“The power of a word lies not so much in its mere utterance, but in the CONTEXT in which it is given utterance, and how it is received by those hearing it.”
There are times when the national discourse takes a turn that causes me a fair amount of concern, and this is one of those times. This past week, Facebook COO and author of the women’s empowerment tome, “Lean In: Women, Work, and the Will to Lead,” Sheryl Sandberg, launched a campaign via her book’s namesake “Lean In” organisation, in cooperation with Girl Scouts USA. The campaign’s goal? Ban the word “bossy.”
According to Sandberg, the schoolyard term and “gender-specific insult” has been used to deter young girls from having the highest of aspirations, and therefore impairing their ability and willingness to succeed upon entering adulthood. Her effort to counter this long-suffered problem has been mapped out and presented via the “banbossy” website, and “#banbossy” hashtags have been cropping up all over the interwebz.
I wish I knew exactly what Sandberg means when she says that the word should be “banned.” Is she suggesting a change in the language that school-aged children are allowed to use in an educational setting, or the complete disuse and disavowing of the word by society on the whole?
At this point in the story, I’d like to state that I am very pro-woman. I honestly believe that the “fairer sex” has been getting a bad rap, ever since that whole “Eve and the apple” bit. Even now, women are still being denied an equal share of the wage and advancement opportunities in this country, and something definitely needs to be done about it. I am not confident, however, that the banning of a word or words, is quite the answer that the question requires.
When we talk of “banning” words, I fear that this may be the first few inches on a steep and slippery slope. Those of us who have kept a weather eye on humanity’s past, know full well that things like this have happened before, and have led to some very dark places. Thought police. Book burnings. The control and limitation of free, unfettered speech. (I’ve been chided for connecting Mrs. Sandberg’s suggested ban with these concepts already, however upon further examination through the prism of history, I feel my concerns remain valid. I’ll expand on this in a bit, but let’s continue…)
In my own, not-so-humble opinion, we should be discussing context instead. This goes back to my earlier piece on “What Makes Bad Words Bad.” When we say that someone is acting or being “bossy,” what do we mean? If someone is being proactive and assertive, while also taking others’ thoughts, opinions and feelings into consideration, then no, the word “bossy” should not be used to discourage or denigrate them. On the other hand, if someone is simply issuing orders or attempting to “throw their weight around” inconsiderately, then yes, they’re being bossy, and should be called out for it.
I also have an issue with Sandberg’s “pigeon-holing” of the word “bossy” as a gender-specific insult. Of course, it can certainly be utilised as such, just as much as a kitchen knife can be used as a street weapon. And of course, neither should be acceptable. Just because a word or a kitchen knife can be used as those things, however, does not make them those things ipso facto.
Instead of all this talk of “banning” words, perhaps it’s time to talk about redefining them. Perhaps we should be discussing how we employ our words, when we employ them, who we employ them with regard to, and how they might be received. At any rate, we as a society should be having this dialogue, instead of simply suggesting that we “ban” something that we don’t necessarily like, regardless of context.
“Pleased to meet you,
Hope you guess my name, oh yeah.
But what’s puzzling you,
Is the nature of my game.”
– Rolling Stones, “Sympathy For The Devil” c1968.
What’s puzzling me with regard to Sheryl Sandberg, Facebook, and her foundation’s connections, goes right to the heart of my concerns over her suggestion of banning words. Since Facebook went public, it appears that the site has begun a slow transformation from social networking, to social engineering. Case in point, Facebook has started penalising its users for sending “friend requests” to people on the site that users do not know personally:
In addition to this, “The Baffler’s” Susan Faludi revealed in an article penned last year, that Sheryl Sandberg’s “Lean In” organisation has connections to a number of “Platform Partners” with equal opportunity histories that are, shall we say…”impeachable”? The following is an excerpt from the Faludi / Baffler piece from 2013:
“Lean In Platform Partners Mondelez and Nestlé: In 2013, an Oxfam investigation in four countries where the two companies outsourced their cocoa farms found that the women working in the cocoa fields and processing plants that the companies relied on “suffer substantial discrimination and inequality.” When women at a cocoa processing factory demanded equal treatment and pay, the investigation noted, all of the female workers were fired. The same companies that “put women first in their advertisements,” Oxfam concluded, “are doing very little to address poor conditions faced by the women who grow cocoa.””
So, my question is, what exactly is Sheryl Sandberg playing at? What is the “nature of her game”? Why is it that she talks about banning words and limiting the national dialogue, under the guise of women’s empowerment, while at the very same time, “holding hands with the devil”? Why is her company, Facebook, actively impeding users from advancing this same dialogue, through the process of free and open social networking?
Something is fishy in Denmark, my fine young readers. We as netizens now require our own bit of “empowerment,” to be able to glean the answers that Susan Faludi was unable to glean.