“I can deal with conservative ignorance and the dismissal of feminism by most conservatives…What I don’t understand is why sexism is allowed to thrive in the liberal community, which is supposedly so intolerant of sexism, and why it is that liberals are so determined to ignore very real criticisms of their sexism, ableism, classism, and racism.”
The above is an excerpt from a post on Liberal Sexism from the blog This ain’t livin’. I read it earlier this morning and it got me a’ thinking.
I live in a fairly conservative town – so conservative we recently elected a non-existent candidate to uphold our conservative values. I came to this city to attend the university, a Liberal Arts university, that I often saw as a sanctuary for progressive, liberal minded people such as myself. I was correct in many ways, but was continually astounded at the staunchly offensive and “ism’ed” behaviors I saw displayed on a regular basis. Racism to sexism to ageism seemed to bounce around those concrete walls, smacking down an innocent bystander when they would least expect it.
In most cases it is understated – an off-handed comment, or a quietly existing practice of exclusion. It can be elitist in its elitism. But, because those who practice it reside in the hallowed ivory walls of a university, many kept quiet when they felt uncomfortable or dismissed.
More often than not, it is the langauge of exclusion practised by many, perhaps unintentionally, that I find the most concerning. There are two examples I would like to use to illustrate this issue – an issue I still find prevalent amongst even my most progressive and liberal-minded peers.
The first is the use of “man” or “dude”. A term of endearment, or friendship in most cases falls on my ear as a challenge – that in order to be respected as an equal I must exhibit behaviours or patterns of thought that are classically found in males. While I do understand that those who use these terms of friendship are unlikely to consider me a “man” or a “bro” – it is the common lexicon of friendship I find difficult to accept.
If I were call to my male friends “lady” or “girlfriend”, they would find it offensive or off-putting. These gendered terms perpetuate the idea that men are constantly above women, and to be considered equal I must be considered manly, or at the very least man-like.
The second example is an incident (making it sound so much more dramatic than it is) that occurred a couple of years ago. Dr. Barry Cooper, a faculty member of the University of Calgary came to speak at the U of L on the invitation of a colleague. I did an extensive interview with Dr. Cooper and in the article I made a reference to the professor sponsoring the talk:
“Dr. Cooper was Dr. von Heyking’s Graduate program supervisor, thus there was only slight surprise on behalf of myself at the boys club familiarity Dr. von Heyking bared in his introduction.”
In response to this, I received a rather pointed e-mail taking exception of the term “boys club”. Interestingly, in the same article Dr. Cooper had said this:
“The Vice President and a lawyer, the general council for the University – she was a very pretty woman – they were extremely upset about this…”
which received no notice in by the offended professor.
An academic who credentials are impressive, and his study of classical literature extensive slipped up in his protest of language. Once again, it was the negative “male” language that was noticed, by the clear objectification of a woman in a position of authority is hardly noticeable.
We, or at least I, often expect those hallowed walls of a postsecondary institution to be free of such errors. To be able to critically examine their own use of langauge as throughly as they examine students’ citations styles in papers. I realized in a short time that is not always the case, but I do not think that is cause for anyone to stop noticing it.
Those who are willing and wanting to critically think about the world around them should also take pause to examine their own reflections of their world through langauge. A common lexicon can be incredibly powerful. It can create inclusion as easily as exclusion and permit positive behaviour as well as negative. It is able to reinforce behaviors more effectively that most physical reinforcements.
While many will complain the “language” police have gotten out of hand, or everything is un-PC “these days” – there is a reason. If the choice for a person is to use gendered terms of endearment than they need to accept how it informs the relationships they are building.
Language is a tool, a tool that should be respected and understood. It is able to affect so very much, and all too often individuals forget the power their words have.