A RECENT New York Times article on language and gender caught my attention, because its first sentence, which I paraphrase here, immediately rang true: Americans are resistant to use the word “she” when describing a hypothetical president.
Not because Americans don’t believe a woman could be president, but because our language is inherently gender biased. Even just reading the word “she” or “her” when used with “president” — or other positions of power — causes a hitch in our comprehension, costing a third of a second in reading time. This mental hiccup is true even of women who identify as feminists and support a female candidate.
The question the article author, Jessica Bennett, asks of the feminine pronoun is, “What if its use, or an unconscious aversion to its use, had some small power to influence voter perception? Could something as simple as a pronoun reflect or even affect, the way voters understand power?”
George Lakoff’s seminal work, Metaphors We Live By, shows us through our use of metaphor how conceptual systems govern language. And how the language we use reveals our our deeply held beliefs and worldview.
In short, language reveals how we understand life.
In Moral Politics: How Liberals and Conservatives Think, Lakoff describes how two different and deeply held concepts of the ideal family govern our political views. Conservatives, he says, hold a “Strict Father” model, in which the world is inherently a dangerous place and the father’s primary role is to support and protect his family, as well as to set strict rules by which his children live — doling out punishment as needed to enforce those roles. He also gives love and appreciation when they follow the rules, but never coddles them and expects them to become strong and independent as soon as possible. In this family, the mother’s role is to raise the children, take care of the house, and support the father’s authority. This is very much a male-dominated view of family life.If language reveals how we think, can we change how we think by changing our language? Click To Tweet
On the other hand, liberals tend to hold a “Nurturant Parent” model in which the parents share household responsibilities, and the primary role for both parents is to nurture and support their children as they grow. This model holds that “children become responsible, self-disciplined, and self-reliant through being cared for and respected, and through caring for others.” Obedience, then, comes out of love and respect, not fear or punishment.
Obviously, I am summarizing Lakoff’s arguments in a simplistic and incomplete manner, and I recommend reading his books — all of them — if you want to know more about how language reveals our understanding of life and influences our political views.
But my point is that language reveals who we are, where we came from, and how we think. And it reveals our internal and unconscious biases.
I am reminded of a riddle I heard once. It goes something like this:
A father and son are in a terrible car accident. The son is so badly injured, he is transported to a different hospital than the father. But when he gets there, the doctor on duty in the ER says, “I can’t treat this boy. He is my son.”
Who is the doctor?
Have you heard this one before? Do you know the answer? It’s straightforward and commonsense, but I have to admit that I struggled with it at first and tried to conjure all the possible relationships the doctor could have with the family that would make this relationship possible.
It’s simple: The doctor is the boy’s mother.
Most people don’t get this riddle right away — and that struggle to identify the female gender of the doctor reveals so much about us. “Doctor” has, for so long in our society been synonymous with “him.”
That raises the question: If language reveals how we think, can we change how we think by changing our language?
According to Lakoff, when we hear the same language over and over, we begin to think according to the “frames and metaphors activated by that language.” In other words, the more you hear (and read) language that is framed a particular way, the more you will begin thinking that way yourself.
You are probably familiar with this quote attributed to Vladimir Lenin: “A lie repeated often enough becomes the truth.” Gaslighters, like our current president, know this to be true, which is why they just keep repeating their lies over and over. And it works — the lies are believed. They become “common knowledge.” Especially if those lies are propagated and distributed on social media. And if, in the process of trying to negate a lie, we repeat it, we only serve to strengthen it. Because that’s how language works in our brains: the more we hear something, the more we believe it.
We writers must recognize that our words have power. And maybe even power to change the world.
What we say, how we say it, and how often we say it creates a frame through which our readers can begin to perceive the world. That is why it is so important to repeat the truth (and by truth, I mean the facts and what we know to be true from our experience) and to use words that frame the truth positively. To avoid repeating words we know to be untrue or biased.
Additionally, we must begin to use inclusive language on a regular basis. If we want to correct the gender imbalance in our language, it would be wise to start using the pronouns “she” and “her” and “they” and “their” in our stories and articles, instead of defaulting to the masculine.
Our writing must speak the language of empathy, if we want to call to the natural empathy inherent in our readers.
We, with our words, have the opportunity to frame not only the conversation but also the window through which people view the world.
Words have power. Let’s use them to change the world for good.
How will you begin?