Thursday, September 17, 2009

The Importance of Language

When I first came to UCF during the Summer of 2007, like most other students, I went through orientation. One of the memories that most stood out to me was the discussion we had about diversity.

Presumably, O-teamers discussed this topic with us to prepare us all for coming in contact with a more diverse group of people, which for some of us, might help bring us out of our "comfort zones," as Jorge mentioned in his presentation. We were split up into groups, and there were about 20 of us students in the room with 3 O-teamers.

The memorable part was when we came to the discussion of what I consider homophobic language. The facilitators asked, "what do you all think about using words like "gay" and "straight" to refer to things that are "bad" and "good," respectively? From what I remember, the responses of my peers generally amounted to, "well I don't mean anything by it," "everyone uses it," and "what's really so bad about it anyway?" This angered me, and I knew I had to voice my opinion. I raised my hand and said that I thought it was offensive and that this language should be avoided because it perpetuates negative ideas about those who identify as LGBTQ.

No one seemed to agree with me.

Ever since high school, I have thought of language as incredibly important. As Morris says in his essay on Gender Discourse in Jakharta, "the things we say and the language we use reflect the reality we participate in." In particular, Morris' essay deals with cross cultural ideas of sexuality and feminism. In his essay, the author recounts a memory of a casual conversation with a fellow research colleague in Indonesia in which the colleague makes a comment implying that he thinks all women who wear jilbab are sexually chaste. Another memorable comment was one of a US Foreign Service Officer in which the officer says that social programs motivated by feminist ideas may not be suitable for Idonesian women, implying that all Idonesian women do not believe in or even understand the concept of their right to equality. Both individuals were males who thought of themselves as progressive and pro-women's rights.

As the author says, these men are not alone in their failure to recognize the implications of their language. According to the author, "most disconcerting about our speech is how oblivious many of us can be about how our language reflects existing power relations." Indeed, the language we all use reflects our place of priviledge in the social system in which we all function. Perhaps the reason it is so difficult for many of us to realize the implications of our language is that the words we use are second nature to us; after all, we have functioned in our respective levels of priviledge since birth.

However, in the essay "The Enemy Within: On Becoming a Straight White Guy," the life experience of the author provides fascinating insight into what it can be like to move from one position of priviledge to another. As a FTM transgender man, Marshall experiences a stark change in how he is treated by others when he changes from a lesbian woman to a straight man. The author writes, "men grant me greater respect and are willing to see me as an authority...women to longer appreciate me expressing my opinion." Further, through his transition from one place of priviledge to another, the author realizes the importance of language in curbing inequality. For instance, after switching from a woman to a man, Marshall realizes the extent to which femininity is feared and viewed as subordinate in our society. As Marshall writes, homophobia (at least, as implied, in the case of that of a male to another male) is nothing more than fear of being "feminized by another man's sexual gaze (35)." As the author wonders, "what exactly is so bad about being a woman?" Having been one prior to becoming a man, he of all people would know that there is nothing wrong with being a woman. The author urges that "until being called pussy, girl, fag, and pansy isn't the worst thing in the world, we won't eliminate misogyny (35)."

Knowing this, couldn't we all agree that a small-but-necessary step towards an egalitarian society would be for us to stop perpetuating our hierchical social system through problematic language?


Abigail said...

My high school took a pretty strong stance against bullying and bullying language. I remember when “that’s so gay” became popular and even though I knew it was offensive I still didn’t mind people saying it and caught myself using it too. This was until Mr. Z who was my technology teacher who always pointed it out and questioned our use of the word until we would admit we didn’t know why we said it and at that point I always felt pretty stupid. This was the first time that I realized and we choose certain words for a reason and began questioning myself and others to find the underlining meaning of what was being said.

When I was reading “The Enemy Within” I kept thinking of Madonna’s song “What It Feels Like For A Girl” in which she lists a few things that girls can do that are traditionally thought of as masculine like having short hair of wearing boots though boys typically aren’t allowed to do things that are feminine because people would make fun of them. As we’ve discussed before a male being called a girl or sissy is one of the worst things because it emasculate him.

“Girls can wear jeans
And cut their hair short
Wear shirts and boots
'Cause it's OK to be a boy
But for a boy to look like a girl is degrading
'Cause you think that being a girl is degrading
But secretly you'd love to know what it's like
Wouldn't you
What it feels like for a girl”

The piece also expanded my knowledge on issues that Trans people face because of others closed mindedness. When Jacob could “pass” for a man and had his surgery he experienced some resistance from those in his lesbian community which I have heard of but that his partner was also being questioned within the community is maddening. It seems so crazy that communities that are fighting for rights and a voice are willing to kick individuals out of the group who are fighting for the same cause. There seems to be this ridiculous notion that once you get power (male privilege, college education, a high paying job) that you will automatically turn into the oppressor. This is completely irrational and seems to me to be a self fulfilling prophecy in that when you kick someone to the curb then they are more likely to not care about you or your rights.

I like that Jacob is a different type of guy and that we, feminists have him on our side.

Digger said...

I found your blog today while searching the term "foreign service" (because I blog on FS issues, particularly as they relate to the LGBT community. Both as a lesbian foreign service officer and as someone with graduate degrees in anthropology, I plan to continue to follow your blog.

And Ariel, good luck in your efforts to join the State Department!

Ariel Dansky said...

Thank you Digger!! =)

This is actually the blog of our Theories of Masculinity class at the University of Central Florida. I'm happy that you will be following along =).

I'm actually considering doing a State Department Internship or volunteering abroad in some way before I graduate and move on to my Masters program. Do you have any suggestions?