Yes, I’m playing with “language” here again. But, seriously. No, very seriously, let’s ask ourselves to be careful to reflect on our part in how we use language.
Are fingernails sexy or sexist? Is the English word “fingernails”? Well, this much is for sure: if you don’t know that the answer to those questions could be Yes, then you haven’t yet experienced or imagined sexism around that word or its uses. This is real subtle stuff, as ephemeral perhaps as a little child’s experience, in a much more positive way, of “joy.”
Your language. Our language. If we don’t “intend” to offend anyone with it, isn’t it the other person’s fault if our language harms them?
The cleverest blogger in the universe gave us, yesterday, an example of sexism in language. Unintended sexism, I’m quite sure. Then after he sees it, and points it out to us, he asks a very polite and equally rhetorical question. Here’s Esteban Vázquez:
And for a wholly speakeristic aside: in this later post, he [the blogger whom Esteban is blogging about] speaks of "the mass of men who are leading lives of quiet desperation and would like to dabble in the original languages." I [Esteban] wonder: is it really only men who sink into quiet desperation due to their inability to read Hebrew and Greek?
Now, I think every one of you reading this blog understands the answer to Esteban’s question. It’s this: NO, not only men have the experience the other blogging man is blogging about. And YES, women are left out again, very subtly.
Aristotle left women out (although he wrote about females). That is, although he did include them in his most scientific writings, Aristotle left girls and women out of his world of men and boys. This is very very subtle stuff. We often don’t imagine or admit when we’re doing what Aristotle did. We don’t like to think of ourselves hurting another, with sexism particularly, especially when we never ever intended harm.
(And the historian F. A. Wright can't be more right when he says this, after reviewing all the Greek writings from Homer to Aristotle: "the Greek world perished from one main cause, a low ideal of womanhood and a degradation of women which found expression both in literature and in social life.")
I’ll end this post there, except just to add this:
Yesterday, at the rhetoric conference, Karlyn Kohrs Campbell, prolific researcher and teacher of many for over fifty years, spoke with us as the keynote speaker. What she said indicted us all, even if you weren’t in the room. She asked if we were ready for a woman president (and you don’t have to be American to be ready for a U.S. president who’s a woman, to be ready or not). And very like Christine de Pizan, Campbell reviewed the neglected women of history, but women in our United States, who have made us more ready (but clearly not enough yet—see Esteban’s “wholly speakeristic aside”). This deserves another blog post, for we really have neglected many who have impacted us much and positively. Sexism is subtle until you reflect on it. As the time allotted her yesterday ran out, Campbell reminded us of de Pizan’s advice to women (and men) not to slander women (even especially Hillary Clinton). Why not? Because (and Campbell explicates de Pizan’s explication of the multiple answers), because it harms the other and contributes to (y)our part in sexism. Every vitriolic and now well publicized slam of Hillary Rodham Clinton that we’ve tolerated may be a glimpse at the kind of sexism your great grandmothers, your grandmothers, your mother, your daughters, (or you if you’re a woman) have had to endure from time to time. To glimpse and not to reflect. To glimpse and still not to include. Subtle speakeristics indeed.