Shifting Language

Policing Language Is Just Another Way to Silence Women


When women and people of color are told what words to use, and how to use them, it’s more than mere political correctness gone awry. It’s a form of silencing that sustains a moral, class, and racial hierarchy.



“The day is over when men can badger and intimidate women, marginalize women and keep them from speaking,” said a Congresswoman in 1994.

Speaking from the floor of the House of Representatives, Democrat Maxine Waters—then in her second term—slammed the actions of a male colleague whom she accused of talking over a witness the night before. Waters was gaveled down as she spoke, all while that same male colleague shouted from his seat. The day was not over for Waters, who, now in her fourteenth term, is continually hushed by conservative media, all while serving as a hero to progressive millennials. The days of women being silenced were far from over, too, and indeed the sheer number of platforms available for men to “badger and intimidate women” has only increased in the past 24 years.

From network news shows all the way down to the comments section on Instagram, an astonishing number of arenas can now serve as vehicles to critique women’s self-expression. In an era where anyone with a Twitter handle can style themselves as a cultural commentator, the number of voices telling women how and when to speak has turned into a veritable Greek chorus.

The language police whipped themselves into a frenzy when Samantha Bee called Ivanka Trump a “feckless cunt” during a recent episode of her late-night show. The outrage was swift and immediate—not over Ivanka’s complicity in a regime that separates babies from their mothers—but over Bee’s use of a word. For many women, “cunt” is exceptionally violent, and we could debate whether or not to use it until the nuclear winter arrives (which might not be so long from now). But Samantha Bee and Maxine Waters are just two examples of a much broader trend, one in which self-appointed authorities dictate to women how and when to speak, critiquing everything from swearing and word choice to political correctness, accent and volume, or the tastefulness of a joke. I can already hear the response from those who will say that policing language isn’t a big deal, or that erasing certain words or modes of speech from public discourse is a way of enforcing civility. That’s bullshit.

“It’s easy to ask for respectful discourse when you automatically expect respect,” wrote Emma Byrne, author of the popular science book, Swearing Is Good for You. “Asking others not to voice their fury in the name of civility is just another way, conscious or not, of keeping the playing field tilted in your favor.”

Comedy in particular is often a reflection of changing taboos and norms, as well as a space to explore age-old topics such as love, family, and relationships. But women who swear, or even simply discuss their sexuality, are often relegated to the label of “women’s comic.” Lynn Harris is a former stand-up comedian and the founder of GOLD, a social-impact startup that aims to amplify women’s voices in comedy. Back in her stand-up days, she recalled how women who discussed dating and sexuality in their sets were trivialized, dismissed as “doing that Sex and the City thing.”

“So often I hear people say things like, ‘I’m all for female comedy. I just wish some of them didn’t have to be so vulgar.’ Which is hilarious to me because I’m like, ‘Have you heard men’s comedy?!’ And of course they don’t call it that,” she said.

Therein lies one of the main differences between how men and women’s speech is perceived and policed: regardless of the context in which women find themselves, they are asked to represent not just themselves but their gender. Many people may not realize the full extent to which they still expect women to be ladylike, nice, or at the very least feminine, but it should come as no surprise that women have only been able to swear in public for the past few decades.

The outrage over Sam Bee’s use of a word situated itself in our outrage culture at large. Part of the sensitivity to certain words has come from the fact that marginalized groups, including women, people of color, and members of various sexual orientations, have an increasing amount of political power and the opportunity to choose their preferred terms. This is a good thing that can enhance our empathy at large, allowing people the self-determination they should have always had. But much of the outrage we see now does not serve as a way of giving people back their power. It has instead become a way to distract and divide groups who otherwise share the same interests. The guise of political correctness is then used as a way to do what people have always done: boss women around.

In an era where social media has dispersed authority to a wide range of people regardless of qualifications, the ombudsman of language range from the internet trolls up to the president of the United States. Donald Trump uses his Twitter page to launch all sorts of name-calling and virtue assigning, deciding who is “crooked” or “crazy,” and what is “great” and “tremendous.” Even relatively small-time media personalities with a few thousand twitter followers can quickly get big media’s attention through call-outs. There is no single entity making the rules of language, and the people deciding those rules and for whom is a constantly shifting landscape.

Many of these critiques couch themselves within a language of civility, an “I’m sorry but don’t you mean…” type of insidiousness. And though it’s far from the most violent form of language policing, it’s often more effective in its subtlety. Writer and Ph.D., Roxane Gay is often on the receiving end of this type of barb. Gay, a contributor to the New York Times opinion page and author of several best-selling books, recounts how complete strangers insist on telling her how to speak, write, and even what to wear. An email she received titled “polite comment” reads: “Perhaps you could have written ‘some’ before ‘white people’ in paragraph seven [sic] of your NYT column today. Just a thought from a white Canadian. Good piece, though.”

If Gay had meant “some” she would have written “some.” This type of false politeness is enraging because it belies a refusal of women’s authority to say what they believe and believe what they say. Politeness has long been a vehicle for making demands on women as well as a demand of itself. Our culture still lauds “poise” in women — just look at the praise heaped on Ivanka Trump and her charming manners. Meanwhile, Waters saw a continual barrage of hate from conservatives who interpreted her impassioned call to action as a violent threat. There are critical racial undertones in this language of politeness as well. Black women who voice their opinions loudly or often risk being dismissed under the archetype of “angry black woman.”

Women of color like Gay and Waters are criticized more sharply than white women for everything from their tone of voice, to their choice of words, to the volume of their delivery. Writer and comedian Ashley Nicole-Black, who also writes DAME’s advice column, witnesses this constant barrage of abuse on her social media feeds. The replies to a single recent tweet include strangers accusing her of “playing the victim card,” calling her “sweetheart,” and poking fun at her appearance and weight.

“If you’re black, you are judged; you’re policed. Every syllable you utter, every way you dress, everything you do with your hair is found fault with, is ‘too white or not white enough,’” said Robin Lakoff, a pioneer in the study of gender and language and a professor of linguistics at University of California, Berkeley.

This additional level of scrutiny for people of color—many of whom are also told to speak only in a certain language—is a loss for our culture at large. American English is a patchwork of dialects, regional particularities, and inflections from other languages. Those who want to purify American speech seem to have conveniently forgotten all of the words that we have borrowed from other languages, down to the terms that pepper our patriotic anthems and describe our national landscape. We can thank the French language for our “prairies,” Spanish for our “canyons,” and Arabic, German, and French respectively for our “amber waves of grain.”

When we talk about the policing of women’s language, we, of course, have to talk about those who are not being silenced. People who willfully use incorrect terms for others’ identity are not being silenced when they’re asked to change their speech. People who employ offensive speech purely to offend are not exempt from outcry. Free speech does not mean speech free from criticism or consequence.

It is precisely because of the power of words and that no one is free from consequence. And that includes those who continue to serve as unelected authorities over women’s speech. “Without language we couldn’t have politics; we couldn’t have power,” said Lakoff. “The pretense that it’s ‘only words’ is something we say to ourselves to comfort us.”

This is the final installment in our ongoing series on America’s “shifting language.” In our previous piece, we look at how the rest of the world views our language manipulations.

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