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Why the use of metaphors is oppressive

MetaphorCommon practice around inclusive language, especially in social justice circles, is both too simple, and too complicated, writes Gauche Sinister.

10 October 2010

NB: This post is full of language that may be offensive, derogatory or triggering.

I agree with the premise that language reflects and reinforces certain ideas, and that it’s worthwhile to be more aware of the assumptions behind our usage and understanding (assumptions that make sense of words and give them meaning beyond their denotative referent; the word’s face value - what might be the first entry in a small dictionary).

It’s a project initially motivated by solidarity with self-determination – by wanting to respect how people prefer to be addressed, described or discussed; to respond to their political needs; and to show support for cultural change through linguistic change. And it inevitably extends to questioning the assumptions on which all language relies.

But I’ve found common knowledge and practice around inclusive language in social justice circles to be both too simple, and too complicated.

Inclusive language 101

The basics of oppressive language are simple to grasp. When you use language that can refer to or that is associated with a group of people or their characteristics and circumstances to mean something else (generally derogatory, but it may not be), you thicken the link between the two: saying “gay” when you mean “uncool” implies that gay people are uncool.

It's simple to understand with the most overt examples, and simple to change: no matter how accustomed you are to using words like "nigger," "faggot" or "retard," it's not hard to set up an alarm in your mind and find a better replacement.

Often there's no perfect substitute, no word that's quite as powerful - but that's because oppression is powerful and there's little that can call up so much power, so quickly, as a slur that stands in for a whole history of violence.

There’s plenty of existing discussion about words and phrases that can be hurtful or exclusionary and why you shouldn’t use them. Meloukhia gives a few examples:

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

Some of these offend because they are commonly used as an insult but also refer to, or are associated with, a group of people (“cunt,” “moron,” “insane”). Some perpetuate stereotype by associating a group of people with certain characteristics or actions (“ballsy,” “jewed”). Some directly exclude (“biological sex,” using male pronouns as generic). Some embody double standards (“whore,” “shrew”). Some depersonalise (“the disabled”).

I don’t want to argue for either rejecting certain words or reclaiming others, and I certainly don’t want to make a judgement about who can say which words, and when. I do want to acknowledge that there’s more to language than vocabulary; more to inclusionary language than banning words and phrases.

I want to talk about when language perpetuates unintended associations and assumptions in ways that are problematic but not necessarily hurtful. I want to consider this without calling for a ban, without even asking people to avoid certain phrases or judging them on how they use language. I want to do this because I love language and I find it fascinating, and while deliberate language is political, it may not be inclusionary, and it isn’t activism.

Beyond denotation: Against metaphor

Extending my last piece on analogy, I want to argue against metaphor: against substituting one thing for another, against reaching into the baggage of one thing to enrich or complicate our understanding of another.

To start with an obvious example, blackness and darkness is routinely used to stand in for mystery, fear, or general negativity. Though these associations may exist in many cultures, in mine it also draws on racism.

We use poor to signify lack, but it indicates both the state of having less (“poor people”) and being less (“poor form”).

Disability metaphors abound: a publication which would never refer to people as “retards” or “spastics” is likely to use “blind” and “deaf” regularly as a metaphor for ignorance or ineptitude (“the Government is blind to growing dissatisfaction ...” etc). Debt is “crippling” and design is “schizophrenic.”

In Illness as Metaphor, Susan Sontag considers late 20th century discourse on cancer to reveal our time’s anxiety about uncontrolled economic growth and technological progress.

Rape is used as a metaphor for almost any offence or injustice, from colonisation to privacy violations to logging of old-growth forests. Consent is relevant in almost every political conversation - autonomy is essentially consent collectivised - but alluding to sexual assault is not.

It’s impossible to escape metaphor’s intersections with oppression; most adjectives can be applied to bodies and people, so the words that describe us (short, young, light) inevitably draw on some other meanings (curt, fresh, unimportant).

I want richly layered associative meaning. I want poetry.

Gauche Sinister is a Shanghainese/Melburnian critic who writes to the left at State of Emergency and on living under capitalism at No New Year. Ey also contributes to the queer hanky code blog, flagging opinicus rampant.

This article is a follow-up to
Why analogies of oppression don't work.

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