Last week, I was preparing a mailing for an organization where I volunteer, and I saw that one of the intended recipients was an action-group that contained the word “family.” For a few seconds, I caught myself wondering if this group would be an appropriate recipient for this particular mailing, because the word “family” attached to an action-group instantly brought to my mind associations with social conservatism, Prop 8, and the Republican party. Now, I realize that this initial response was silly on multiple levels, but it is indicative of another reason that makes it so difficult to speak productively about gender: the vocabulary surrounding gender and families has become too politicized.
Over the past few decades, we have become mindful that the language we use has a history that embodies and perpetuates social structures, and much of this focus on language has been useful. We have, for example, become attentive to the problems with using masculine forms to express universals, and we have made often useful distinctions between sex and gender. But a byproduct of explorations of language that have lead to important theoretical distinctions and efforts to be more inclusive is that we are often now unable to decouple gender-related words and philosophical attitudes (such as do gender differences have biological and/or social causes?) from particular ideologies. This is often harmful, because politics ends up preventing serious discussion, compromise, and fact-finding. It would be politically difficult today to propose research on if men and women’s abilities in, say, math differed, even if the results showed differences from which we could learn to teach math better and to help both men and women excel, because we are aware that proposing innate differences has excused discrimination in the past. (Of course, there are also other difficulties with testing these abilities in the first place, but assume for a moment that we could.) To return to the word “families,” most of us would probably agree that every political party should work to promote families, but the word is now often associated with just one.
Since word choices surrounding gender are now so politically laden, those of us who are aware of the history of these words are subject to anxiety, since our word choices will affiliate us with political stances, while those who are unaware of a word’s political as well as basic meaning risk being criticized or misunderstood for offenses they more often than not did not intend. Too often in our conversations, when we hear ideas or words about gender that trigger these political associations (SSM! Eternal nature! Biological reasons explain…! social construct!) we stop listening to the speaker and immediately reach for our political arguments.
I don’t think that we will ever again have “neutral” words in which to talk about gender, and, indeed, I don’t believe that language is capable of being neutral. But although I normally think that awareness of history and language is a positive thing, when it comes to gender, perhaps we need to be charitably forgetful of the associations that a speaker’s words or ideas might have so that we can listen better before we take sides politically. Or, maybe we need to be vigilant about allowing words to get co-opted by certain ideologies in the first place. There are no easy solutions here, but we need to make sure that we don’t let the political associations that accompany words prevent us from listening to and respecting others.