect generally means that (a) you grew up working class and (b) you didn’t spend enough quality time in formal education for your native dialect to be replaced in everyday speech by the more prestigious dialect of the middle class (though you’ll use that dialect when you write, and you’ll certainly be able to read it). So, criticising a racist’s nonstandard grammar is mobilising one form of privilege (based on class and/or education) to attack another (based on whiteness). As I said before, I’m not going to blame the person who uses this tactic in self-defence. But that doesn’t mean I have to applaud the tactic.

Maybe you’re thinking: ‘but what you linguists call “nonstandard” is actually just bad English. Criticising that isn’t snobbery: anyone who goes to school for long enough to learn to read and write can learn what the correct forms are. If they haven’t learnt, it means they’re lazy. Plenty of working class people speak correctly: it’s an insult to suggest that bad grammar is good enough for them’.

Sorry, but no. Nonstandard English is not ‘bad’ by any objective criterion; it’s stigmatised because the people who use it have lower social status than the people who don’t. The actual linguistic forms used by nonstandard speakers (like, say, ‘we was’ instead of ‘we were’ or ‘she done it’ rather than ‘she did it’) are neither better nor worse than the forms we judge ‘correct’. The judgment is based on what class of person uses a particular form, and the form’s status can change as its class associations do. A hundred years ago, for instance, saying ‘aint’ was associated with upper-class Brits like Winston Churchill and the fictional Lord Peter Wimsey. Today it’s strictly for the lower orders, and it’s also become one of the most stigmatised of all English grammatical forms.

grammarpoliceAs for the apostrophe fetish (‘its’ and ‘it’s’, or ‘they’re’ versus ‘their’), that’s got nothing to do with grammar. The English apostrophe does mark grammatical distinctions, but the reason people make mistakes isn’t that they don’t know the difference between possessive pronouns and contracted verb forms: what they don’t know is which spelling goes with which form. The possessive form of nouns has an apostrophe (as in ‘the dog’s bowl’), so people often reason that the possessive pronoun ‘its’ should logically have one too. It’s also easy to pick the wrong option when writing in haste or on autopilot. On this one I’m with Jesus: ‘let anyone who is without sin cast the first stone’.

But there are other reasons for feminists (and other defenders of equality and social justice) to think twice before mocking a political opponent’s ‘incorrect’ use of language. Here are a few of them.

1. It’s a red herring

Earlier I mocked the creator of the Grammar Police bot for using ‘oneself’ incorrectly. It was a fine display of my superior linguistic knowledge, but it also completely missed the point. My quarrel with the bot-maker isn’t that he corrects other people’s grammar when his own is nothing to shout about. It’s that correcting strangers’ grammar in public is a shitty thing to do.

The same problem arises with the political examples I took from Twitter. In no case does the response engage directly with the tweeter’s prejudice. It says, in effect, ‘this mistake tells me you’re stupid, and if you’re stupid I can just dismiss your argument, which is also, by extension, stupid’. And the argument may indeed be stupid, but it wouldn’t be any less stupid if it were spelled correctly (just as Hitler wasn’t any less fascist because he could write a coherent sentence). Conversely, deviations from standard usage do not make a true fact less true or a just argument less just. The moral status of what someone says is about the content, not the grammar.

2. It cuts more than one way

On this blog I have complained frequently about the policing of women’s language, arguing that there’s no linguistic justification for the criticisms people make of uptalk and vocal fry, hedging, apologising, etc. What’s behind this is common or garden sexism: if a way of speaking is associated (accurately or otherwise) with women, it’s judged inferior to the male alternative. Not because it objectively is inferior, but just because women are the lower status group.

Judgments on nonstandard language work in exactly the same way, the difference being that the relevant status hierarchy is based on class and education rather than gender.  So, when feminists engage in grammar policing they’re undermining their own objection to the gendered equivalent. If you dismiss someone’s argument because of a misplaced apostrophe, what do you say to the people who claim they can’t take women seriously because of their ‘shrill’ voices and annoying ‘verbal tics’?

3. It’s a vote for the status quo

People sometimes say: ‘OK, I get that what’s “correct” is arbitrary, but if you want to get your point across you have to play by the rules’. But this is not a progressive argument, because it treats ‘the rules’ as neutral rather than asking whose interests they serve. If someone defends a workplace dress-code requiring women to wear high heels as just ‘reflecting the prevailing standard for appropriate female business attire’, we don’t say, ‘oh, OK then’, we say it’s time the standard was changed.

In the case of linguistic standards, we should question why we’re so obsessed with shibboleths like ‘aint’ and ‘we was’ and the apostrophe, which say a lot about a person’s social background and education, but very little about how well they can actually communicate. Would any feminist suggest that the nonstandard grammar of the phrase attributed to Sojourner Truth, ‘and aint I a woman?’ detracts from the clarity, coherence or persuasiveness of her speech?

4. In other contexts you’d call it ‘shaming’

If you don’t think it’s acceptable to make people feel ashamed (or exploit the fact that they already feel ashamed) of their bodies, their clothes, what they eat or who they have sex with, you’re going to have to explain to me why shaming them for the way they speak or write is different.

5. Modesty becomes you

If your own grammar and spelling are 100% standard, that’s probably because you served a long apprenticeship in a series of educational institutions where, through constant practice and feedback, you acquired a set of socially-valued linguistic skills which eventually became ingrained habits. Well, good for you, but let’s not get carried away. Other people have gone through a similar process to master a craft like carpentry or hairdressing. They also take pride in their skills, but they don’t mistake them for proof of superior intelligence. They don’t come to your house and laugh at the wonky shelf you made, or stop you on the street to offer unsolicited advice on blow-drying. If they did, how would you react?  Which brings me to…

6. It’s counterproductive

This point is well made in a post Nic Subtirelu wrote in 2015 after Grammarly (a major player in the online culture of language pedantry) drew attention to the poor grammar and spelling it had found on Facebook pages for supporters of Donald Trump. grammar-crackersWhat are the angry white working class men who came out in force for Trump in 2016 going to think about liberals making fun of him because he doesn’t use big words or complicated sentence structure? Might that not reinforce their conviction that supporting Trump is striking a blow against ‘the elite’, aka snobs who look down on anyone less educated than themselves?

Maybe your answer is that you don’t care what a bunch of racists, misogynists and homophobes think. Fine, I’m not asking you to (though I do think a commitment to social justice requires you to care about the economic inequality which is clearly a factor in the rise of right-wing populism). By all means take issue with bigots–but for their politics, not their punctuation. Criticise their views, not the size of their vocabulary. Stop using their grammar as a measure of their moral worth.

Language pedantry is snobbery and snobbery is prejudice. And that, IMHO, is nothing to be proud of.

*The examples used in this post are real, but I’m not supplying links, names, handles or screenshots because I’m not trying to single these particular authors out, I’m just illustrating something that’s very common.

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Whose women?

This week in Yorkshire, a local man named Thomas Mair killed the Labour MP Jo Cox on the street outside a public library. He shot her, stabbed her and kicked her as she lay bleeding on the ground, and witnesses report that he shouted ‘Britain first!’  ‘Britain First’ is the name of a far-right political organization; Mair, it turned out, had a history of involvement with racist and white supremacist groups. Jo Cox, on the other hand, was a vocal campaigner for the rights of migrants and refugees. The police have confirmed that she was deliberately targeted—Mair didn’t just go on a rampage and shoot whoever got in his way. Yet people who knew him described him as a quiet, non-violent man, considerate of his neighbours and devoted to his mother.

Almost exactly a year earlier, on June 17, 2015, another white supremacist, Dylann Roof, had entered a church in Charleston, South Carolina, and shot nine Black worshippers dead. As he opened fire, he reportedly shouted: ‘I have to do it. You rape our women. You’re taking over our country. And you have to go’.

In Charleston, two thirds of the dead were women. But they were not who Dylann Roof was talking about when he used the words ‘our women’.

As many people commented at the time, ‘you rape our women’ was the cry of the white lynch mob during the era of racial segregation in the US. And coded versions of it now function as dog-whistles for Europe’s increasingly popular anti-immigrant parties. Nigel Farage, the leader of UKIP, recently warned that if Britain stayed in the EU there would be an influx of Turkish migrants: ‘the time bomb this time’, he said, ‘would be about Cologne’. He was alluding to the organized attacks on women that took place in the German city last New Year’s Eve, perpetrated by men who were described as being ‘of North African appearance’. Farage is too canny a politician to utter the actual words ‘they’re coming to rape our women’, but everyone knew that was the implication.

Writing in the wake of the Charleston shootings, the sociologist Lisa Wade characterised these references to ‘our women’ as ‘benevolent sexism’—treating women as precious but fragile creatures who depend on men to protect them. I’m familiar with this concept, but I’ve never been keen on the term. When men say ‘our women’ they are staking a claim to ownership, treating women not merely as men’s property, but as the exclusive property of men from a particular racial, ethnic or national group. This is not an act of benevolence towards women. It is a move in a contest between men. Men who are jealous of their prerogatives, and outraged by the idea that other men might try to usurp what is rightfully theirs. That’s also one of the reasons why mass rape is used as a weapon of war: men humiliate their enemies by raping ‘their’ women.

Writing from Bosnia in 1998, the human rights lawyer Sarah Maguire remarked on the way local politicians and officials used the phrase ‘our women’. They used it frequently when praising Bosnia’s many rape survivors for the dignity and resilience that allegedly explained their reluctance to testify against their rapists. ‘You know’, said one politician,

it’s amazing about our women. You can beat them and beat them and the only thing that happens is your arm gets tired. Women don’t break.

What Maguire saw was not unbroken women choosing to keep a dignified silence, it was women who felt exposed and unsupported. They feared that their testimony would provoke reprisals against their families, and they did not believe the authorities would protect them.

But it isn’t just ‘the enemy’s women’ who are targets of male sexual aggression. Here’s a comment someone posted in an online military forum on a thread reminiscing about the Falklands War:

I remember…when the ships came back and all the lads are [sic] lining the decks, flags and banners draped over the side with one that read “Lock up your daughters the Bootnecks are back”.

I also remember that banner vividly: I found this comment while looking for evidence that my memory wasn’t deceiving me. And yes, there it was: ‘Lock up your daughters’. Another stock phrase containing a possessive pronoun; another contest between men about who is entitled to possess women’s bodies. Presumably the banner was intended to be humorous rather than threatening. But what was it saying, if not ‘we’re coming to rape your women’?

In Three Guineas, a meditation on, among other things, women’s relationship to war and to the nation-states that wage it, Virginia Woolf famously wrote:

if you insist upon fighting to protect me, or “our” country, let it be understood, soberly and rationally between us, that you are fighting to gratify a sex instinct which I cannot share; to procure benefits which I have not shared and probably will not share; but not to gratify my instincts, or to protect either myself or my country. For, the outsider will say, ‘in fact, as a woman, I have no country. As a woman I want no country. As a woman my country is the whole world’.

Not only did Woolf reject men’s claims to be protecting ‘our women’, she also questioned whether women either were or should want to be included in the national ‘we’. Only recently admitted to citizenship, on terms which were grudging at best, women, she suggested, had little to gain from patriotism or nationalism.

But the idea of women as instinctive internationalists is not borne out by the historical record. Women have been actively involved in nationalist projects (and sometimes in the violence that went with them); many white women supported, and benefited from, British colonialism and imperialism. When Woolf wrote Three Guineas there were women who championed the fascism of Hitler and Mussolini; today there are women campaigning on behalf of other racist demagogues with slogans like ‘let’s take back control’ and ‘make America great again!’ These women clearly think they have a country. Jo Cox, whose politics really were internationalist, also had a country: she served it as an MP, and she died because someone decided she had betrayed it (when he appeared before the magistrates, her killer gave his name as ‘Death to traitors, freedom for Britain’).

In her book Right-Wing Women, Andrea Dworkin argued that when women embrace ultra-conservatism, racism and religious bigotry, this is a strategy for survival in a dangerous world:

From father’s house to husband’s house to a grave that still might not be her own, a woman acquiesces to male authority in order to gain some protection from male violence. She conforms, in order to be as safe as she can be.

The reasoning behind this is that men will protect the women they regard as ‘theirs’ from the men they regard as Other. But this strategy gives women no protection from the violence of their supposed protectors—the fathers and brothers and husbands and sons who actually pose the greatest risk to women’s safety.

The men responsible for headline-grabbing acts of public violence are not a totally different population from the men who abuse women and children at home. On the contrary, in the US since 2009, most of the mass killings classified as hate crimes or acts of terrorism have also involved the killing of a partner, ex-partner or other family member. Omar Mateen, the man who shot 50 people dead (and injured many more) in a gay club in Orlando earlier this month, had a history of serious domestic abuse. In these cases, as the journalist Soraya Chemaly has argued, it is unhelpful to talk as if there were no connection between ‘intimate’ or domestic violence and the killing of strangers in public places. What links them is that both are expressions of what Chemaly calls ‘aggrieved male entitlement’.

It is good to see feminists joining these dots, and insisting that the maleness of the perpetrators is not just an incidental feature of hate crimes like Omar Mateen’s or Thomas Mair’s or Dylann Roof’s. But making the connections is only the first step. We need a strategy to deal with the aggrieved male entitlement which is at the root of so much public and private violence. In education, in the criminal justice system and in the culture at large, this needs to be seen for what it is—one of the most dangerous forces at work in the world today.

Challenging aggrieved male entitlement also means challenging, whenever and wherever we encounter it, the habit of talking about women as possessions, things which men are entitled to own and control. I know it may seem like a small point, but to me the phrase ‘our women’ , whether it’s uttered by white supremacists, national politicians or minority ‘community leaders’, is demeaning and dehumanizing. We are not ‘your women’. We belong to ourselves.

The illustration shows floral tributes to Jo Cox MP in Birstall, West Yorkshire.

Lost without translation

In Melbourne in 2007, Marzieh Rahimi, a 33-year Dari-speaking woman who had come to Australia as a refugee from Afghanistan, was killed by her husband Soltan Azizi. He had a history of violence towards her, and before her death she had made two calls to the emergency services. But her English was very limited, and the operator could not understand her. In the end she hung up. No attempt was made to call her back, and no assistance was dispatched.

Being unable to get help in an emergency was not the only problem Marzieh Rahimi had faced because of her lack of proficiency in English. Although she had talked to social services through an interpreter, her sister, who had spoken to her by phone from the USA, later testified that Marzieh had felt unsupported. The couple lived in an area where there were few other Dari speakers, so being unable to speak English left her isolated, with no friends or neighbours she could turn to.

At Soltan Azizi’s trial, the judge criticized the emergency services, calling the failure to prevent Marzieh Rahimi’s death ‘an indictment of our society’. But many people disagreed: if she expected help, they said, she should have made the effort to learn English.

As the linguist and human rights advocate Ingrid Piller commented,  language is ‘the last bastion of “legitimate” victim blaming’. People who would never suggest that the victim of a hate crime should have changed their religion or lightened their skin find it perfectly reasonable to say that they should have learnt the language. And in this case the victim-blaming was doubly unjust. Like the domestic violence that killed her, Marzieh Rahimi’s linguistic problems were a product of structural sexual inequality.

One aspect of this inequality is to do with access to second language learning. It is not a coincidence that Soltan Azizi had attended English classes, whereas Marzieh Rahimi had not. Women who enter a country as dependents do not always get the same opportunities as men who are expected to join the workforce. Even if classes are in theory available, women may in practice be unable to attend them because they do not have childcare, or transport, or money.

Learning a new language as an adult is not as easy as many English monolinguals think. It’s been calculated that the average adult needs over 400 hours of instruction to achieve a reasonable level of proficiency, and more than that if the language is ‘difficult’, e.g. written in a different script from the one the learner already knows. These figures assume a learner who is educated and literate: it’s harder for adults with low levels of literacy. This disadvantages refugees whose education has been limited by extreme poverty and/or disrupted by conflict. And it particularly affects women, because where education is a scarce resource, girls are likely to get even less than boys.

Marzieh Rahimi was economically dependent, socially isolated and burdened with domestic responsibilities. She also had a controlling and violent husband who would hardly have encouraged her to seek out language-learning opportunities. Saying that she ‘should have made the effort’ to master English glosses over all the structural factors that prevented her from doing so.

This punitive attitude is increasingly common, and not only in Australia. In the UK, where I live, it is both entrenched in public opinion and increasingly enshrined in government policy.

The crackdown on non-English speakers began under Labour in 2005 with the introduction of a test for UK citizenship that had to be taken in ‘a recognized British language’ (in practice English, though Welsh and Gaelic are also permitted). This has advantaged applicants from affluent majority English-speaking countries like the US, Canada and Australia, while disadvantaging those from poor, non-English speaking countries like Afghanistan and Iraq. Successive governments have also imposed English language requirements for non-EU migrants who don’t want to become citizens, but simply want to work or study in Britain, or to join a spouse here. In 2014 the government announced new restrictions on benefit claimants with limited skills in English.

During the same period, translation and interpreting services have been cut repeatedly, not only to save money but also for ideological reasons. Since 2006 both the main political parties have openly declared their opposition to multilingual service provision. They claim that it removes the incentive to learn English, and that this leads to a lack of integration and ‘social cohesion’.

This rhetoric, which implies that Britain is awash with people who cannot speak the majority language, is at odds with the evidence compiled by the government’s own statisticians. The 2011 census showed that in fact there are very few people living in the UK who don’t speak English: they make up around 0.3% of the population, which is a very low figure for a country with high rates of immigration.

It is also untrue that this small minority of non-English speakers are people who simply refuse to make the effort. The women’s charity Eaves has just released a report on the experiences of women who came to the UK on spousal visas: their research found that women who needed to improve their English were keen to do so (not least because they were also keen to find work). The problem they faced was inadequate provision. The classes that were free or affordable were also full, with waiting times that in some cases were measured in years. Many did not offer childcare, without which they were useless to a lot of the women who needed them.

The UK’s increasingly draconian policies are presented as being about ‘integration’, but research like Eaves’s suggests that little is being done to help newcomers integrate, linguistically or otherwise. The real agenda has more to do with trying to control migrant numbers by being as unwelcoming as possible. It’s not hard to see that this is racist and xenophobic, but we also need to recognize that it is sexist: the way it works in practice reinforces gender inequality, keeping women dependent on men and making them more vulnerable to violence and exploitation.

It is shocking to discover, for instance, that the immigration service itself does not routinely provide interpreters when dealing with non-English speaking women in situations of crisis, such as those who have left violent men while their immigration status is still precarious and need urgent assistance to avoid destitution. Asylum seekers held in detention centres may be forced to rely on other detainees to interpret for them, or to relay their stories of persecution and torture through their own children.

Women’s organizations are well aware of the importance of multilingual services, but they are struggling to provide them because of insufficient funding. Some of the most experienced and effective providers are specialist services set up to meet the linguistic and cultural needs of Black and minority ethnic women; but they have often had to fight to survive. In 2008 Ealing Council threatened Southall Black Sisters with closure, claiming that their specialist provision for BME women was detrimental to social cohesion (an argument SBS successfully challenged in court). Last year, Latin American Women’s Aid almost had to close its London refuge after Islington Council withdrew its annual grant, apparently on the grounds that since Islington residents mostly aren’t from Latin America, the service did not merit council support.

Meanwhile, non-specialist local services are also dealing with linguistically diverse populations, but they are expected to manage with a level of funding that does not cover the cost of interpreters or bilingual workers. Refuges are being forced to turn women away because they cannot meet their linguistic needs. As Kimberle Crenshaw pointed out in her 1991 article ‘Mapping the Margins’, this is an unacceptable position for refuges to be in, since it means they are unable to meet their primary goal of providing a place of safety.

This is part of the general problem of women’s services being starved of funds, but it is also connected to the point made by Ingrid Piller, that language discrimination is often seen as legitimate where other kinds are not. Feminists need to be vocal in opposing this. Denying women services because of the languages they do or don’t speak is treating them unequally, and in some cases denying them basic rights. Politicians should not be able to get away with arguing that multilingual service-provision ‘ghettoizes’ non-English speakers: anyone who pays attention to the experiences of women will know that the opposite is true.

As well as defending multilingual services, we should support campaigns for women, regardless of visa and employment status, to have meaningful access to English language teaching. That requires not only more provision overall, so that people who cannot pay don’t have to wait years to take a class, but also more provision that addresses the specific needs of women—especially their need for childcare.

Last but not least, we should challenge prejudice against non-English speakers, or those who speak the language imperfectly, wherever we encounter it. Some of the women interviewed for the Eaves report mentioned negative attitudes to other languages as an obstacle to integration: they were wary of interacting with British people in case their imperfect English provoked a hostile response. Low-level linguistic intolerance contributes to the isolation of non-English speakers, and helps to create a climate in which more serious abuses can be condoned.

Marzieh Rahimi’s story shows where this can lead. Her treatment wasn’t just a failure of communication, it was a failure of empathy and basic humanity. Not speaking English made her Other: she ‘hadn’t made the effort’, so it was somehow acceptable to make none for her. It’s not enough that her killer was brought to justice. The system which failed her, and which continues to fail women like her, must also be held to account.

In this post I have drawn on information from several UK women’s organizations, including Eaves, Imkaan, LAWA, nia, Southall Black Sisters and Women’s Aid. (You can use the links if you want to donate to support their work.) For pointing me to some of these sources and for answering my questions I am grateful to Liz Kelly, Janet McDermott, Yasmin Rehman, Sumanta Roy and Karen Ingala Smith. The views expressed are my own.