Why we can’t talk about gender, cont.

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.

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Comments

  1. Actually, there is a lot of research being conducted on gender differences in the STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) disciplines. Just a couple weeks ago I attended a seminar on student physics “identity” and how that identity can be increased in high school girls. My dissertation will be on the differences in the undergraduate engineering experience for women and men and how we can improve the environment. I talk about gender a lot, and there are a lot of other academics in a lot of fields devoted to gender studies.

  2. 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.

    I like this — thanks. Most of us have learned to be cautious of word associations when it comes to advertising so that we aren’t fooled by “low fat” and “all natural” or the implications that buying Product X will make us rich, young, and remarkable successful on the dance floor. We should be able to use the same skill to recognize our tendencies you outline to react to political or social words and temporarily — and charitably — suspend or forget those habitual associations in an effort to understand.

  3. Steve Evans says:

    Natalie, I like this post, but I doubt our ability to manufacture a tabula rasa when it comes to gender discussions. We are controlled by language as much as we control it.

  4. trentathon says:

    Steve – I don’t think that Natalie was calling for reform. Rather, she was just pointing out a phenomenon that is occurring.

    Great thoughts.

  5. Natalie B. says:

    #1 – I think that is fantastic. I was dismayed when Larry Summers got into so much trouble for remarks that were along the lines of there might be scientific reasons for these differences. I, too, worry about the potential abuses of evoking natural gender differences, but I was really disturbed to think that someone couldn’t propose studying them without being attacked.

    #2 – I think you are absolutely right to compare this issue to advertising. The same skill sets are at work.

    #3 – I agree that a tabula rasa is impossible and that we are partly controlled and limited by language, but I do think that we can also partly controll how we use it and react to it in ways that are more productive than others. I don’t think there are any easy solutions here, but I want to believe that we can try to change our responses to politically charged language.

  6. Steve Evans says:

    Natalie, I totally agree with that. In my experience, the solution is not one of simple vocabulary choices, but rather is relational. That is, if you want to break through the quagmire of loaded terms, the best way to do so is within the context of a trusting friendship. When we are already more inclined to see eye-to-eye on spiritual things, the negative impact of loaded language can largely be negated.

  7. Not negated, Steve, but more easily tolerated, at least.

  8. Natalie B. says:

    #6 – I agree: our communication has to include the entire context of the relationship, not just the vocab choices. In fact, I think that it is only once we have a trusting relationship that we can really understand what people are trying to say through their words. Great point.

  9. Mark Brown says:

    One reason it is so difficult is because discourse on gender requires us to think in terms of one or the other. There is little room for the girl who is a tomboy or the boy who doesn’t like sports. Real, live people are interesting precisely because individuals cannot be stereotyped. People of both sexes are represented all along the masculine-feminine continuum, but discussions about gender force us to overgeneralize.

  10. I see the same problem in the environmental arena. The environmental vernacular has become too loaded to be useful in constructive dialogue.

  11. MikeInWeHo says:

    re: 9
    That’s a good point, but the discourse is not the same everywhere. There’s regional variation.

    For example, when I visit my parents in rural Michigan I notice that people routinely make statements like “that’s a man’s job” or crack jokes about “women’s work.” That’s in contrast with how gender is viewed and discussed here in West Hollywood (understatement of the day!).

  12. Natalie, let me add a wrinkle here:

    English words almost all have multiple possible meanings. Of particular issue with gender-related discussions is efforts to create a new meaning for a word that has meant something different or restrictive in the past.

    The post on my own blog that generated the most comments and heated debate was one I wrote a while ago about the change I’ve seen over the past decade or so in the way the global Church leadership is using and defining the word “preside” – especially as it relates to how couples divide the responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. I see a new meaning being promulgated for what it means to “preside” in the home (or, technically, a stretching of application), and I see a corresponding, radically different way to explain the ideal marriage structure in the Proclamation to the World than what used to be taught.

    The problem, however, in discussing this sort of issue is that many people refuse to consider the possibility that it might be OK to use a word that they perceive to have been “offensive” in what it has meant historically in a new or differently applied way. I don’t know how many times I’ve heard people insist that the word “preside” needs to be scrapped and another used in its place. The Church appears to want to use the same word and simply broaden the meaning to include both a husband and a wife, presiding as one. This leaves the core meaning untouched, and, instead of trying to change the root meaning, simply broadens the application to include both partners.

    The fascinating clash I see, however, is in the concurrent assertion that the meaning of a word like “marriage” can’t be broadened in its application to include previously excluded people and situations. Thus, what we are doing for “preside” can’t be done for “marriage”. We don’t need a new word for the first, but we need a new word for the second.

    No wonder this causes angst and difficulty among those who try to discuss these issues with each other.

  13. Naismith says:

    “Or, maybe we need to be vigilant about allowing words to get co-opted by certain ideologies in the first place.”

    This is very much how I feel about the use of “working” vs. “employed” and why I sometimes speak up about the misuse of terms like “working mother.”

    I have to say that in everyday life, I rarely bring that up. People just talk how they talk, and I realize it is a losing battle. But I would think in an essay that is carefully crafted, choosing the word EMPLOYED rather than WORKING would not be too much too ask.

    Especially if you are trying to talk about it, and not offend right out the gate.

    I’m sure some thought I was being petty earlier in the week to make that point, but it is huge. The notion that moms at home don’t work has profound negative consequence.

  14. I think language is a red herring here. What causes offense is what you mean, not what you say (or what you think you are saying).

    The same joke can be told identically in tone by two different people and I will take offense to one and laugh out loud at the other, only because I have preconceptions about who has standing and good intent.

    Naturally, I will attribute good intent only those whom I expect to agree with me, or whom I respect. The former is unenlightening, the latter takes a (very) long time.

    I consider myself fairly rational, and it took me as a gay atheist over half a year of blogging with a certain devout (but rational, fair, and openminded) blogger of the LDS persuasion (you know who you are!), during which time I alternated between passionate and discouraged, just to get to the point where I could credit him with good intent (and the standing to make jokes that did not cause offense). I suspect there are many on both sides who would not have bothered.

    It is not the politicization of language but the prism of secularism dividing our formerly white society into red and blue, increased economic opportunity downgrading gender role from necessity to choice, and government-sponsored welfare and free flow of information reducing the benefit of church-provided economic and social support.

    Language evolution is the reflection, not the driver, of this new reality. The metaphor that comes to my mind is not Lincoln’s famous “house divided” so much as a banyan tree dropping new roots to support itself even as it spreads further from the trunk. And who doesn’t love the banyan tree?

  15. Naismith,
    I am officially asking you to choose another topic. Please.

  16. Naismith, this is a post about how we can all do each other a favor for the sake of love and understanding, and that favor is to assume the best intentions in each other and when listening to another person try hard not to get too hung up on language. Seek first to understand, then work on fixing problematic language later. I must say, I don’t see you doing that in your comment.

  17. This reminds me of an issue I had on one of the early posts I wrote at ZD. I was talking about the meaning of “patriarchy”. I had just come to realize that many in the church defined it differently than I did (I studied anthropology, and to me patriarchy was simply a social structure in which the men were in charge), and I was asking about how different people defined patriarchy, and how they thought their definition differed from the dictionary definition. One of the problems I immediately got into was that not only did the church define patriarchy differently than I (and the dictionary) did, but it turned out “the world” (or in this case, feminism) also defined patriarchy differently, and people had very visceral responses (in both directions) to any conversation that involved the word (even just a conversation about the meaning of the word). It really surprised me.

  18. Naismith says:

    “Naismith, this is a post about how we can all do each other a favor for the sake of love and understanding, and that favor is to assume the best intentions in each other and when listening to another person try hard not to get too hung up on language.”

    I understood that part, and I’ve explained that in everyday conversations, I do try to extend that courtesy and assume the best intentions of all.

    But I was specifically addressing the statement from the OP, “maybe we need to be vigilant about allowing words to get co-opted by certain ideologies in the first place.” I guess I thought this applied because it seems to me, through tracking the usage through Lexis-Nexis, that the term “working” was co-opted by certain groups with a certain agenda to mean only those working for pay.

    Is that not what was meant? What did it mean, the part about words being co-opted?

  19. Dan, the story of you and your blogger friend is a sweet one, and I think very apt in this thread. Building such long-span bridges is tough, but ultimately the source some of my most cherished relationships. Thanks for that.

    What causes offense is what you mean, not what you say

    I admire your optimism! It seems that sometimes we have a hard time advancing even that far as a society.

  20. MikeInWeHo says:

    “It is not the politicization of language but the prism of secularism dividing our formerly white society into red and blue, increased economic opportunity downgrading gender role from necessity to choice, and government-sponsored welfare and free flow of information reducing the benefit of church-provided economic and social support.

    Language evolution is the reflection, not the driver, of this new reality….”

    Wow, that’s good stuff. Where do you blog, Dan?

  21. Steve Evans says:

    Naismith HOLY COW if you can’t start talking about something else than your (hackneyed, trite) preachings about moms working, your time here is over.

  22. MikeInWeHo,

    Thanks for the praise. I never blog anonymously (too easy for others to pretend that they’re you!). Just click on my name, it’ll take you to my own blog.

    I wonder how it is that someone in WeHo is blogging on an LDS site? (I guess I could ask myself the same question…)

  23. Steve Evans says:

    Dan, glad to have you and your really interesting thoughts — thanks.

  24. Steve, I’ve never found Naismith to be hackneyed or trite. Her comments in this thread are thoughtful, well expressed and were made directly to a point expressed in the OP.

    So to throw down your own tired, hackneyed and trite threats of banishment from BCC directed at someone who ably expresses their opinion on a blog that is nothing more than opinions deserves much more than a HOLY COW.

  25. Steve Evans says:

    Thanks KLC. Consider it, if you will, to be an expression of frustration at the repetitive nature of Naismith’s comments over the last several weeks. Perhaps you have simply not followed them all. Don’t worry, I know Naismith has been commenting a long time and has plenty of interesting things to say — I am just hopefully that she will continue saying them, as opposed to beating the dead horse du jour.

  26. Steve, one man’s dead horse is another woman’s passionate interest. Which one is right?

  27. KLC, when it comes to site comments, the admin is always right. I’m a tyrant, remember.

  28. KLC, if you have something substantive to add, you are welcome to do it, otherwise kindly move along and stop using Natalie’s very thoughtful post for threadjacking. The admin email is listed on the “About” page if you have administrative issues you would like to discuss.

  29. re: 22 Long story, Dan. Find me on Facebook sometime and I’ll explain. I don’t have a personal blog right now. Yours looks really interesting, btw. Thanks for the link. No doubt you’ll have a bunch of Mormon readers now too!

  30. MikeInWeHo–
    Careful, there. Mr. Weston is of the clever sort.

  31. Since I’ve been mentioned a couple times now, I will risk one more comment to illustrate exactly the kind of irony-rich context-dependent language I so enjoy reading:

    Faux tea parties aren’t going to get them there, either (and if you ask me, they seem more than a little elite (tea?) and, well, gay (don’t real men drink beer?) for a Party determined to “save the institution of marriage.”

    Irreverently (but not irrelevantly), this was posted to HuffPost, and written by a social scientist who evidently likes both tea and gays. Context is everything!

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