On Language and Reinforcing Bigotry

[Note:  statistics will vary considerably depending where you are in the world.  I’m using statistics and studies which are mostly relevant to the United States, and so this post will focus accordingly.  This is my comfort zone, but I encourage others to take a look at these same concerns as they relate to their cultural contexts.]

Language is our responsibility.  How we use it determines everything from our ability to communicate with one another to how we talk about other people to how we describe the world we all share.

Language is also one of the most effective ways by which we can share, distribute, and reinforce cultural values.  Among the most pervasive values is bigotry in its many forms.  If it were not already obvious, language and bigotry go hand in hand.  What we call other people, how we refer to them in the media or “polite” conversation, and how we deal with the narratives presented to us by others not only defines the character of our bigotries and the language we use to talk about and reinforce those bigotries in the future (or the opposite, as the case may be).  Language can do good, too, but when we are careless with it, it can do an almost immeasurable amount of damage to our cultural and individual identities, to our bodies, and so on.

One of the most obvious examples of this involves the rhetoric surrounding Muslims in the United States and abroad.  I can’t speak to the European context, but as an American, I know all too well how easy it is to fall into the trap of using language which, perhaps unintentionally, denigrates an entire people.  Given that the majority of us get our information about Muslims from what we read, it is unsurprising that the majority of Americans have unfavorable views of Muslims or that a sizable portion of the population agrees with profiling Muslims/Arabs.

There are numerous studies which confirm this view.  For example, Christopher Bail’s upcoming book, Terrified:  How Anti-Muslim Fringe Organizations Became Mainstream (2014; Princeton University Press), argues that representations of Muslims after 9/11 have tended to privilege narratives of fear by treating fringe (read:  “radical, violent Islam”) Muslim groups with the same value as non-fringe (read:  “everyday Muslims”) Muslim groups.  In essence, this practice “created a gravitational pull or ‘fringe effect’ that realigned inter-organizational networks and altered the contours of mainstream discourse itself.”  Additionally, Evelyn Alsultany suggests in “Arabs and Muslims in the Media after 9/11:  Representations Strategies for a ‘Postrace’ Era” (2013; American Quarterly, Vol 65, No 1) that narrative television and news networks have engaged in a mode of discourse in which

[positive] representations of Arabs and Muslims have helped form a new kind of racism, one that projects antiracism and multiculturalism on the surface but simultaneously produces the logics and affects necessary to legitimize racist policies and practices. It is no longer the case that the other is explicitly demonized to justify war or injustice. Now the other is portrayed sympathetically in order to project the United States as an enlightened country that has entered a postrace era. (5)

These studies are not contradictory.  Rather, they suggest that the complicated portrayal of Muslims in the media (broadly speaking) has created a discourse surrounding Muslims that either confirms a fear-based narrative about “radical Islam” or a form of Orientalism which places U.S. culture in opposition to a “savage Islamic state.”  Thus, what we have are two mainstream portrayals:  one which conforms to U.S. cultural desires and the other which conforms to U.S. cultural fears.  This fear narrative has been recently bolstered by the graphic and gruesome violence of ISIS, which has, in one account, provided fuel for the anti-Islamic fire which holds “Islam” as a threat (distinctions generally absent).

I can’t say for certain if these images are deliberately curated to produce this effect, though it is unlikely that it is all accidental or subconscious.  Regardless, I hope it illustrates the point I’m trying to make here:  namely, that language (and, by extension, the images attached to it) has such a profound affect on our culture that to ignore it, especially when it produces an ill effect, reinforces a bigoted position.  Ignorance and “doing nothing,” in other words, makes us unintentionally complicit in these discourses.

The same could be said of the term “feminism.”  Polls suggest that most Americans do not identify as feminists, with some variation between the genders.  But when given a textbook definition of feminism (that it stands for the political, social, and economic equality of the sexes), as respondents were provided in this YouGov poll, the results swing drastically in the other direction.  Sadly, those numbers are still disgustingly low when you consider the clear moral question implied in that textbook definition, but the poll also suggests that Americans are horribly ill-informed about feminism at its most basic.

A lot of study has been done to determine why “feminism” has become less appreciated (and even actively disliked) in our contemporary culture.  In “The Framing of Feminists and Feminism in News and Public Affairs Programs in U.S. Electronic Media” (2002; Journal of Communication, Vol 52, Issue 1), Rebecca Ann Lind and Colleen Salo conclude from an analysis of 35,000 hours of network broadcasts that “feminists are demonized more often in the media than [women],” but also that feminists are less likely than women to be trivialized by for physical characteristics than general women (219)(this came as a surprise to Lind and Salo).  What becomes apparent in the study is not that feminists are necessarily treated worse than everyday women, but rather that they are discussed far less frequently than their non-identitarian counterparts (or, rather, those who are not identified as feminists in a given broadcast).  As they note in the conclusion, feminists “are indeed absent from the news and public affairs programs analyzed for this study” (224).  In effect, demonization and absence become cultural mechanisms in a narrative which, as Lind and Salo demonstrate in their linguistic study, continues to view women unfavorably.

The point I am trying to make here is similar to the point that Lind and Salo make in the conclusion of their study:

Feminism doesn’t seem, at least from what is presented in the media, to function within the private sphere—it is more often found in the public sphere (media and the arts, politics, religion). All told, this pattern may serve to reinforce the perception that feminism is neither relevant nor particularly applicable to the bulk of daily life for the majority of citizens.

[The] pattern of mediated representation of the site of feminist struggles may further implicitly show the audience that feminists are not quite “normal,” not quite “regular,” not quite “real.” (224)

What Lind and Salo recognize here is that the language we use to describe a given thing affects how that thing is perceived in the wider culture, particularly when the power of the media supports a specific perspective.  Given that American media has played a pivotal role not only in the marginalization and abuse of women, but also the tacit support for an anti-Muslim worldview and the abuse of power that follows that worldview, the idea that we should take care with the language we use to describe others would seem to be an obvious thing.

But it’s not obvious to some, even in the science fiction and fantasy community, where language and meaning are essential elements to the genres.  Earlier this year, a member of the self-identified Sad Puppy brigade almost gleefully daydreamed about a Guardian critic committing suicide, apparently without any recognition that trivializing suicide can impact the way suicide is understood elsewhere (that link will download a PDF study on this very subject).  Someone else remarked, to roughly paraphrase, that one should be allowed to ignore preferred gender pronouns in favor of whatever best suited the user.  The way we use language, as such, affects people in a variety of ways, even in instances where something like “bullying” is applied to situations which are something else entirely.

In all of the above cases, language is being used as a weapon to produce psychological or social harm to an individual with no positive benefit to the user.  In the case of gender pronouns, we’re dealing with an individual rejecting the agency of another for no apparent gain — not a laughing matter, to be sure.  To have agency is, to take a basic definition, to act for oneself; identity is a part of that “act,” and so to be able to identify oneself and to be identified by others in a social culture is to, in essence, attain a form of agency, however rudimentary it might be.  Since agency has been, from a historical perspective, denied to so many groups of people, the idea that one would linguistically deny one’s agency by refusing preference is tantamount to rejecting civil culture itself.  Either we all deserve agency or we are admitting that some of us are less human than others.

Language plays a pivotal role in this process, not least of all because language affects us whether we want it to or not.  To argue that referring to someone by the pronoun you think they are rather than the pronoun they would prefer will have no serious impacts on that individual is naive at best — wicked at worst.  A study conducted in 2010 (released in 2012) by the Gay, Lesbian & Straight Education Network (and Harris Interactive) discovered that gender, LGBT, and other slurs remain common in elementary schools, not just within the student body, but also among teachers.  The study rightly suggests that the prevalence of this form of “name-calling” will have a significant impact on children as they grow up.  Indeed, as V. Paul Poteat and Dorothy L. Espelage reveal in “Predicting Psychosocial Consequences of Homophobic Victimization in Middle School Students,” young people who are exposed to specific kinds of slurs and “name-calling” develop sever psychological problems over the course of a year, which certainly explains why so many LGBT teenagers have committed suicide over the years (2007; The Journal of Early Adolescence, Vol 27, No 2).  Thus, denying full personhood to others — which mandates, I would argue, civility and respect at its most basic — can have lasting impacts on all of us (even those of us who strip others of that personhood).

I would also extend this point to those on the apparent opposite end of the political perspective who are determined to identify criticism or disagreement with “racism” or “sexism” without any care for the value those words do and should hold in our culture.  Though I wouldn’t go so far as to suggest that misusing these terms is bigoted, I do think that when we misuse something like “racism” to refer to disagreement or individual mistakes (especially when motivations are unclear), we cheapen its value.  This is not to suggest that these mistakes do not reinforce “racism” (or whatever -ism you wish to use here), nor that racism and sexism do not exist; rather, I’m attempting to articulate the position that there appears to be a tendency among some social justice warriors (and I use that term in the positive sense, as I consider myself to be an SJW) to leap to attack without recognizing how “racism” or “sexism” can become brands of social stigmatism within our community.

A great example of this can be found here.  I am well aware that Tommy Robinson (a.k.a. Stephen Yaxley-Lennon) was (or still is), in fact, at the very least, vehemently ethnocentric.  At worst, he was (or still is) a racist.  The video in question takes you to a talk show appearance in which he is repeatedly told by a panelist that he is a racist.  When Robinson (repeatedly) asks what he had said that was racist, the individual could not or would not articulate a position that could confirm that fact; instead, she dismissed Robinson as “a racist.”  The problem I have with this three fold:

  1. Given the context in which Robinson has appeared, it’s clear that he was meant to represent a position (an ethnocentric one at that, but a position nonetheless).  As such, to simply dismiss him without also articulating a position of any kind seems to fly in the face of the purpose of the program itself.  Some of this could be blamed on the program, which may be “in this” for shock value more than anything else.
  2. If Tommy Robinson is, in fact, a racist, it should be easy enough to demonstrate.  But what we receive is a rhetorical game of cat-and-mouse, wherein the term “racist” becomes a wall to hide behind.  No explanation is ever provided, and so anyone unfamiliar with the situation either has to accept the linguistic game for what it is OR perform their own research.  (Indeed, I came to that video knowing nothing about Tommy Robinson, and so my immediate gut reaction was “Why is answering the charge with evidence so hard?  Surely he must have said something blatantly racist, yes?)
  3. While it may be true that Robinson is a racist, that fact is not self-evident to anyone who is not familiar with Robinson.  Repetition does not establish the fact; rather, it reinforces a more troubling position in which one can be dismissed out of hand for being “a racist” without needing to articulate why.  And without articulating why, there’s no possibility of redemption, which Robinson may or may not deserve, but also which our culture needs to see so that the possibility of change isn’t sacrificed outright.  I don’t believe racists or sexists are beyond redemption, though some of them are less redeemable than others, and so to close off redemption in our language seems like a brutal form of absolutism.  That doesn’t mean criticism should not occur (I am NOT saying this), but it does mean that how we articulate that criticism should, more often than not, be specific rather than limited.
A more contemporary example would be Affleck’s “that’s racist” rant against Bill Maher and Sam Harris — figures who have, in recent years, become part of a cast of “liberal” voices which often resort to the same absolutist language as his “conservative” counterparts.  In fact, Maher resorts to the absolute a number of times, referring to Islam as “the only religion that acts like the Mafia, that will fucking kill you if you say the wrong thing, draw the wrong picture, or write the wrong book.”  Harris’ position would be the more nuanced one if he were not suggesting that the 20% of Muslims he claims are Jihadists, radicals, or conservatives who want to uproot Western democracy from inside are significant enough to deem the entirety of the religion at fault.  He attempts to wave that away as “not his point,” but that is what he said.
Affleck, however, never articulates the “racist” position in any way that actually addresses what is being said.  Harris even identifies Christian religion as “white” — by implication, Muslim culture must be the opposite.  Even the term “Muslim world” has come to reflect a particular section of the globe; whether Harris meant to use the term as it is applied among more deliberately ethnocentric/racist anti-Muslims is unclear, but since he doesn’t clarify the position to include Western, mostly-white Muslims in that term, I think it’s safe to assume he meant “Muslim world” in the context of the “Middle East” and “parts of Africa,” thereby condemning an entire non-white, but ethnically-diverse portion of the world to a worldview which deems them a threat.  But in not articulating this point, Affleck can only resort to saying “that’s racist,” the exact same tactic that Harris and Maher point to:  that people use “that’s racist” in response to criticisms of Islam/Muslims as a method for shutting down debate on the issue.  (I’m not convinced that Harris intends his position to be racist here, but it’s impossible for him to argue that what he said was not, at the very least, blatantly ethnocentric.)
In essence, their narrative is fulfilled, and the real problem in what is being said is left unsaid, even by Michael Steele, who tries desperately to work them in (Steele even notes that there are Muslims who publicly speak out against radical Islam, but Maher and Harris don’t seem particularly interested in addressing that at length).  To be fair to Affleck, he does make a point about not condemning a region when you’re interested in the ideas of a select few, but even this falls short of clarifying the more famous line — “that’s racist.”
I selected these two instances because they relate to an earlier portion of this essay on American perceptions of Muslims.  What I hope they demonstrate is that both sides of this argument (even Robinson, who follows the absolutist logic, too) are using language in a way that is unproductive.  It is no more productive to identify critics of Islam as “racists” by default than it is to default to the Orientalist narrative which perceives the whole of the Muslim world (i.e., the Middle East and parts of Africa) as a threat.  Using reductive language damages the whole:  first, by stifling debate or the possibility of nuance, and second, by reinforcing negative values which have legitimately harmed real people.  In the case of Muslims, the rhetoric of the post-9/11 world led to a significant increase in violence committed against them withing the United States (and one could certainly make a case for further horrors).

And each of these individuals are responsible for the words that they use, especially when they are in a position to clarify a position.  People like Harris, Affleck, Maher, and so on, I would argue, are doubly responsible for their words, since everything they say has a much wider reach.  In the same way that teachers are often careful about expressing personal belief in the context of a political topic (quite frequent in literature courses, actually) are in a similar boat, since there is a power relation at work.  You can imagine how easy it would be to indoctrinate students with bigotry if teachers feel no ethical responsibility to their students.

But we’re all individually responsible, too.  When we resort to language which denigrates a whole or denies agency to another, we create cultural narratives which reverberate throughout, reinforcing already-held values, bolstering bigotry, and making our world a more dangerous place for those who have a less power than others.  Those who contribute to this knowing that an already fraught discourse surrounds a topic sacrifice ethical behavior when they ignore the words that populate their arguments.

We all suffer this at some point, I suspect.  I know from personal experience how easy it is to be inculcated into an existing narrative of bigotry.  Phrases like “that’s gay” or words like “faggot” were so much a part of my adolescence that it took me years of correcting myself to weed them out of my natural linguistic patterns (I still struggle with “retarded,” which appears on rare occasion in conversation).  It’s also easy to fall back into these patterns when among certain company, which I think indicates a kind of “muscle memory” associated with language — the idea that the patterns of thought repeat themselves when refreshed by some interaction or another.

But we can do better.  There’s no such thing as perfection, but bettering oneself and trying to be better towards others is a noble goal.  And that requires us to be aware of what we say, how we participate in the creation and dissemination of cultural narratives (good and bad), and so on.  It’s not about censorship or anything of the sort; it’s about respecting others as human beings wherever reasonable.  And when it comes to avoiding bigotry and slurs, it’s really a no-brainer in my book:  if you’re capable of respecting others, then you’re just as capable of referring to them without rejected agency or personhood.

I may have more to say about this at another time.  For now, I think I’ve rambled enough.  The comments are yours.

About the Author:

Shaun Duke is an aspiring writer, a reviewer, and an academic. He is currently an Assistant Professor of Digital Rhetoric and Writing at Bemidji State University. He received his PhD in English from the University of Florida and studies science fiction, postcolonialism, digital fan cultures, and digital rhetoric.

2 thoughts on “On Language and Reinforcing Bigotry

  1. I know from personal experience how easy it is to be inculcated into an existing narrative of bigotry. Phrases like "that's gay" or words like "faggot" were so much a part of my adolescence that it took me years of correcting myself to weed them out of my natural linguistic patterns (I still struggle with "retarded," which appears on rare occasion in conversation). It's also easy to fall back into these patterns when among certain company, which I think indicates a kind of "muscle memory" associated with language —

    This works with accents, I can imagine it works for trains of thought, too. You jump into the old goldfish bowl and see things from that perspective, yup. It has to be countered, on a conscious level.

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