Friday, June 10, 2011

Reading Coded Language

In online discussions about stereotype threat, combative attitudes (as opposed to adversarial method), and distinguishing exclusionary or sexist/racist language from innocuous language, it is often pointed out that an accused speaker need not be intending to exclude or accuse or intimidate others. Furthermore, some see sexist/racist language where others merely see colorful or humorous examples.

This is a legitimate issue, worth discussing. How can sexist language be identified? Can language be sexist even when the speaker has no such intent? And what about cases where many people in an audience wouldn't identify the language as exclusionary? Are those who would (usually those who feel targeted by it) just overly sensitive? Possibly even paranoid?

First, the question about intention. It's certainly possible that a speaker be sexist without a conscious intention. In a male-dominated (white-dominated) environment, using language that reinforces males/whites as the norm may seem just that--normal--while also achieving an exclusionary effect. Sometimes we aren't even aware of the coded language we use or what our actions indicate about our beliefs. Indeed, it is the rare bigot who is so aware and proud of the bigotry as to reach for offensive language.

For example, in the town where I went to college if someone said "I know the Safeway is farther away, but I'd just rather go there than the Winn-Dixie," this could reasonably be interpreted as conveying an unspoken attitude toward race. And many at my college would have said it. There was no need even to reach for a more explicit code: "The Winn-Dixie? Only townies shop there!"

I attended a talk not too long ago during which I spent much of my time wondering if others in the room (and who) were as offended as I was at the low-level but constant aggressive nature of the talk. What do you think? Does a pattern emerge from the following statements? (The talk/slideshow was about the nuts-and-bolts of collaboration--ostensibly about how to deal with the practical side of working with collaborators.)
  • "Know that in some collaborations, you will wind up jumping into bed with people you won't want to build a relationship with."
  • "Figure out what people expect out of a collaborative relationship. Some are even genuinely concerned about the issues, so try to figure that out."
  • "Always tell people the deadline is earlier than it really is," with a stock photo of a war game.
  • Slide title: "Surprising Sights," with clipart images of a fat lady and a bearded lady.
  • military jokes and drinking jokes and drinking-in-the-military jokes (and no other jokes).
  • Slide title: "Different goals and agendas," with clipart image of someone being stabbed in the back with a knife.
  • "Before you jump in bed with a collaborator, find out how much they'll want from you."
I'm trying to decide if the talk was offensive only because of its insincere attitude toward the goal of inquiry or for other reasons as well.

1 comment:

Teresa Blankmeyer Burke said...

I think we attended the same talk - you weren't the only one who was offended...