This is the monologue for the most recent episode of Why? Radio: “Women and Men: Talking, Arguing, and Politicking,” with guest Deborah Tannen. Click here to listen to the episode.
I always define feminism for my students in the same way. It’s the claim that gender is a legitimate category of analysis. In other words, feminism as a philosophy is the idea that we gain relevant information by asking how something affects women as women, and men as men. This seems commonplace now, but for most of the history of philosophy—frankly for most of the history of the human pursuit of knowledge—gender difference was invisible. All humans were men; women were just lesser, or incomplete.
We now know this isn’t true. There are biological differences, for sure, but there are also differences in cultural expectation and personal experience. Feminists disagree about how important these factors are—how much the difference is derived from nature and how much from culture—but whatever the cause, we still don’t understand many of its effects. This is true in politics. It’s also true in linguistics.
The study of language tends to be focused on neurology and on grammar. But less attention is paid to meaning, and even less on the way that men and women each impart this meaning. That’s exactly what today’s show will be about: how different genders communicate and how their messages get confused in the process. To a certain extent, we are used to this discussion. Anyone in a heterosexual relationship will be familiar with the complaints that boyfriends and girlfriends hear things differently, that husbands and wives are talking at cross purposes, and that sibling conversations occur on a very different level than the spoken one. But these are most often dismissed as individual miscommunication, the result of a particular family or specific dysfunctions. One partner is dismissed as crazy, the other as needy. One is depicted as cold, the other as too dramatic. Someone, maybe everyone, is simply not listening. If only we could get people to focus and to be clear, all those problems would go away.
This demand for universal clarity was inherited from Plato. It made its way through Peter Abelard and was celebrated by Wittgenstein. But suppose this language difference is not a matter of mistakes or miscommunications, but rather, laden with gender expectations and reinforced by friends who take sides? What if we are encouraged to speak in these codes because if we do, we have more professional and romantic opportunities, and if we don’t, we are punished or shunned? See, that’s feminism right there. What happens when we make gender a relevant category of analysis? A whole new world opens up.
Language is about more than communication. It cultivates a sense of intimacy and belonging. It creates our understanding of the world. It is as inwardly focused as it is about expressing ourselves. What’s the relationship between what someone says and what someone thinks? Between how one speaks and who one actually is? Between our communicative successes and our personal imaginations? If every time we speak we are rebuffed, does it stunt what we can conceive of? This is the central question of George Orwell’s 1984. If we have too simplistic answers to any of these questions, we might end up with fascism, but we might also end up relying on silly and uninformative tropes like men are from Mars and women are from Venus.
But just as we are concerned with speakers’ identities, we also have to consider language’s audience. How does one communicate to be heard? Our society is obsessed with authenticity. We are continually asking how to best represent our true selves, but rarely talk about how to be understood. Politicians do this better than anyone else. Donald Trump is particularly good at it and Hillary Clinton is not. But suppose the reason for their varying oratorical success is not that one speaks in a shallow code of racism and the other with a lawyer’s caution, but that one is a man and rewarded for certain kinds of language while one is a woman and condemned for the only linguistic tools she is permitted to use publicly. I’m not suggesting these are the only reasons, nor, that we take them at face value. My point is that feminism as a philosophy that claims gender is a legitimate analytic tool, is relevant here. Let’s ask and see what happens.
On today’s episode of Why?, we are going to explore these themes with possibly the world’s foremost feminist linguist; she will explain all of this much better than I can. But before we begin, we must acknowledge that her very project is not only informative but important. It is also still radical. Her popular books make gender analysis look easy, but feminism is still scary to many and maybe in the context of language it is scarier still. If we do learn to communicate better, we will suddenly understand one another more, and when men and women do that, we’ll have a hell of a lot of problems to discuss.