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29 October 2014
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Sticks and stones
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What's in a name?
Who has the power?
Taking the power back

Sticks and stones
by Dr Emma Moore, Sheffield University

Taking the power back
In recent years, we have seen shifts in society which have enabled traditionally disadvantaged groups to become more visible and powerful. Several strategies have been used to 'take the power back'.

The most common strategy is to acknowledge that many of our labelling practices are exclusionary and to find ways to make them more inclusive. You might recognise this strategy as political correctness. Instead of 'fireman', we're now encouraged to say 'firefighter'; instead of 'air hostess' we can say 'flight attendant'; and instead of calling men 'actors' and women 'actresses' (notice that the female term derives from the male term), we simply call everyone an 'actor' irrespective of their gender. Some people think that this kind of politic correctness is ineffective - after all, even if we use the term 'flight attendant', it doesn't change the fact that most flight attendants are female. However, it's possible that in neutralising the label, we might just discourage people from assuming that the occupations are 'naturally' gendered. Yes, there are more female flight attendants than male flight attendants, but that doesn't mean men can't do the job equally as well.Not every agrees with this strategy. Some people have argued that our assumptions about the gendering of occupations are so strong that, even if the label is changed, we'll still assume that 'firefighter' refers to a male occupation. These people believe that we should continue to use gendered referents - so say 'fireman' and 'firewoman' instead of 'firefighter'. This way, at least if we say 'firewoman', we're explicitly acknowledging that women are doing the job.
table top
play audio Listen to the actors in Edinburgh talk about derogatory labels. More...
Sometimes naming practices are not just exclusionary, but also highly derogatory. A strategy that's been used to deal with this type of naming practice is to reclaim terms that were previously negatively applied. The term 'queer' was traditionally used to attack, but now gay people frequently use the label self-affirmingly. This strategy works by taking ownership of the term. It's a way of saying, "Yes, I am queer. So what?" The interesting thing about names is that we only fully understand what they mean from the contexts in which they're used. So, we can only interpret 'queer' as a derogatory term if it's used by one person to insult another person and both parties understand it as an insult. If it's used between two people in a positive sense, to promote solidarity or shared identity, then it becomes a positive term.
"...many people find the new tendency for men to refer to their female partners as their 'bitch' disturbing."

Not everyone is comfortable with reclaimed terms because of their history of bigoted use. Some reclaimed labels stay largely within the designated group - and not everyone in that group is happy to use them. For instance, 'nigger' has been reclaimed by some black speakers as a positive affirmation of their ethnic identity. But the history of repression attached to the word - and particularly the history of white people using the word to disparage black speakers - means that some speakers are still not happy to use the label or be labelled by it.

Often the positive and negative meaning of a reclaimed term can co-exist. For instance, the label 'bitch' has traditionally been used as a derogatory label for a woman; but, recently, some women use the term self-affirmingly to express their assertiveness or independence. These women are attempting to take the supposedly negative traits associated with the label 'bitch' - someone who is aggressive and pushy - and interpret them in a positive way. But, like 'queer' and 'nigger', what matters here is the context. What the label means depends upon who's using it to whom. Because of the history of power differentials between men and women, it's difficult for a man to call a woman a 'bitch' without the use being interpreted negatively. It's for this reason that many people find the new tendency for men to refer to their female partners as their 'bitch' so disturbing.
table top
play audio Listen to actors in Edinburgh talk about words for disabled. More...
As you can see, there are lots of disagreements about the most effective way to change negative naming practices. And you're sure to have your own view about which of these strategies is the most effective. Ultimately, though, there are no rights and wrongs about which strategy works best to combat language prejudice. This doesn't necessarily mean that trying to dispel language prejudice is pointless - just that the issues are very complicated. We need to remember that it takes a long time to effect change, but it's the little changes that build up to big changes.


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