Words: Sticks and Stones? Or Shaping How We See Ourselves?
A friend once told me, “Words are nothing but frequencies in the air. If you don’t give them meaning, they won’t mean a thing.” Ever since he said that, I try to live my life as such.
This was a response to a blog post I made asking whether “whore” should be the “w-word.”
“Words are only words” is great advice if you can pull it off. But most can’t. And really, words affect us all, whether we realize it or not.
As it turns out, language directs thought.
In the 1930s two anthropologists, Edward Sapir and Benjamin Whorf, learned that the Hopi Indians had no words to distinguish among the past, present, and future. Yet English uses a variety of tenses to describe specific points in time. Americans are intensely time-sensitive. Hopis? Not so much.
The anthropologists concluded that words are more than labels. Language affects how we see the world, ourselves, and how we behave.
Women are more likely to respond to a help wanted ad if the job description is “mail carrier” and not “mailman.”
In fact, we use male terms to describe humanity so much – man, mankind, brotherhood, fellowship – that when people are asked to think of a person, a man comes to mind.
When women or people of color are called words that are disrespectful and demeaning, they – along with everyone else – can internalize the notions, experiencing the words as reflecting some sort of real reality: They aren’t worth quite as much as others.
Words like whore or slut are especially powerful because women’s sexuality has long been connected to profound shame. The n-word takes African-Americans back to a time of degradation and dehumanization.
Sticks and stones may break our bones, but words can also hurt us when they dig deep into the unconscious psyche of indignity and humiliation.
“Whore”: The W-word?
Do women see the word “whore” the same as African Americans see the “N-word”?
At Wednesday’s California gubernatorial debate, Tom Brokaw suggested the two were equivalent, asking Gov. Jerry Brown why he had not expressed outrage at his aide’s suggestion they brand Meg Whitman with the term for catering to law enforcement in exchange for an endorsement.
Brown retorted, “I don’t agree with that comparison,” and added a weak apology.
He went on to ask why Whitman wasn’t outraged that her campaign chair had once called Congress “whores” for similar dealings with public employee unions. Whitman strangely called that “a completely different thing.”
Now Salon columnist, Joan Walsh, has asked: Is “whore” the N-word for women?
The fact that no one says “the W-word” to avoid saying “whore” suggests that people don’t find it quite so offensive.
But then, our society is more offended by racism than sexism: People are more upset by racist than sexist jokes. And few complain about calling women ho’s in rap music because they don’t want to sound racist. But sexist is fine.
Maybe it’s not as offensive. But maybe it should be.
Relevant posts: Why Are We More Offended By Racism Than Sexism?