Sunday, December 09, 2007

Language of Oppression, Language of Respect, and the Etiquette of Written Prose

Part of an ongoing series of musings about language and oppression, and bias-free* language (or, as I prefer, affirmative language or language of respect).

At the beginning of the semester, one of the students in my Grammar for Writers and Editors class asked me whether we were going to discuss "politically correct language" in the course. I checked the outline, and replied, "I tend to prefer the term 'bias-free' language, or even 'language of respect,' and if you take a look at the outline, you'll see that we're going to cover the topic late in the term, after we've covered most of the structural grammar stuff."

Many class members rolled their eyes or laughed at my substitution of "bias-free language" or "language of respect" for her more loaded "politically correct language." So, when I introduced the topic a couple of classes ago, I started with a discussion of connotative values of words and terms, and how our word choice can betray our assumptions. I explained that I prefer the terms "bias-free language," or "language of respect" to "politically correct language," because the latter implies that we're choosing terms merely to be politic—to placate certain interest groups—rather than from any interest in actually ridding our language of terminology that reflects bias and prejudice, and choosing language that reflects a certain level of respect for everyone.

Frequently, discussions of bias-free language in the context of professional writing and editing** focus on words. We try to find words that won't offend—say "flight attendant," rather than "stewardess"; find out whether someone or some group prefer to be referred to as "black," or as "African-Canadian" or as "of African descent" (should it be necessary to mention that person's or group's race or skin-colour at all); when discussing First Nations and Aboriginal people, whenever possible refer to the specific Nation or band to which the individual belongs, and if that's not possible, because you're talking about a number of people of different First Nations or a group that contains Inuit and M├ętis people, check whether "Native" is okay. Be specific, be precise, and, whenever possible check with the people about whom you are writing, to make sure you're using the words by which they like to be named.

This is a good start, but I think it's only a start. Also, most of my students already knew this. So I wanted to discuss how our language reflects our attitudes, and how examining our attitudes makes it easier to avoid linguistic gaffes. I wanted to discuss how important it is to examine the assumptions that our language betrays, in full knowledge that we are all prey to some assumptions and prejudices. How, in attempting to avoid oppressive language, we need to have some awareness of how language reflects oppressive attitudes—once you recognize the attitudes, it becomes much easier to consider (or look up) less loaded, less oppressive, and more inclusive words and phrases.

So I gave some examples of gaffes in writing that might alienate a reader, and certainly betrayed prejudice on the part of the writer. Here are a few—I had more in class, covering other thoughtless ways in which people show other prejudices (I'm collecting these, so if you have any good examples, please do feel free to send them to me):

Example 1
May Adopted Children Benefit Receive Benefits From My Insurance Policy?
If you have legally adopted children, they are eligible for the same benefits as your natural children under terms of the policy.
From a FAQ on a life-insurance policy

Example 2
The panel on Industry–Community Relations included three professionals, four blue-collar workers, and two women.
Based on Amy Einsohn,The Copyeditor's Handbook, page 409 (University of California Press, 2000)

Example 3
From the day of their birth, all children long for intimacy and affection from their mother and father.
From an early draft of a chapter on sexual decision-making in a health textbook for grade 9.

Example 4
Encourage students to bring in other ethnic recipes and explore how ratios work in these recipes.
From a teacher's guide for a math textbook.

Example 5
Invite a Native seamstress from the community to discuss making Native clothes without patterns with students.

Example 6
Doctors and their wives are invited to the Christmas party.
Based on Amy Einsohn,The Copyeditor's Handbook, page 406.

In most of these examples, the individual words are more or less fine. And it's pretty clear that the authors are well-intentioned. Except for the author of first example (which is admittedly, a weird one, and not one usually found in glossaries of bias-free language), none of these authors has used words that are themselves objectionable. Yet each of these snippets shows us something about how the author sees the world, what the author defines as "normal," or who the author is including in (or excluding from) the writing.

Is adoption really "unnatural," as the juxtaposition of "adopted child" and "natural child" would suggest? What does that suggest about how the author of Example 1 views families, adoption, and adoptees?

Is it impossible for women to be professionals or to work in trades? Why does Example 2 juxtapose "professional" and "blue collar," and what contribution did the apparently unemployed women make to the panel? In other words, how are the class distinctions relevant to the topic at hand, and are women really an entirely separate class, with entirely homogeneous concerns? Did these women have no professions or trades of their own (and here the class digressed into a discussion of whether it was sexist or not to call them homemakers, until someone asked whether we knew the women were homemakers—which of course we didn't.)

Do babies really want affection only from their mothers and fathers, or will they take it from whoever offers it—biological parents (mothers, fathers, and however many of each are available), grandparents, non-parental caregivers, older siblings?

What the heck does "ethnic" mean when you apply it to a recipe, and who is ethnic, anyway? In my family, pasta is a pretty normal food, and latkes are not. Does that mean that I'm practising ethnic cookery when I make latkes? What about curry? Funnel cakes? Bannock? Is "ethnic" simply a politically-correct way of saying "not what my family does"?

In which First Nations or Inuit tradition are clothes made without patterns? All of them? Some of them? Which clothes are we discussing? Who makes these clothes—are all those who preserve this tradition of garment-making female? In order to make the point (which was about ratios and geometry), do we need to tokenize Native people thus, or can we suggest that any garment-making or textile-working will show an application of the skill? Does every community in the province in which this textbook will be adopted have Native seamstresses handy, just waiting to be invited into schools? (Seamstress, incidentally, is, indeed, an inherently gendered word that's really difficult to write around. De-gender it and you get sewer. Tailor doesn't mean the same thing. There's no graceful single word that will get you what you want, so if I have to use it in a bias-free context, I generally go very vague and use a lot more words: "garment-maker," "practitioner of textile- or fibre-arts, such as garment making, theatrical costuming, quilting, or other type of sewing." It's awkward and graceless, but in these contexts I think that's preferable to promoting certain stereotypes. But (as I often do) I digress.) The authors clearly want to include First Nations lore from the province in which the textbook will be used in their coverage of the curriculum, but are they really thinking through the implications of this sort of "inclusion," or are they simply looking for any way to get Native Stuff into the material?

The class was with me, until we came to Example 6. Oh, they cottoned immediately onto the fact that many doctors are women. They suggested that "wives" be changed to "spouses," then someone commented that, really, there was no need to specify the relationship, and suggested changing "spouses" to "partners." Someone else disagreed with "partner," because of the businesslike sound, but agreed that the doctors in question should feel free to bring someone to whom they might not be married, and suggested "guest." (Nobody suggested that the doctors might want to bring more than one guest; I wasn't going to go there.) Then someone noticed the Christmas in the Christmas party, and suggested that it be changed to "holiday party" or "year-end party."

And just like that, things went off the rails. Some of the women in the class (most of them older than me), thought that we should call a spade a spade. It's Christmas, and it's a Christmas party. So I asked whether this meant that invites should go only to employees of nominally Christian faith, or whether we should ask employees of different faiths to celebrate Christian holidays, without ever providing space to them to celebrate their own holidays. Well, we can't celebrate everyone's holidays. So should we cancel the party, or nod to the fact that not everyone celebrates the same holiday in December, and make it easier for people to feel more comfortable about attending? Or move it to February, and call it a Winter-Blahs Party?

It's weird what people consider inviolable.

From this digression, the same women proceeded to ask me if I didn't think something was lost when we all went "politically correct," especially about Christmas. They themselves don't like it when they are wished "Happy Holidays" by people in stores.

And this is where it became clear to me that my students had lost sight of the point of the class, and of the exercise. Because my class is a class on editing and writing—not a guide to bias-free speech and action (I'm really not qualified to teach such a class). I tried hard to remind them that we were discussing written language, and that my goal was not to tell them, individually, what they are or aren't permitted to say in their daily goings-on. My job was to help them learn to avoid inadvertently writing in ways that will alienate a portion of their readership, and spot and correct, or at least point out, such writing when clients or employers inadvertently commit it. If, having examined their own preferences, they want to wish people who may or may not celebrate the day a merry Christmas, that's none of my concern.

What I forgot to do, I think, was to remind them of what I'd said way back at the beginning of the term, about what we were learning in my Grammar for Editors class: the formal etiquette of written prose.*** If we are being polite, we do not wish to unwittingly alienate our readers. We may choose, for whatever reason, to intentionally alienate a portion of the readership; certain writers have made careers out of alienating people, quite deliberately. But we wish to pay attention to the connotations inherent in our word choice, and to the way our language may exclude some readers, and not assume, uncharitably, that these readers are merely being "picky," or "difficult," but instead assume the burden of ensuring that our prose is welcoming and gracious to our desired readers. In order to be truly gracious in our writing, we need not the "do's" and "don'ts" of politically-correct jargon, but a sensitivity to our readers' backgrounds and experiences, and a very real desire to respect and include those. Once you do that, the words come a great deal more easily.

* Okay, granted, it's not really bias-free. Using a group's chosen language to speak about that group does indeed betoken at least some sympathy for that group, and some respect for the group's goals, which is, in itself, a bias. Nothing's ever really bias-free. I prefer "language of respect," generally, but the trade-term seems to be bias-free.

** Such as this one, at Rainbow Associates, which is a rather decent example of the type, and contains a useful word list:
The bottom line is that some of your readers (potential customers) will be offended by certain terms, and who wants to turn off a customer? Most of us have no desire to offend anyone, but we occasionally do it unintentionally. Most important is to avoid the most offensive terms. We all know what some of these are, but other examples might involve some relearning. If you grew up – as most people did -- hearing some of these words and phrases without realizing their impact for other people, now is the time to start hearing them in a new way.

*** A term I totally ganked from Steven Pinker (The Language Instinct), who uses it, somewhat pejoratively, to describe what prescriptive grammarians and writers of grammar books examine. When we're looking at the rules of grammar for editorial work, we need to know as much about what people think is "correct" as possible. We need to know the rules for everyday use, and the rules for very formal use, and when each set of rules applies. We need to know the linguistic equivalent of when to remove your gloves, and when to eat with your fingers. (Hint: Do the former when you expect to have to do the latter). We're not, in a grammar for editors class, discussing whether we think infinitives should be split; it is enough to know that some abhore a split infinitive, and that, should we be in their company (or employ), it were best not to split the infinitives, whatever our views on the matter of infinitives, split or intact.


Katharine O'Moore-Klopf said...

Excellent explanation of why bias-free—language of respect—is necessary. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Wonderfully informative and enlightening. It's appreciable to know professionals are making efforts to reinforce the concept of fair language; it seems that society is inevitably leaning toward conflict-grammar the more we adopt technology-based communication(computers & the internet, for example). I believe it is often borne by the misleading notion that we are invulnerable to societal scrutiny behind the keyboard as opposed to the printing press.