Monday, July 23, 2012

Language Can Wound Even if You Don't Think So

In 1985, the Section for Women in Public Administration sponsored and Marie Rosenberg Dishman and I wrote a booklet entitled The Right Word: Guidelines for Avoiding Sex-Biased Language.  The goal was not to beat people over the head with a pound of political correctness (in fact the PC term was not yet in use), but to offer alternatives to those who wanted to replace some long outdated terms.

I have written several other articles on the topic, and my favorite anecdote remains one from the first female astronaut, Dr. Sally Ride.  She was a commentator when Discovery Astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon, a physician, helped craft a device used in an attempt to retrieve a satellite.  It entailed several stitches made with a string and a sail maker's needle. A male astronaut, acting as Mission Control communicator with the shuttle, complimented Dr. Seddon on her "seamstress" work.  Ride said she wanted to correct that comment, and did so with a smile.  "That was the work of a surgeon," she said.

Gentle humor is an aid in many situations.  When it comes to sex-biased terms, some changes were just plain easier.  There is no longer a need to call a female aviator an aviatrix or an usher an usherette, and you would probably be locked out of  the office if you called your administrative assistant a 'gal Friday.'

There are other terms in relatively common use that could be offensive and we don't think about it.  Someone who has deviated from a long-held tradition or office policy might be said to be "off the reservation."  Think about it.  That term undoubtedly arose when Native Americans were forced onto reservations more than a century ago.

And what about the term "white trash?"  We know it's meant to be insulting.  Is a user saying people who are not white are more likely to "be trashy" and only some especially sloppy white people are?  Ninety-nine times out of one-hundred that insult is hurled with no racial intent, but it's still a hurtful term.

What brought such uses to mind recently was a series of emails among some fiction author friends.  One had circulated a draft of a new book cover, and several of us tossed humorous darts at the publisher (who since revised the cover - it was really awful!).  A couple of the others said the man on the cover was "so gay."  The man was the woman's boyfriend, so bad artwork or not, he was supposed to be heterosexual.

These were comments made among friends, not meant as hateful barbs.  Maybe the term was so 'neutral' to a couple of the other authors that they would use the expression around gay or lesbian friends.  However, I'm not sure a gay young man who was bullied in high school would find it funny, nor likely would his parents.

Taking the term away from a discussion of someone's appearance, it's impossible to ignore that the term "that's so gay" is now used to refer to something that is dumb or an excuse that is poor.  Clearly, it's an insult.  Why do we ignore the use when we would call out a colleague who uses terms such as 'spic' or 'kike'?

The thinking is likely, gee, I know they don't mean any harm, or I don't want to be a spoil sport.  It can be uncomfortable to be a 'language police officer,' and sometimes you have to pick your battles.  The best lesson can be in the form of a question.  When you ask someone why they use a term or phrase, it makes them think.  They may come to understand that language can offend whether it is intended it to be demeaning or not.

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