You know that old saying? The one you are told to say when you are eight and some kid in the playground has called you stupid? Sticks and stones may break my bones but words…can only fuel racism, homophobia, transphobia, sexism and self-image issues in later life, as well as alienate those who do not align themselves with society’s expectations and provide standards for us to live up to. These are boxes which are hard to break out of and ensure that tired old stereotypes and discrimination aids failures in the justice system. Or something like that. Though eight year olds these days are probably too busy on their iPhones to notice that there are even other children to insult.
In a discussion with Lindy West about the effect of comedy and responsibilities of comics, Jim Norton asserted that one can make offensive jokes because language does not affect culture, so it can be used as we wish. The issue of freedom of expression is a long and complex one, but as a linguist one thing I can assert into this conversation is that actually language has a huge impact on its surroundings. It is universal, transcends culture – it developed out of basic need to communicate with one another. Adverts, the media and politicians all take advantage of language in order to manipulate the listener or viewer, and the effect it can have is pretty damn immense. So, before entering into any conversation about freedom of expression, one much first admit the extent to which language can shape our lives and culture.
So what do we do with this? You cannot have control over what everybody says all the time. You have to let people air their views in order to make sure that even the most idiotic can be heard, it helps us understand why we do and say certain things and why we don’t do or say others. But there are a few things we can make a conscious effort to change. Rather than moaning about diets already gone wrong, feeling guilty about one cigarette or lamenting our inability to get up earlier and get work done this year, why don’t we do small things. By doing this we can make sure each day goes better than the last, while improving our impact on other people, all starting with what we say.
Let’s start with the sayings which are said almost without thinking, but which recycle stereotypes and discrimination. No, the guy telling his son to man up is not necessarily completely sexist, the woman telling somebody to stop being a woman is not a self-hating female who secretly thinks that having boy parts will make her amazing, and the kid in the playground who calls somebody ‘gay’ when he doesn’t like him is not necessarily destined to become a raging homophobic idiot. But this doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t choose our words carefully, especially with what we tell our children. Guante explores the effect of the phrase ‘man up’ in this excellent and passionate poem and insists that he will not, in fact, be ‘manning up’, whatever that means.
Is it really acceptable to begin gender segregation with what we say? Since when, upon telling somebody to ‘man up’ or ‘stop being such a woman’, did we really mean what this is in fact communicating to them? That being: You are a guy so stop showing emotions, you are a boy which is a much more desirable than being a woman. Now please adhere to my standards set for the typical ‘male’ and if you deviate then you are a mere woman. Or: I know you are a girl but can you please act more like a guy, stop crying and being so weak, lest somebody remember that you are of the female species and guide you swiftly back to the kitchen. By the way, happy third birthday! Well done on making it another year, but maybe this year we can try a little less crying or I fear nobody at playschool will take you seriously.
The phrase “Man Up” suggests that competence and perseverance are uniquely masculine traits. That women—not to mention any man who doesn’t eat steak, drive a pickup truck, have lots of sex with women—are nothing more than background characters, comic relief, props. More than anything, though, it suggests that to be yourself—whether you, wear skinny jeans, listen to Lady Gaga, rock a little eyeliner, drink some other brand of light beer, or write poetry—will cost you.Guante
So why are we saying things which we don’t actually mean?
On top of this we feel the constant need to label one another, which prevents us from breaking out of the stereotypes associated with certain labels and helps us to misunderstand those who deviate from the ‘norm’. Luckily our society generally strives to teach young women to achieve their dreams and be what they want to be. But what options are there? We can get a job and be a ‘career woman’, like our career defines us, we can stay at home and be a ‘full time mum’- like being a mum is ever part time right?- and be up for ridicule of those who think that is old fashioned and not empowering. We could be assertive and be a ‘bitch’, say ‘no’ and be a ‘prude’, or say ‘yes’ and be a ‘slut’, which can distort other people’s view of us and push them to believe that a line which is, get this Robin Di-I mean Thicke, crystal clear, is actually blurred, leading to victim shaming and a failure of the justice system. We should be appreciating every person for their uniqueness and not dehumanising and degrading them to mere labels which cause us to prejudge one another.
Lads mags have come under fire recently in a battle of freedom of expression versus the freedom not to be objectified or allow rape apology and fuel for sexual harassment. There is nothing wrong with wanting to see naked men or women. But when the phrases and captions accompanying said men and women do not in fact admire them in all their bodily glory and respect their willingness to be completely vulnerable and bare in such a way as they should do, rather they treat them as though it is laughable that they should have a brain and that they are there for the taking. In that lies the problem.
So really it is time to at least make sure that we do not continue what ignorance has taught us and ensure that when we open our mouths it is not to mock or to discriminate but to encourage and inspire one another. Then perhaps the next generation may grow up feeling valued rather than segregated and we might just see what people can do when given a little confidence.