Written Spring 2005
The words you choose to describe things reflects your social status, your race, your religion, your nationality, your gender, your prejudices, your life experiences, and more. The difference between when you use "we" and when you use "they" can be very telling. One of the most useful things I learned in the Women Studies program at the University of Washington was language sensitivity, which some (predominantly white males) would ignorantly pooh-pooh as being "too politically correct." Through the instruction of a diverse teaching staff, I learned to "hear" American-centric language more often, and I also learned to embrace the words that people ask be used to describe them, as a way to show respect. I think one of the things that can cripple activists and political writers is the lack of understanding of this basic principle of respect through word choice. If you are trying to talk about a population, but keep referring to them in terms the people, themselves, abhor, it is awkward for all.
There are many examples of this language sensitivity that I think are useful and progressive for society. For example, I wrote an article for a GBLT magazine where I used the wording "trangendered." My editor wrote me and asked I use the wording "transgender," not "transgendered," as the "ed" part made it sound past tense, as if being transgender is something that happens once in the past. I was happy to have been made aware of the logical distinction in those wordings, and changed my word usage thereafter. Once I had a homeless person write a comment on one of my articles saying they took offense at me saying "the homeless" as if homeless people were a thing, an inanimate object. I thought that was a very good point. From then on, I have tried very hard to always say "homeless people," rather than "the homeless," as it humanizes things. Perhaps spending time analyzing your speech is showing respect for others. It is showing you are interested in others, and sensitive to their needs too. It shows you care about giving dignity to people you regard as allies and friends, and it shows you are not in an insulated class and race bubble, as Americans are famous for.
One assignment I had in college was to use the word "we" when talking about a group you normally did not associate with all week long. For instance, if you were not gay, you would say "we" when referring to gay topics, etc. that whole week, instead of "they." You could choose anything you normally did not identify with, such as being a homeless person and speaking inclusively, as if you are a homeless person, if you are not, for a week. It was astounding to me how effective that assignment was. I learned a ton. Try it.
There are many mainstays of sexism in our language, and that is something to look out for. I am always changing words around when talking with people. Such as someone will say something about "firemen" and I will respond talking about "fire fighters." They will say "policemen" and I will respond talking about "police officers." "Congressmen" will be retorted back by me as "Congressional representatives," and "ladies" will come back as "women." Middle class white Americans will talk about how "we" do this or that, and I will respond saying "they" do this or that, which usually immediately raises flags for the middle class person. Yet, their saying "we" earlier, raised MY flags! Many times Americans, and especially white middle class men, do not realize they are "the OTHER people, too" to quote Frank Zappa. When someone describes a person as "beautiful," if what they mean is the person was thin, young, and blonde, then I say the person was "stereotypically beautiful." Or if the woman is very made up in chemical make up and hair dyes, etc., I might refer to her as being "good AT beauty." The way you phrase things really does influence the way things progress in the discussion from there. I find when I turn phrases like this, people get it, right away, for better or worse, that I am not tolerating sexism, racism, heterosexism, Americanism, classism, looksism, etc. to the best of my ability. I feel often people's word choice is testing me to see where we agree in our racism, classism, etc. I shut them off immediately by showing we are not even going there, with my word choices, alone.
I often turn song lyrics around as a way to play with thoughts, perceptions, stereotypes and language too. I began singing "your mama's rich and your daddy's good lookin'" as a gender reversal in the classic tune "Summertime," back in 1979. Since women are supposed to "look good" and men have the money, that was a perfect reversal and easy to switch. There is a song Sarah Vaughn recorded called "Fine Fat Daddy," I believe is its title. It is a song about how this guy is big and fat and how she likes him that way. Well, you rarely ever hear that topic applied to women, just as you see "Hungryman" dinners, but NEVER "Hungrywoman" dinners! So I turned it to be "Fine Fat Mama" and had 3 "back up boys" sing it with me, saying they like women who are sweet as pudding and apple juice and to NOT reduce!
There is power in language. That is why indigenous languages are banned by conquerors and missionaries alike. Because the languages we use reflect our own empowerment, so to have your own language forcibly replaced by another's language, is quite a cultural shift in more ways than just words for things. The language we are taught in our government schools does have an agenda to it. The idea that "man" means both all men and all humans is not a coincidence. The use of "He" and male pronouns for a god is not incidental. The mainstream press refers quite passively to environmental activists as "eco-terrorists." We, the alternative press and environmental activists, reserve that term, "eco-terrorist," for Weyerhauser, Shell Oil, etc., and use "eco-defense activist" to describe our environmental activist allies. And anyone who has ever suffered an inflammatory police or prosecutor statement made against them, calling another person the victim, long before guilt on either side is determined, understands the power and politics of speech.
It is not a coincidence that white people quantify race only when they are talking about people who are not white. The words we don't use matter. My journalist friend today said that much of Ecuador is anti-American. I asked why (although guessing a hundred plus reasons is not hard). She said it was not they were against American people, but that they are against capitalism. I burst out laughing. Most Americans do not even know what capitalism IS. The word "capitalism" is remarkably missing in school textbooks and evening newscasts in America. I did not know what capitalism was until I was about 27, and was deconstructing poverty and class in my own life and needed a word for that thing, where your profits are skimmed off of your work by another, and all of a sudden, I stumbled upon the word "capitalism." But in all my schooling up until college, I had not been around the common usage of the word "capitalism" at all, which says a lot. Start using the word "capitalism" more often and you immediately sound like a hard core radical, for some bizarre reason.
Just as I am labeled a knee-jerk feminist, and too politically correct (by men who claim to be anarchists, no less!) for being sensitive to these language issues, you, too, will probably take flack for caring about language. But it is a worthwhile investment of time to analyze how you speak and what those speech patterns say about your class, race, sex, nationality, etc. I am very often able to tell, quite accurately, a person's sex, race, and class, when they write me emails, before they tell me, from their word patterns. You can use language as a social aikido, of sorts, too. Such as in the reclamation of terms like "queer," "cunt," or "fat," which all have movements using those words as empowerment. Or you can make up succinct terms, like the word Manarchy, which is a great word to describe the white middle class male predominated form of anarchy most vocal in America today.
The things that need the most immediate attention are things that are white/American/middle class/heterosexual/male-centric, as those are the dominant paradigms and thus, those are the things that try to roll over everyone else. So, those are the things that should be played down, and others put to center stage with language. Keeping the language of "firemen" for example, is disrespectful to women fire fighters. Try to overcome dominance of males in all ways, as well as a dominance of white, middle class, heterosexual, and/or American myths and stereotyping, and instead highlight cultural differences in positive ways and use INCLUSIVE language.
That is really all this article is saying. Learn how to include MORE people by adjusting your language to reflect more than just a white male middle class experience. I know that is hard, when it is almost all males speaking OVER women, even in alternative press and anarchy. You can go to Alternative Press Review (www.altpr.org) today and see male after male viewpoint on the front page. I think there are a few women authors on a sidebar somewhere. You can go to Infoshop.org and look at WHAT they talk about. It is almost all male-oriented topics, written by mostly white men. You can go to the "anarchist" alpha-male Chuck Munson's blog, and see how middle class, and oh so very male, his blog entries are, talking about male-exclusive corporate sports and restaurants he eats in, not to mention how everyone in Kansas City "needs" a car. You have to just not look at these men who are supposedly "leading" an anarchist or alternative press movement which applies pretty much only to white middle class males, and move forward. Even though the men who have used alternative press and anarchy for their own benefit, to the exclusion of women and people of color and the poor, are claiming this is an alternative to the exact same thing in mainstream press, that is no reason to remain silent. We need to veer off this path of male middle class domination of anarchy and the alternative press. White middle class men already own the mainstream press, thus that domination in alternative press is just the white middle class males taking over MORE press.
Let's invest in each other instead of more white men, and let's use inclusive language the white men seem to take as a joke. Let's NOT allow women to be reduced to "blonde pussy" in articles we promote. Let's separate anarchy from racism and sexism and classism. What a novel concept! And let's take a united STAND ON THAT! It is called RESPECT. Let's take a united stand to RESPECT women in the alternative press, and not reduce them to pussy. Let's take a stand to quit exalting blondes, as that is a way this gross male writer used to say he wanted WHITE pussy. If the white men controlling the alternative press right now cannot handle such a pro-woman, anti-racism stand, and need to defend women being reduced to white pussy for sexist, racist male writers, well, they can write for themselves and work with all men and patriarchally-defined women. (These men will vehemently protect other men, like Ward Chucrchill, over words, but not women and their dignity). In the end, it will be these white men who are left out, and they will be left out due to their own sexism and elitism. Period. Let the old male paradigm die, and invest in new words, new press, new ways to share news, that white men do not control. And do not fall for that ridiculous gag where white men claim a diverse and hidden "collective" somewhere to try to pretend it is not all their own white male agenda they are spewing over and over.
Part of alternative media is not only in the forms we use, in our creative use of technology and our DIY zines, it is also in our alternative word and subject choices. Alternative media can reflect a different agenda by putting issues and articles written by women and people of color up front, before white male news stories, which are always the headlining stories, it seems. And by using chosen words in alternative media for our own agenda. Someone once said, we become what we pay attention to. We need to stop paying attention to white male middle class newswires, websites, and publications, and start promoting, reading and validating ANYTHING other than white, male, American, middle class viewpoints. As I have said repeatedly, we all already KNOW what white males and the American middle class think and do. It saturates our society, and the oppressed always know their oppressors better than the oppressors know the oppressed. Now we want to know what the MAJORITY of humanity does, and we need to get white males and the middle class, out of the way for that, apparently, as anything the middle class or men touch, they dominate, as if by instinct, and if you threaten that domination, they act just as Chuck0 and Infoshop.org acted when I confronted their sexism. By trying to cut us off. But we cannot be cut off. We can make our own media. We can use our own words. We can make our own media, I say. We do not need males to make media for us.
Male-dominated media CANNOT BE ALTERNATIVE. I stand firm in that proclamation. COUNT the number of women writers in publications and on websites you read. If the first 4 stories are by men, throw the crap in the trash where it belongs, boycott it, and move on. It also appears the only woman truly being exalted by alternative press is Amy Goodman, who is very meek and nonthreatening in contrast to how an angry poor black woman is perceived, for instance. And she is white, very very middle class, and ironically, her name is "good man." Yicks! Do we need to be "good men" and have "man" in our last names as women to get paid and published as writers? Maybe so! There are plenty of publications with very competent women writers, such as Mother Warriors Voice and Off Our Backs. And the women writers there are not relegated to back pages, nor is "man" required as part of their names! Support alternatives to white male DOMINATED media, starting today.
Kirsten Anderberg. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint/publish, please contact Kirsten at firstname.lastname@example.org.