Friday, January 14, 2011

Language Shapes--or Reflects--Reality?

More on language and gender.

What is the point of discussing how language interacts with sexism? Is the thought that by changing language, we can change sexist practices and behavior? Why not see things the other way around, that the language we use describes and emerges out of our social reality. From this latter perspective, the way to change social inequality is to treat people equally and to put into place policies, institutions, and practices that treat people equally. Once that is done, we will naturally use non-sexist language. (The degree to which language shapes thought has been controversial and difficult to test: more on that below.)

I suppose the thought is that words like 'policeman' describe the way our social reality is, for the most part, and once there are more policewomen, then we will use that word more often.

But why not use words like 'police officer' and 'firefighter,' which don't demand gendering of their subjects?

The argument in support of prioritizing language change starts with these two points:
1. If you are concerned about sex inequality--and other forms of inequality--then you will not want to participate in communicating in ways that reinforce the perception of inequality. It is not the case that everyone who is concerned to create conditions of equality has thought about the ways that our language does this, and so discussing it is often welcome.
2. If you are concerned about sex inequality, then changing your language is an easy thing to do. It does not require a large investment of time or thought, and adapting our language to contexts and commitments is something we do all the time.

Some of the arguments against prioritizing changing sexist to gender-neutral language ignore the above points. They claim either that:
1. it is ineffectual. But much of the labor that we put into supporting equality is ineffective on the small and immediate scale; the motivation for doing so is consistency between thought (a commitment to equality) and action.
2. even if it is effectual, the results are not as dramatic as achieving workplace equality, etc. But if language is used to devalue some people, then changing it may assist these other goals. In addition, it does not reduce in any way the effort to achieve other forms of equality.
3. it is coercive. But changing how I speak does not coerce others into changing how they speak.

That third point is telling. Surely part of the movement towards gender-neutral language does involve changing policies or norms (using peer pressure) to decrease how acceptable it is to use language that is deployed to exclude, ignore, or belittle others. For instance, professional organizations and journals have set standards for non-sexist language usage. Here's the APA's, from 1986.

Setting standards for non-sexist language use in professional contexts seems analogous to setting standards for non-sexist behavior. Surely, speaking is behavior, and it might be interpreted as even more important than behavior, which returns us to the earlier question, does the language we use (its categories, its affective content) shape the way we see the world, the way we think?

Research by linguistic psychologists suggests that it does. Lera Boroditsky asks:
Does treating chairs as masculine and beds as feminine in the grammar make Russian speakers think of chairs as being more like men and beds as more like women in some way? It turns out that it does.
I have described how languages shape the way we think about space, time, colors, and objects. Other studies have found effects of language on how people construe events, reason about causality, keep track of number, understand material substance, perceive and experience emotion, reason about other people's minds, choose to take risks, and even in the way they choose professions and spouses. Taken together, these results show that linguistic processes are pervasive in most fundamental domains of thought, unconsciously shaping us from the nuts and bolts of cognition and perception to our loftiest abstract notions and major life decisions.


Egbert B. Gebstadter said...

On the subject of sexism in language, you might be interested in Hofstadter's "A Person Paper on Purity in Language":

Undoubtedly it's pretty inflammatory, and one can certainly dispute the appropriateness of the analogy, but I think it does a good job of shocking the reader into reconsidering their use of language.

Evelyn Brister said...

Thanks so much for the link!
A small section of this parody appears in the course textbook, but I hadn't realized how extensive the original was!

I especially like, i.e. find well-parodied, the section on why it's so valuable for women to advertise their sexual availability through their title (blacks, their employment status).