Exploring discriminatory language

I want to raise something here without suggesting what the appropriate response should be.

Let me take the report from the Daily Telegraph:

Cambridge University examiners are told to avoid using words like “flair”, “brilliance” and “genius” when assessing students’ work because they are associated with men, an academic has revealed.

Lucy Delap, a lecturer in British history at Cambridge University, said that History tutors are discouraged from using these terms because they “carry assumptions of gender inequality”.

“Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, she said. “Some women are fine with that, but others might find it hard to see themselves in those categories”.’

I have absolutely no doubt that a fair amount of language used ostensibly in an impartial way actually conveys discriminatory assumptions, and sometimes intent. It would be very difficult to argue otherwise. A couple of years ago Liverpool Football Club issued a list of unacceptable words and expressions as part of the campaign to drive out sexual and racism from football. Most of these words are easily recognisable as unacceptable. Would the same be said readily about Lucy Delap’s short list? And if not, how do we know where the line is to be drawn between expressions that are acceptable (even if sometimes controversial) and those that are not?

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6 Comments on “Exploring discriminatory language”

  1. Vince Says:

    I’m far from certain this is the most important issue within the walls of Cambridge where equality is concerned.
    Is it an issue. Usually translating into another language where a word is designated M or F or N will clear things up.
    Would I say a woman has flair. Yes. Marie Cure had it. Fede Galizia had it. Margaret Bourke-White had it. Freda Kahlo had it. And Georgia O’Keeffe had it in spades.
    Would I say a man has more of it. No. For me it’s particular essence. I think Oscar Wilde had it, but not Conan-Doyle. Enid Blyton, but not Agatha Christie. Joyce, but not Yates.
    How I’d define it would be the painter with one swift stroke with black pigment would hold the curve strength and essence of human, horse or water has it. But the one who has to nudge the line into order hasn’t.
    Where private schools can play a roll is they are more aware of the need to draw it out, being far less bothered with crowd control. But I’d have said private girls schools would be as aware, maybe more so.

  2. Anna Notaro Says:

    I first came across the Telegraph piece mentioned in this post in one of those “careless tweets”, we all indulge in sometimes, the ones which benefit from a RT or a mention without too much thought, as it is often the case in our fast, clickbait media ecology, however perhaps due to equality & diversity training, Athena SWAN practice or simply sensitivity my antennas reacted differently.
    Cambridge historian Lucy Delap is perfectly right when she states that “Some of those words, in particular genius, have a very long intellectual history where it has long been associated with qualities culturally assumed to be male”, even a brief history of the term genius https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/sudden-genius/201011/can-we-define-genius focuses exclusively on issues of definition failing to note the gender dimension, i.e. a genius is traditionally a male genius! Women’s inferiority has been an enduring cultural tenet, Charles Darwin himself thought women were inferior, claiming not only that they were less intelligent than men but that they always would be, this is the starting point of Angela Saini’s Inferior: How Science Got Women Wrong – and the New Research That’s Rewriting the Story. The book persuasively illustrates how biological explanations have been retrofitted for cultural phenomena, e.g. patriarchy. (https://www.theguardian.com/books/2017/jun/06/inferior-how-science-got-women-wrong-angela-saini-review-and-the-new-research-thats-rewriting-story)

    Back to Delap, where I differ from her well intentioned pronouncement “to create a wider set of paper choices, to make assessment criteria clearer, and to really try and root out the unhelpful and very vague talk of ‘genius’, of ‘brilliance’, of ‘flair’ which carries assumptions of gender inequality and also of class and ethnicity”” is with her desire “to use language that is transparent”. To my mind the latter is a futile attempt, language is never “transparent”, similarly to technology, it is not “neutral”, it carries the biases, which Delap identifies, inherent in our culture, including science of course, which as Saini’s book quoted above demonstrates is not immune from. The solution resides in tackling such biases with appropriate training and education, Delap’s merit is in having drawn our attention to such entrenched mindsets, to the fact that words are not transparent carriers of meaning but they come with a baggage we should not be exactly proud of. Needless to say, but let’s reiterate the point, universities, old and new ones, have a huge role to play in the matters discussed so far, the “Reducing Bias in Language campaign” (https://www.ius.edu/diversity/reduce-bias.php) is a useful example, universities need to address sexism (as I discussed here already https://universitydiary.wordpress.com/2015/03/05/50-shades-of-sexism-in-the-academy/) and aim towards achieving *golden medals* in the rankings which matter most.

    • Vince Says:

      But at what point do you simply take a good faith assumption, for the only other way is one that has us debating purity with Socrates.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        I thought the role of the academic was exactly that of debating purity with Socrates, (and others) 🙂
        Seriously, if there is one lesson we can draw from recent debates on fake news and alternative facts is that we cannot take anything for granted. Science, in support of which marches have been recently organised, is no easy panacea for the ills of our post-truth world, science itself has its own troubled history of bias and prejudice, and it is our scholarly duty to acknowledge that. Good faith assumption and intellectual quest are not the most likely of bedfellows…

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