“Nonsexist Public Discourse and Negative Peace: The Injustice of Merely Formal Transformation.”  The Acorn: Journal of the Gandhi-King Society 9, n1 (Spring 1997): 45-53.




Nonsexist Public Discourse and Negative Peace:


The Injustice of Merely Formal Transformation



William C. Gay



Since I presume sexism and warism are recognized as problematic,[1] I turn directly to the topic of how power and violence underlie sexist and warist language.  In order to suggest how some superficially successful efforts to overcome sexism and warism are incomplete, I will present the achievement of nonsexist public discourse as frequently analogous to a merely negative peace.  My position rests on five theses on language, gender, and war; for each thesis I have two subpoints.


Five Theses on Language, Gender, and War



Thesis #1


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

    Words about and attitudes toward gender and war are embedded in language.

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


The view of language as an institution is largely associated with Ferdinand de Saussure.  He regards language as a convention that is beyond the control of speakers who passively assimilate it.  In his terminology, "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 institutions," Saussure insists, "language is least amenable to initiative."[3]  The turn to the institutional view of language supposedly ended the authority of traditional political authorities to set linguistics codes.

However, as Talbot Taylor has observed, the shift to the institutional view "is just another way of doing normative linguistics, and an ideologically deceptive one at that."[4]  While Taylor shows how all language is connected with power, John Young suggests that even efforts of totalitarian states to control thought through the control of language have had only limited success.[5]

Many feminists and peace activists have also been at the forefront of those who have challenged the authoritarianism in the institutional view of language.  They have done so in recognition of human freedom and in pursuit of linguistic emancipation.  However, a return to a naive, voluntarist view of language is no longer viable.  Feminists and peace activists must recognize that words about and attitudes toward gender and war are embedded in language.  In fact, instruction in the grammar and lexicon of a language re-enforces its taken-for granted attitudes toward gender and war.  While change can occur, the power behind and violence of language must first be addressed.



Thesis #2


Discourse cannot be separated from the relations of power in society, and these relations are unequal in every society.  (Bourdieu)

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

    The official language is not under the control of women or pacifists.


Speaking and writing are inseparable from the distribution of power in society.  In this regard, John Thompson notes in his commentary on Pierre Bourdieu that institutionalized social relations of speaking establish "who is authorized to speak and recognized as such by others."[6]  While I deny that linguistic determinism follows from this fact,[7] I recognize that the possibility of foregoing linguistic advantage is generally abandoned in favor of utilizing the power it provides.[8]

Speaking "the language," for Bourdieu, "is tacitly to accept the official definition of the official language of a political unit."[9]  Moreover, the formation of a single "linguistic community" is the product of political domination.[10]  This linguistic community is then reproduced by institutions that impose recognition of the dominant language.  However, linguistic understanding needs to be distinguished from linguistic attention.[11]  Most people have the capacity to understand discourse.  Fewer people get "listened to."

The issue is not purely one of class.  Bourdieu does not say that only the children of the dominant class are admitted into the best schools.  Instead, he suggests that to enter or finish programs at top schools one generally has the legitimate language imposed on them.  By defining qualifications and credentials, educational systems both create and sustain inequalities, making use of overt force unnecessary.  In fact, an inverse relation often exists between possession of symbolic power and use of physical violence.  While the exercise of power is common in everyday social life, persons with authority generally do not have to exercise overt physical force.  Instead, as Thompson notes, "Violence is ... built into the institution itself."[12]

Societies have long exerted power over women and engaged one another in war.  Although these actions often go unrecorded, they are reflected in languages around the word.  Discourse about gender and war reflect the value and status of women and peace in society.  Generally, both are devalued and relegated to a secondary status, if even that.  Clearly, the official language is not under the control of women and pacifists.  So, the problem of power, including the symbolic power of language, cannot be separated from the problem of violence, including linguistic violence.



Thesis #3


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

    War is a type of overt violence which, although structured institutionally, can facilitate and mask personal uses of physical violence.

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


Hannah Arendt says that "violence is nothing more than the most flagrant manifestation of power."[13]  Given this definition, one might expect that violence takes many forms.  Numerous writers have, in fact, applied violence to more than direct bodily harm.  Within philosophy, Newton Garver has developed a typology of violence that includes overt and covert forms, as well as personal and institutional forms.[14]  Using his terminology, war is an instance of overt institutional violence, while sexist language is an instance of covert institutional violence.

I regard sexism and warism as connected to the very broad problem of violence in society.[15]  In my terminology, violentism is the belief that use of violence--overt and covert, personal and institutional--is and perhaps should be used to achieve goals.  Global culture has been and probably long will be one of violentism.  It is clear how war does violence, but how does language do violence?  Stephanie Ross argues that "the ancient roots of ordinary English words cannot--by themselves--make those words oppressive."[16]  Nevertheless, she contends "Words can hurt, and one way they do is by conveying denigrating or demeaning attitudes."[17]  To support her view, Ross utilizes Joel Feinberg's contention that hurt is a species of harm and that victims are necessarily aware of hurts.  (For example, while assault is a hurt, undetected burglary is a harm.)  Ross presents the distinction between offense and oppression as parallel to Feinberg's distinction between hurt and harm.  As she puts it, "One can be oppressed unknowingly but offense requires (logically or conceptually) the awareness and acknowledgment of its victim."[18]  So, language in general can perpetuate the harm of a system of oppression, regardless of whether individuals consciously experience the hurt of its offenses against them.  The issue is whether such linguistic violence is an unavoidable consequence of the institution of language or whether through conscious effort it can be eliminated.

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.[19]  My focus here, however, is on the violence of sexist and warist language, particularly as exposed by feminist and pacifist scholars.[20]  Are they now ineradicable features of language or can sexist, warist, and other violent discourse be eliminated?  Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard contend, "language itself does not determine the oppression."[21]  They continue, "Sexism is not defined by sexist language, it is sexism which gives sexist language its potency.  The labelling ... only has consequences if ... supported by the possibility of force, violence, or other sanctions."[22]  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."[23]

As Deborah Cameron puts it, "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."[24]  Cameron proceeds to refer "to violent speaking and writing and to violent-centric language."[25]  In this way, sexist and warist language are connected to "violent-centric language."  However, linguistic violence is not only a consequence of the structure of language but also of individual choice.  Structural violence facilitates personal violence.  On the one hand, war is a type of overt violence which, while structured institutionally, can facilitate and mask personal uses of physical violence.  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.  This bleak picture, however, does not prevent overcoming the violence of gender inequality and war, because neither language nor society are immutable.



Thesis #4


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

    Changed discourse about gender and war occurs synchronically and not just diachronically.

    Changed discourse about gender and war can aggravate or ameliorate violence.


Various writers have addressed how despite the power and violence of language as a sedimented sign system, the active speaking subject can find modes of expression which get around the constraints of the received system.  In contradistinction to the positivist ideal, 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."[26]  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.  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."  Hence, we can speak and write in ways that model alternatives to sexist and warist language and behavior.

Metaphor offers one of the most powerful tools for transforming language.  The creative function of metaphor pertains to its impact on changing our perception.  As 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."[27]  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.  A social group creates an image for itself (and of others); its perception is molded, in part, by this linguistic creation with its inherent distortions.

Because of these creative possibilities, feminists and pacifists who concern themselves with language stress that changed discourse about gender and war can occur synchronically and not just diachronically.  However, since all language is socially generated and because society is composed of social classes, 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.  Given this twin possibility, serious attention needs to be given to the fact that changed discourse about gender and war can aggravate or ameliorate violence in society.  For this reason, it is especially important to recognize when changes in discourse are more apparent than real, more formal than substantive.



Thesis #5


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

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

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


In war and peace studies, numerous writers distinguish negative and positive peace.  For example, Ron Glossop defines negative peace as "the mere absence of war" and positive peace as "a peace in which there is no exploitation of some individuals or groups by others."[28]  Negative peace is closely connected with relying on militarism and maintaining the status quo, and some approaches to nonsexist public discourse reflect similar connections.  Positive peace is closely connected with aiming for justice and transforming systems, and some approaches to gender equality reflect similar goals.  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.  At one point 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."[29]

How could the achievement of nonsexist public discourse be an instance of partisan or repressive tolerance?  After all, there are good professional reasons for the public use of nonsexist language.[30]  As academic disciplines and public forums increasingly expect nonsexist speech and writing, a type of social tranquillity can result.  Open verbal battle against sexist language may well come to an end.  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.  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.

The way Marcuse describes partisan tolerance is, in fact, similar to negative peace.  He states, "Generally, the function and value of tolerance depend on the equality prevalent in the society in which tolerance is practiced.  ...  As long as these conditions do not prevail, the conditions of tolerance are "loaded":  they are determined and defined by the institutionalized inequality."[31]  We need a critique of politically correct discourse modeled after Marcuse's critique of partisan or repressive tolerance.  A nonsexist public discourse may be only formal and no more a real advance in gender equality than many formal peace treaties that merely mark a lull between war and hardly an end to hostilities and animosities.

A similar concept to the one between partisan tolerance or negative peace and non-partisan tolerance or positive peace can be found earlier in Marx's distinction between political and human emancipation.[32]  Moreover, 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.  For Marx, political emancipation aims for the formal equality before the law of a disenfranchised group.  Such formal equality, of course, does not guarantee its concrete achievement in everyday life just because it has become the law.  Ultimately, the transformation of the cultural base is also required.  Marx refers to such cultural transformation as human emancipation.

How then do we move toward a discourse of positive gender equality and of positive peace?  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.  Recognizing these difficulties, Cameron makes several useful suggestions on moving beyond the mere rejection of linguistic determinism.[33]  In developing her argument, Cameron contends that:  1) "linguistic determinism is a myth," 2) "male control over meaning is an impossibility," and 3) "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."[34]  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.

Cameron makes one additional point that needs to be stressed.  If language itself were the culprit, we could provide "compensatory" education to underprivileged children and assertiveness training to women; 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."[35]  The aim is not to socialize women and other disenfranchised groups into the linguistic practices of the power elite; the aim is the transformation of not only language but also the social relations on which it rests.

Replacing sexist and other violent language with more neutral or positive forms of linguistic expression is part of a larger project of reducing cultural violence.  In this regard, Cameron has observed, "Silence is a symbol of oppression, while liberation is speaking out, making contact."[36]  Sexist and warist language are symptoms of deeper cultural violence.  Nevertheless, 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.  Nonsexist public discourse and peaceful co-existence are not enough.

Thus, the feminist and pacifist critique of linguistic violence is simultaneously a contribution 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.  But, vigilance is needed to guarantee that this linguistic nonviolence moves from being merely formal to becoming substantive.  Merely formally sanctioned nonsexist public discourse and peace as the mere absence of war are negative and superficial forms of transformation.  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.


[1]     The term "warism" was coined by Duane Cady as a parallel term to sexism and racism.  See Duane Cady, From Warism to Pacifism:  A Moral Continuum (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1989).

[2]     Ferdinand de Saussure, Course in General Linguistics, eds. Charles Bally and Albert Sechehaye with Albert Riedlinger, trans. Wade Baskin (New York:  McGraw Hill Book Company, 1959), p. 71.

[3]     Ibid., p. 74.

[4]     Talbot J. Taylor, "Which is to be master?  The institutionalization of authority in the science of language," Ideologies of Language, eds. John E. Joseph and Talbot J. Taylor (New York:  Routledge, 1990), p. 25.

[5]     John Wesley Young, Totalitarian Language:  Orwell's Newspeak and Its Nazi and Communist Antecedents (Charlottesville:  University Press of Virginia, 1991), esp. pp. 12-18.

[6]     John B. Thompson, "Editor's Introduction," Pierre Bourdieu, Language and Symbolic Power, ed. and intro. John B. Thompson, trans. Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson (Cambridge:  Harvard University Press, 1991), p. 9. This text, which is a translation of Ce que parler veut dire: l'économie des échanges linguistiques (Paris:  Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1982), omits two short essays and adds five others.

[7]     Cf. my essays, "Merleau-Ponty on Language and Social Science:  The Dialectic of Phenomenology and Structuralism," Man and World 12 (1979), pp. 322-338; "Analogy and Metaphor:  Two Models of Linguistic Creativity," Philosophy and Social Criticism  7 (1980), pp. 299-317, and, esp., "Ricoeur on Metaphor and Ideology," Darshana International 32, n1 (Jan. 1992), pp. 59-70.

[8]     Cf. my essay, "Nuclear Discourse and Linguistic Alienation," Journal of Social Philosophy 18, n2 (Summer 1987), pp. 42-49.

[9]     Bourdieu, p. 45.

[10]   Ibid., p. 46.

[11]   Ibid., p. 55.

[12]   Ibid., p. 24.

[13]   Hannah Arendt, On Violence (New York:  Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1970), p. 35.

[14]   Newton Garver, "What Violence Is," The Nation 209 (June 24, 1968), pp. 817-822.

[15]   Cf. Duane Cady, "War, Gender, Race & Class," Concerned Philosophers For Peace Newsletter  11, n2 (Fall 1991), pp. 4-10.

[16]   Stephanie Ross, "How Words Hurt:  Attitude, Metaphor, and Oppression," Sexist Language:  A Modern Philosophical Analysis, ed. Mary Vetterling-Braggin (Littlefield, Adams and Co., 1981), p. 195.

[17]   Ibid., p. 195.

[18]   Ibid., p. 197.

[19]   Cf. my essay "Linguistic Violence," Institutional Violence, eds. Deane Curtin and Bob Litke (Amsterdam:  Rodopi Press, forthcoming).

[20]   Cf. Jean Bethke Elshtain, "Feminist Discourse and Its Discontents:  Language, Power, and Meaning," Signs:  Journal of Women in Culture and Society 7 n3 (1982), pp. 603-621; Berel Lang, "Language and Genocide," Echoes from the Holocaust, eds. Alan Rosenberg and Gerald E. Myers (Philadelphia:  Temple University Press, 1988), pp. 341-361; Laura Duhan Kaplan, "Woman as Caretaker:  An Archetype That Supports Patriarchal Militarism," Hypatia:  A Journal of Feminist Philosophy, 9, n2 (1994), pp. 123-133; Paula Smithka, "Nuclearism and Sexism," Issues in War and Peace, eds. Joseph C. Kunkel and Kenneth H. Klein (Wolfeboro, NH:  Longwood Academic, 1989), pp. 229-54.

[21]   Arthur Brittan and Mary Maynard, Sexism, Racism and Oppression (Oxford:  Basil Blackwell, 1984), pp. 19-20.

[22]   Ibid., p. 20.

[23]   Ibid., p. 164.

[24]   Deborah Cameron, Feminism and Linguistic Theory (New York:  St. Martin's Press, 1985), p. 91.

[25]   Ibid., p. 4.

[26]   Maurice Merleau-Ponty, Signs, trans. Richard C. McCleary (Evanston:  Northwestern University Press, 1964), p. 44.

[27]   Paul Ricoeur, The Philosophy of Paul Ricoeur:  An Anthology of His Work, eds. Charles E. Reagan and David Stewart (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1978), pp. 132-133.

[28]   Ronald J. Glossop, Confronting War:  An Examination of Humanity's Most Pressing Problem, 3rd ed. (Jefferson, NC:  McFarland, 1994), p. 12.  See too Cady, From Warism to Pacifism, pp. 77-93.

[29]   Herbert Marcuse, "Repressive Tolerance," Robert Paul Wolff, Barrington Moore, Jr., and Herbert Marcuse, A Critique of Pure Tolerance (Boston:  Beacon Press, 1969), p. 82.

[30]   Cf. "Guidelines for Nonsexist Language in APA [American Psychological Association] Journals," American Psychologist (June 1977), pp. 487-94 and "Guidelines for Non-Sexist Use of Language," Proceedings and Addresses of the American Philosophical Association 59, n3 (February 1986), pp. 471-482.

[31]   Ibid., p. 84.

[32]   Karl Marx, "Zur Judenfrage," Marx Engels Werke, Band 1 (Berlin:  Dietz Verlag, l974), pp. 347-377.  For the English translation, see "On The Jewish Question," The Marx-Engels Reader, ed. Robert C. Tucker, 2nd ed. (New York:  W.W. Norton, 1978), pp. 26-52.

[33]   Cameron, pp. 125-126.

[34]   Ibid., pp. 143-44.

[35]   Ibid., p. 171.

[36]   Ibid., p. 5.