Thursday, February 17, 2011

It's not (just) the word; it's how you use it

Somebody pointed out in the Pharyngula thread that while "female" can be used as a noun, so can "black," and it doesn't sound very good to refer to a black person as simply "a black."  Comedian Lisa Lampanelli refers to "the blacks" on purpose because being offensive is her shtick.  I think that using those words as nouns rather than adjectives seems dehumanizing because it makes it sound as if being black or female is the totality of who you are, rather than a descriptor.  I don't actually know anybody who refers to women as "females" when talking about individuals in a social context, but would find it odd and off-putting if someone did.

Somebody else pointed out that Jen McCreight has used the word "female" on her blog before without any objections, which earned a swift and biting reply:

So, I just went back and looked at my 104 blog posts from December, January, and February to see if you're right*. Here's my usage of the word "female":
- 5 times to refer to "A large list of awesome female atheists" to promote diversity
- 3 times as an adjective, one of which was referring to myself
- 7 times in a quote from someone else that I was debating, so not my words
Once as a noun - when referring to females of all species, not just humans 
So, yeah, maybe there's not a peep because I'm not using the word female in a way that could potentially be found offensive. Imagine that.

Also, I don't think it's really necessary to pounce on someone for using the word "hysterical" when referring to women, regardless of its origin.  It doesn't mean that person is secretly a misogynist.  It's entirely possible for women-- yes, including feminists-- to be irrationally excited or outraged about something.  It's obviously wrong to use to word to dismiss legitimate concerns, but not inappropriate across the board.

I don't believe that words have power when divorced from context-- magical invocations are not real.  The context always matters.  We teach children not to use certain words because it's much simpler that way-- they're capable of grasping "Don't use the word 'stupid.'"  Later on they (hopefully) come to understand that there are a multitude of situations in which saying "stupid" is perfectly acceptable.  Part of becoming mature is realizing that the usage is important too.  Who is speaking?  What are they talking about?  Are they being sarcastic, hyperbolic, jokey, poetic?  Intent isn't fucking magic, either.  But it does matter.   The people yelling "It's all about intent" are just as wrong as the ones yelling "It's all about the language you use."  It's both, dammit.

I'll end with Jay Smooth talking about how to tell people they sound racist.  It's a bit old, but this is one video everybody should see.  Maybe it could be useful in the sex/gender conversation, too...fancy!


  1. I followed you over here from the Friendly Atheist after your post on one of the "female debate" threads. Really glad I did! Your posts are so insightful.


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