Against metaphor.

12 Oct

This post is full of offensive, derogatory and potentially triggering language.
I’ve been thinking about inclusive language and trying to be more mindful of my own.

I agree with the premise that language reflects and reinforces certain ideas, and that it’s worthwhile to be more aware of the assumptions behind our usage and understanding (the assumptions that make sense of words and give them meaning beyond their denotative referent; the word’s face value – what might be the first entry in a small dictionary).It’s a project initially motivated by solidarity with self-determination – by wanting to respect how people prefer to be addressed, described or discussed; to respond to their political needs; and to show support for cultural change through linguistic change. And it inevitably extends to questioning the assumptions on which all language relies.

But I’ve found common knowledge and practice around inclusive language in social justice circles to be both too simple, and too complicated.

Inclusive Language 101

The basics of oppressive language are simple to grasp. When you use language that can refer to or that is associated with a group of people or their characteristics and circumstances to mean something else (generally derogatory, but it may not be), you thicken the link between the two: saying “gay” when you mean “uncool” implies that gay people are uncool.

It’s simple to understand with the most overt examples, and simple to change: no matter how accustomed you are to using words like “nigger,” “faggot” or “retard,” it’s not hard to set up an alarm in your mind and find a better replacement.

Often there’s no perfect substitute, no word that’s quite as powerful – but that’s because oppression is powerful and there’s little that can call up so much power, so quickly, as a slur that stands in for a whole history of violence.

There’s plenty of existing discussion about words and phrases that can be hurtful or exclusionary and why you shouldn’t use them. Meloukhia gives a few examples:

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

Some of these offend because they are commonly used as an insult but also refer to, or are associated with, a group of people (“cunt,” “moron,” “insane”). Some perpetuate stereotype by associating a group of people with certain characteristics or actions (“ballsy,” “jewed”). Some directly exclude (“biological sex,” using male pronouns as generic). Some embody double standards (“whore,” “shrew”). Some depersonalise (“the disabled”).Some understandings of inclusive language focus too much on the first two types. I don’t want to argue for either rejecting certain words or reclaiming others, and I certainly don’t want to make a judgement about who can say which words, and when. I do want to acknowledge that there’s more to language than vocabulary; more to inclusive language than banning words and phrases.

I want to talk about when language perpetuates unintended associations and assumptions in ways that are problematic but not necessarily hurtful. I want to consider this without calling for a ban, without even asking people to avoid certain phrases or judging them on how they use language. At the same time, I recognise this is an academic exercise: while deliberate language is political, it is not necessarily inclusive, and attempting it isn’t activism.

Beyond Denotation: Against Metaphor

Extending my last piece on analogy, I want to argue against metaphor – against substituting one thing for another, against reaching into the baggage of one thing to enrich or complicate our understanding of another.

To start with an obvious example, blackness and darkness is routinely used to stand in for mystery, fear, or general negativity. Though these associations may exist in many cultures, in mine it also draws on racism.

We use poor to signify lack, but it indicates both the state of having less (“poor people”) and being less (“poor form”).

Disability metaphors abound: a publication which would never refer to people as “retards” or “spastics” is likely to use “blind” and “deaf” regularly as a metaphor for ignorance or ineptitude (“the Government is blind to growing dissatisfaction …” etc). Debt is “crippling” and design is “schizophrenic.”

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag considers late twentieth century discourse on cancer to reveal our time’s anxiety about uncontrolled economic growth and technological progress. When capitalism is called cancerous, how cancer patients experience their bodies, or isolate the disease process from their bodies?

Rape is used as a metaphor for almost any offence or injustice, from colonisation to privacy violations to logging of old-growth forests. Consent is relevant in almost every political conversation – autonomy is essentially consent collectivised – but alluding to sexual assault is unnecessary and insensitive.

It’s impossible to escape metaphor’s intersections with oppression; most adjectives can be applied to bodies and people, so the words that describe me (short, young, light) inevitably draw on some other meanings (curt, fresh, unimportant).

Of course, I don’t really want to argue against metaphor. I want richly layered associative meaning; I want poetry. And I know sometimes synonyms are equal, if not independent of analogy, metaphor and association. Language is more complex and flexible than these caveats suggest.

Etymology is not meaning

Inclusive language is naive when it presumes that that a word only means one thing and will always mean that thing. Etymology is not meaning, meanings aren’t always hierarchical, and language changes through time and shapes itself for the situation.

Some meanings pass away: if linguists just hush for a bit, I think people will quickly forget that “bastard” originally meant someone whose parents weren’t married. Now it’s just someone you don’t like, or in Australia, anyone. The modern meanings of “laconic”, “spartan” and “lesbian” are dominant in the anglophone world, and their racial origins are only of academic interest. Historic insults sound so weak to modern sensibilities that television shows like Deadwood use anachronism to get the tone across. The sense of “gay” as homosexual has overtaken earlier meanings such as female prostitute.

On the other hand, accidental associations that aren’t based in etymology may cause offence. “Niggardly”, for example, can be used as a covert racial slur though its origins have no connection to blackness.

Asking people to take responsibility for every possible interpretation of their usage forgets that understanding is a collaborative project between speaker and listener, writer and reader. Intention is no defence, perhaps, but context is part of usage, and misinterpretation is always possible. When we talk about inclusionary language, we need to recognise that semantics is complex, and there’s more than one way to understand a text. We can’t scrutinise how people talk and write without considering how we listen and understand.

More dangerously, sometimes language is understood by reference to the user’s person, or what is known of it — the problem becomes not what but who. I can tentatively agree that members of an oppressed group can reclaim their insults while others cannot. But when irony, good intentions or offence is assumed based on presumptions about the writer/speaker, that means our understanding of language is too simple and too rigid.

Can language change culture?

While I believe that language influences thinking, its effect is subtle and not linear.

Changing language has an impact: using only first names or only family names, gender-neutral pronouns, or even just Ms as a title, can tease out fascinating reactions. Douglas Hofstadter’s Person Paper (an old favourite, and an exercise in analogy) shows that the extend to which English is gendered is quite disconcerting when revealed.

I’m not sure, though, that the structures of a language necessarily reflect much of the society in which it’s used. Persian, Hungarian, Bengali and spoken Chinese all use gender-neutral pronouns, while Arabic, Greek, German and Hindi have gendered nouns as well as pronouns. I think a global, historical survey of the correlation between grammatical gender and sociological gender would reveal, well, not very much.

Everything is problematic

Part of the project of inclusive language is to remove certain words from acceptable parlance. But inclusive language is also about finding new ways to tell our experiences, to express what is difficult to explain, to speak the things there are few words for. On top of that, inclusive language should accommodate many different linguistic styles and capabilities.

In just over a week, I’ll be in China for ShanghaiPRIDE – the second ever queer festival in Mainland China – and I’ve been eagerly brushing up on my Shanghainese. As the only conversations I have in the language are with my parents and teenage sister, my vocabulary is limited to familial dinner table conversation. Listening to Shanghainese rap songs, I’m chuffed to hear all the different words for idiot. I want to learn to swear and I can’t be fussy about inclusionary language.

One of my parents’ nicknames for me as a child was “mo ten”, and because I’m not part of a linguistic community I don’t know if it means “slowpoke” or “retard”. My other nickname was “shior gan du” (which I think translates to “little stupidhead”) and “zi seh di” (which is literally “13 points” but also means silly/ditzy/daft). Nostalgic digression aside, I don’t think I’ll ever have the knowledge in another language to understand the associations and nuances I know in English.

We can pull people up on language that offends or excludes, explaining why we might want to avoid it, but using the wrong language shouldn’t discount someone’s opinion altogether. Inclusive language needs to be one tool to making our spaces and movements more open and accessible, rather than proof of our good politics or an excuse for authoritarian discipline.

If inclusive language reduces everyone to silence, it’s not inclusive. It seems obvious but bears repeating.

More links:

A truncated earlier version appeared in The Scavenger.


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