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Today we have another guest blogger here on the Hollaback! Melbourne website, Talisha, who’ll be looking at how the language that we use shapes our ‘collective subconscious.’ In other words, those terms, phrases and expressions that we casually bandy about often have serious and far-reaching implications. This is a thoughtful piece about words and their effects on women.
After becoming more vocal in recent months about speaking out against being sexually objectified, it has hit me closer and closer to home that the problem of street harassment runs so much deeper than the faceless men who accost me on the street. After having conversations with friends and family and hearing the words, “feminism has done its work”, that a man who considers taking his wife’s surname is “whipped”, and that street harassment is not about “feminism” but Something Else, or that perhaps these things bother me because of my own Personal Hang-Ups, I have come to realise the battle for gender equality is much larger than I had imagined. This is an issue deeply ingrained in language and in the daily undiscerning masses of men and women who choose apathy and comfort over freedom and equality.
In my high school philosophy class I remember being so struck by reading John Stuart Mill’s views on liberty. He essentially said that each individual should have freedom as long as it does not harm others or impede their freedom. For me, when I am treated like a sexual object I feel as though my freedom to feel comfortable and safe and like an intellectual, compassionate, equal member of society, is at its core, being taken away from me.
This may sound extreme to you. How does some guy wolf whistling from a car window or a man on a street corner leering at me and making obscene gestures, impact on my freedom to participate as an equal member of society? These gestures for me at this stage of my life are fortunately not grievous enough to seriously affect my daily life in and of themselves, but in so much as they are in indication of a much broader social problem, I feel the distress that accompanies these inappropriate interjections acutely. I have only just begun the journey of discovering in how many ways these behaviours and attitudes have come to shape the course of my young adult life.
After being in a emotionally manipulative and abusive relationship for some years, being free from that repression I can only look back and wonder how I put up with it when I had always considered myself a ‘strong’ person. And a strong person who went into the relationship saying things like, “I would never put up with…”. I had a moment of elucidation only a few weeks ago where I realised my decisions may have been very different if I had grown up surrounded by positive males who didn’t treat me differently based on gender, in a society that advocated true equality. I don’t know how many times I was told by adults as a young child, “what a pretty little girl” I was. This was often the only interaction I would have with many adults.
These adults were essentially re-enforcing to me the most important thing about me worth noting was how pretty I was, or how one day I would be a “little heart-breaker.” This is not the message we want to be sending to young females, and I fear we are not aware of the effect of the language we use every day, in all of our interactions. There were countless times I encountered boys who felt the need to share with me how unattractive or fat they thought I was as a kid/teenager. This was often used as an attack irrelevant of the context or conversation, and I think often as a defense mechanism when I said something they didn’t like or was too out-spoken.
Perhaps if I had grown up being teased about being inarticulate instead of unattractive, or patted on the head by adults for being witty instead of cute, I would have said enough is enough when my ex-boyfriend told me that maybe he only liked me because he thought I was “pretty”. These may seem like subtle shades of differences or ineffectual nuances, however I think it is incredibly important to begin paying attention to the way we converse with each other and choose our words carefully. The lazier we are about accuracy of language, the easier it is and more likely it will be that gender inequalities will be present. If we don’t change the way we communicate, discrepancies between what we expect of men and woman socially and compassionately will continue to be ingrained in such a subconscious way, that when it is challenged, it will be met with something as demoralising as “I was just joking”, or as ludicrous as “feminism has done its work”.
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