William C. Gay,


³Nonsexist Public Discourse and Negative Peace:


The Injustice of Merely Formal Transformation²



The Acorn:  Journal of the Gandhi-King Society 9, n1 (Spring 1997):  45-53




A. Thesis #1


1. Language as Conservative Social Institution

a. Language is a social institution, and one of the most conservative ones in any society  (Saussure)

b. Applications to gender and war

1) Words about and attitudes toward gender and war are embedded in language

2) Instruction in grammar and lexicon of a language re-enforces its taken-for-granted attitudes toward gender and war


2. Saussure and Language as Institution

a. Language a convention beyond control of speakers who passively assimilate it

1) "The signifier, though to all appearance freely chosen with respect to the idea that it represents, is fixed, not free, with respect to the linguistic community that uses it"

2) "Of all social institutionsŠlanguage is least amenable to initiative"

b. Turn to institutional view of language supposedly ended authority of traditional political authorities to set linguistics codes




3. Linguistics as Normative

a. Talbot Taylor observed, the shift to the institutional view "is just another way of doing normative linguistics, and an ideologically deceptive one at that"

b. John Young suggests even efforts of totalitarian states to control thought through control of language had only limited success


B. Thesis #2


1. Discourse and Unequal Power

a. Discourse cannot be separated from relations of power in society; these relations are unequal in every society  (Bourdieu)

b. Applications to gender and war

1) Discourse about gender and war reflect the value and status of women and peace in society.

2) Official language is not under control of women or pacifists


2. Language and Authority

a. John Thompson comments on Bourdieu that institutionalized social relations of speaking establish "who is authorized to speak and recognized as such by others"

b. Implications

1)    I deny that linguistic determinism follows from this fact

2)    I recognize that the possibility of foregoing linguistic advantage is generally abandoned in favor of utilizing the power it provides


3. Official Language

a. Speaking "the language," for Bourdieu, "is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit."

b. Moreover, the formation of a single "linguistic community" is the product of political domination

c. This linguistic community is then reproduced by institutions that impose recognition of the dominant language

d. Linguistic understanding needs to be distinguished from linguistic attention

1)    Most people have the capacity to understand discourse

2)    Fewer people get "listened to"


4. Functioning in Legitimate Language

a. The issue is not purely one of class

1) Bourdieu does not say that only the children of the dominant class are admitted into the best schools

2) He suggests that to enter or finish programs at top schools one generally has the legitimate language imposed on them

b. Defining qualifications and credentials, educational systems create and sustain inequalities, so use of overt force unnecessary

1) An inverse relation often exists between possession of symbolic power and use of physical violence

2) While exercise of power is common, persons with authority generally do not have to exercise overt physical force


5. Discourse on Gender and War

a. Societies have long exerted power over women and engaged one another in war

b. Discourse about gender and war reflect the value and status of women and peace in society

1) Generally, both are devalued and relegated to a secondary status, if even that

2) Clearly, the official language is not under the control of women and pacifists

3) The problem of power, including the symbolic power of language, cannot be separated from the problem of violence, including linguistic violence


C. Thesis #3


1. Four Types of Violence

a. Violence occurs in personal and institutional ways and in overt and covert ways  (Garver)

b. Applications

1) War is overt violence which, though structured institutionally, can facilitate and mask personal uses of physical violence

2) Linguistic violence is a type of covert violence which, although structured institutionally, can facilitate and mask personal uses of psychological violence


2. Violence and Power

a. Hannah Arendt says that "violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power"

b. Newton Garver has a typology of violence that includes overt and covert forms, as well as personal and institutional forms

1)    War is an instance of overt institutional violence

2)    Sexist language is an instance of covert institutional violence


3. Violentism

a. Definitions

1) Violentism is belief that use of violence--overt and covert, personal and institutional--is and perhaps should be used to achieve goals

2) Global culture has been and probably long will be violentist

b. From Violence of War to Linguistic Violence

1) Stephanie Ross contends "Words can hurt, and one way they do is by conveying denigrating or demeaning attitudes"

2) Utilizes Joel Feinberg's contention that hurt is a species of harm and that victims are necessarily aware of hurts

a) While assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm

b)    Ross presents distinction between offense and oppression as parallel to Feinberg's distinction between hurt and harm

(1) One can be oppressed unknowingly but offense requires (logically or conceptually) the awareness and acknowledgment of its victim"

(2)      Language perpetuates harm of a system of oppression, regardless of whether individuals consciously experience hurt of its offenses against them


4. Continuum of Linguistic Violence

a. Linguistic violence occurs across a continuum that stretches from subtle forms such as children's jokes to grievous forms such as totalitarian and genocidal language

b. My focus is on the violence of sexist and warist language, particularly as exposed by feminist and pacifist scholars

c. Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard contend, "language itself does not determine the oppression"

1) "Sexism is not defined by sexist language, it is sexism which gives sexist language its potency²

2) ³The labelling...only has consequences if...supported by the possibility of force, violence, or other sanctions²

3) Finally, regarding the supposed inferiority and deficiency of women's language, they note, "Women's language is inferior when compared to that of males, which is already assumed to be the important yardstick and the superior form"


5. Sexist Language

a. Views of Deborah Cameron

1) "Sexist language teaches us what those who use it and disseminate it think women's place ought to be:  second-class citizens, neither seen nor heard, eternal sex-objects and personifications of evil"

2) Proceeds to refer "to violent speaking and writing and to violent-centric language"

b. Structure of language and  individual choice

1) Structural violence facilitates personal violence

a) On the one hand, war is a type of overt violence which, while structured institutionally, can facilitate and mask personal uses of physical violence

b)    On the other hand, linguistic violence is a type of covert violence which, although structured institutionally, can facilitate and make personal uses of psychological violence

2) This bleak picture, however, does not prevent overcoming the violence of gender inequality and war, because neither language nor society are immutable





D.    Thesis #4


1. Language and Consciousness

a. Language shapes, but does not determine, human consciousness and behavior  (Merleau-Ponty)

b. Applications

1)       Changed discourse about gender and war occurs synchronically and not just diachronically

2)       Changed discourse about gender and war can aggravate or ameliorate violence


2. Linguistic Freedom

a. The active speaking subject can find modes of expression which get around the constraints of the received system

b. Maurice Merleau-Ponty contends that expression itself requires distortion because it is "an operation of language upon language which suddenly is thrown out of focus towards its meaning"

1) If language per se is allusive and if expression depends on using signs against signs, then no standards for transparency exist which preclude the possibility that experimentation with how signs are opposed might better convey the meaning one intends to express

2) Sometimes, when previous perception is jolted rather strongly by new combinations of signs, we see things in an altered light, from a different angle, in a "new sense"

3) Hence, we can speak and write in ways that model alternatives to sexist and warist language and behavior


3. Metaphor

a. Paul Ricoeur says, the purpose of metaphor "is neither to improve communication nor to insure univocal argumentation, but to shatter and to increase our sense of reality by shattering and increasing our language"

b. Like Merleau-Ponty, Ricoeur sees indirect and polysemic language not only as "always already there" for speakers but also as an ineluctable mediator of social reality

1)    A social group creates an image for itself (and of others

2)    Perception of social group is molded, in part, by this linguistic creation with its inherent distortions


4. Feminism and Pacifism

a. Creative speech may continue to perpetuate the lamentable and distorted practices of linguistic violence rather than any lofty vision of a society of gender equality, peace, and justice

b. Serious attention needs to be given to the fact that changed discourse about gender and war can aggravate or ameliorate violence in society

1) Note when changes in discourse are more apparent than real

2) Note when changes are more formal than substantive


E. Thesis #5


1. Negative and Positive Language of Peace

a. The language of tolerance and peaceful relations can be negative or positive  (Marcuse)

b. Applications

1) Merely formally sanctioned nonsexist public discourse and peace as the mere absence of war are negative and superficial forms of transformation

2) Achievement of gender equality at the cultural base and of social justice within global societies is also necessary for positive and substantial transformation


2. Negative and Positive Peace

a. Definitions of Ron Glossop

1) Negative peace as "the mere absence of war"

2) Positive peace as "a peace in which there is no exploitation of some individuals or groups by others"

b. Other Distinctions

1) Negative peace is closely connected with relying on militarism and maintaining the status quo, and some approaches to nonsexist public discourse reflect similar connections

a) Such negative peace is connected with what Herbert Marcuse calls partisan or repressive tolerance, and the same could be said for much nonsexist public discourse

b)    Marcuse observes, "Tolerance is extended to policies, conditions, and modes of behavior which should not be tolerated because they are impeding, if not destroying, the chances of creating an existence without fear and misery"

2) Positive peace is closely connected with aiming for justice and transforming systems, and some approaches to gender equality reflect similar goals


3. Nonsexist Public Discourse as Partisan or Repressive Tolerance

a. As academic disciplines and public forums increasingly expect nonsexist speech and writing, social tranquillity can result

b. Open verbal battle against sexist language may well end

1) Sexists learn when and how to curb their tongues much like international adversaries learn to put weapons of war on hold following the signing of a peace accord

2) While we lack a term for merely formal linguistic gender equity, we do have a term for a merely formal peace accord, namely, negative peace


4. Partisan Tolerance and Negative Peace

a. View of Marcuse

1) He views the value of tolerance in relation to the degree of social equality that has been attained

2) He notes, ³As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are "loaded":  they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality"

b. Need a critique of politically correct discourse modeled after Marcuse's critique of partisan or repressive tolerance

1) A nonsexist public discourse may be only formal

2) Such discourse may be no more a real advance in gender equality than formal peace treaties that merely mark a lull between war and hardly an end to hostilities and animosities


5. Similarity to Marx's Political and Human Emancipation

a. His distinction addresses the problem with a merely formal or political approach which, since it does not address the material or cultural base, fails to be an adequate solution

b. Political emancipation aims for the formal equality before the law of a disenfranchised group

1) Such formal equality, of course, does not guarantee its concrete achievement in everyday life just because it has become the law

2) Ultimately, the transformation of the cultural base is also required, which Marx refers to as human emancipation


6. Discourse of Positive Gender Equality and Positive Peace

a. While language does not determine thought, for practical purposes, it makes some rows much easier to hoe and makes others require arduous and often unappreciated labor

b. Observations of Deborah Cameron

b.  "Linguistic determinism is a myth"

c.  "Male control over meaning is an impossibility"

d. "There is no reason in principle why language cannot express the experience of women to the same extent that it expresses the experience of men"

c. I would add that the view that war must be taken-for-granted is also a myth and that there is no reason in principle why language cannot express peace and justice


7. Additional Point by Cameron

a. If language itself were the culprit, we could provide "compensatory" education to underprivileged children and assertiveness training to women

1) In other words, those with privilege need not give up anything and society need not admit that its institutions "disadvantage the poor, the black and the female just because they are poor, or black, or female"

2) The aim is not to socialize women and other disenfranchised groups into the linguistic practices of the power elite

e.  The aim is the transformation of not only language but also the social relations on which it rests


8. Part of Larger Project of Reducing Cultural Violence

a. Cameron has observed, "Silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact"

b. Sexist and warist language symptoms of deeper cultural violence

1) When we realize the important connection between language and consciousness, we can also see how changing our language can lead to not only changed thought but also changed action

2) Nonsexist public discourse and peaceful co-existence are not enough


9. Feminist and Pacifist Critique of Linguistic Violence

a. Contribute to the practice of linguistic nonviolence and to the quest for societies in which human emancipation, dignity, and respect are not restricted on the basis of irrelevant factors like gender, race, or sexual orientation

b. Vigilance is needed to guarantee that this linguistic nonviolence moves from being merely formal to becoming substantive

1) Merely formally sanctioned nonsexist public discourse and peace as the mere absence of war are negative and superficial forms of transformation

2) Achievement of gender equality at the cultural base and of social justice within global societies is also necessary for positive and substantial transformation of society