My husband swears. Sometimes, a lot.
Most of the time, he’s eloquent and witty, but when he’s upset with a situation or some poor inanimate object, out it comes. And it’s no wonder: he was raised in a country town that’s not known for being anywhere that people mince words, and then spent decades in the film and TV industries, which aren’t exactly known for their diplomacy and tact. Because I’m eternally 14 years old on the inside, it makes me giggle (although granted, whether I giggle within earshot depends on how upset he is).
And last week, he did something that was a small thing, but it’s actually one of those Big Things.
My husband drives a lot for his business, and has increasingly been using Siri, combined with his phone’s GPS, to get him where he needs to be. Last week he decided to change its voice from female to male because “it can get pretty frustrating, and let’s face it, I’m bound to swear at it eventually”. He decided that he didn’t want to be swearing at a female persona.
Now… you can read this as something not very important, or you can read it like I do: someone truly living his values, even when there’s no one else in the car with him, and even though Siri is just a piece of software. My husband loves and respects his daughters, and his wife, and respects and likes women in general, and the thought of swearing at a female Siri – even in jest – didn’t sit well.
But it wasn’t just about the women, or just about the jest: it was about him. It was his suspicion of what subtle changes might occur in his own mind if he indulged this behaviour; they may be tiny, or even nonexistent, but he didn’t want to risk them.
Strangely enough, my husband’s decision came at the same time as Norwegian charity organization CARE released a powerful, hard-hitting film called “Dear Daddy”. It’s about words. About how words can be lies. And how sometimes, people – both boys and girls – can grow up to believe those lies, with terrible impact.
The many lies that flood our culture include sexist language and jokes, preconceived notions, biases, and attitudes. None – none – of these things are, in fact, trivial. Once upon a time aeons ago, our brains dictated that we create language; but ever since then, language has been creating us. Words can literally change our brains.
The author, psychologist, and activist Steve Biddulph reminds us that “How you talk, ultimately, is how you act.” This is backed by the research of Andrew Newberg, M.D., and Mark Robert Waldman, who say that just “a single word has the power to influence the expression of [our] genes.”
It’s great science, but it still draws the line, like it’s most often drawn, separating how we talk from how we act. And I believe it shouldn’t be, because speech is an action. When we talk, we are acting. And actions have reactions. You know: effects. Consequences.
Newberg and Waldman say that we think we’re great communicators, but compared to other species, we’re actually lousy. And there’s proof, right there: that we’re the only species to not count communication as an action, and because of that, we don’t think it will have consequences. How dumb is that.
But perhaps this is all too much science. I remember when Oprah interviewed Chris Rock and asked him about his usage of “the n-word” (that’s Oprah’s term, by the way), and what he would say to the white people who felt it should give them license to use it. Chris Rock replied, “Forget why I say it. Why do you want to say it?” He went on to ask why, with all the words that white people have at their disposal to describe black people, they would want to use that word. Why they would feel their language is somehow lacking because they can’t use that one word.
Why would they? Why would you?
These are not rhetorical questions. They are important questions that each of us need to answer about the language we use.
To follow on from Chris Rock, if you call a woman any one of countless sexist epithets, why are you doing that? If you let a sexist joke go unquestioned and unchallenged, what’s your reason? What’s your purpose?
If you can’t – or won’t – answer, then stop. When one in five women have experienced sexual violence, and one in three have experienced domestic violence, and you add that to everyday sexism and discrimination, and the disparity between the male and female socioeconomic status, that is too many people believing, acting out, and perpetuating the lies. And the cost is too high. Not just to women, but to our society, and collective conscience.
Change needs to begin somewhere. And your language is the simplest way, and one of the most powerful ways, to begin.