Category Archives: Language politics

Social Change: One Petition at a Time?

As a high school student, I remember the excitement of going door-to-door to solicit signatures on petitions of various sorts.

Adding one’s name to a list of other names on a single piece of paper may not seem consequential.  But when that sheet joins hundreds or thousands of others, suddenly the list has the potential to gain notice.Sign the Petition! Clipboard

One petition I promoted urged people across the U.S. to boycott buying table grapes, in support of the Latino/a grape pickers on strike in California.  Organized by legendary union leader, Cesar Chavez, the movement united farm workers to demand a living wage and decent working conditions.

In the case of the United Farm Workers, such petitions contributed to what became a national boycott of table grapes (lasting from 1965-70).  Although many contemporary farm workers still suffer unacceptable working conditions and low wages, the boycott produced the first union contracts for farm workers, who began a national conversation about better pay, benefits, and protections–a conversation that continues today.

green-grapes

In those days, collecting thousands of signatures for a petition meant having a well-organized, healthy cadre of footsoldiers.  Nowadays, websites such as Change.org make the process infinitely easier.

Take the case of Amazon.  A current online petition urges Amazon to change the name of the Amazon Mom program to Amazon Family.

Sure, names are just one (small) part of the problem of challenging gender stereotypes and expectations.  But “starting somewhere” to promote social justice means just that: starting somewhere.  And changing the very public name of a very popular program is a great start.

At the individual level, we all know how names matter to our sense of personal identity. The case of a nine-year-old girl from New Zealand is instructive.  Desperate to change her name, she found legal redress: In 2008, “a judge in New Zealand made a young girl a ward of court so that she could change the name she hated – Talula Does The Hula From Hawaii.  Judge Rob Murfitt said that the name embarrassed the nine-year-old and could expose her to teasing,” such that the judge termed the name a “social disability.”

At the corporate level, CEOs know how names matter to a company’s bottom line.  In the U.S., despite the enormous expense and hassle involved, over 1,900 companies changed their names last year.  They had diverse reasons for doing so, but whatever the motivations, their directors decided that the benefit of changing the company name outweighed the cost. Financial managers would only undertake such an ambitious and complicated shift if the symbolic resonance to names mattered.

And they do matter.  While changing the Amazon Mom program to the Amazon Family won’t solve the problem of patriarchy in the modern world, that corporate name change will give boys who consider what kind of fathers they want to become (inseminators vs. hands-on parents?) one more model of where they might see themselves as involved fathers (as part of an “Amazon Family”) . . . and one less model of where their masculinity is not welcome (as an “Amazon Mom”).

mega-man-pram-manly-baby-stroller-3-1

Besides, from Amazon’s perspective, such a name change would make good business sense.  If a dedicated father can “see himself” in an “Amazon Family” program (but not in the “Amazon Mom” program), he’s more likely to commit precious resources–family funds–to buy consumer goods on that website, and not another.  And in a capitalist world, promoting business ethics from the standpoint of the financial bottom line may (for better or worse) be our most realistic option.

You can sign the Amazon petition here.

The “Ow” of Pain

New research claims that saying “Ow” really can ease the pain.

Why am I skeptical?

Or, rather, why am I skeptical that this works globally?

For one thing, in Côte d’Ivoire, when Beng folks I’ve known slash a finger while chopping wood, or feel the effects of parasites churning in their stomachs, they don’t say “Ow,” they say “Aba” (“Father”)–or, if it really hurts–“Aba-eyyyyyyyy!” (“Daaaaaaaad!”)

But beyond whatever specific words or sounds we might say when we’re in pain, more striking are the cases of people who stringently avoid uttering any sounds, even moaning, when they’re in pain.

That would include many laboring West African women, whose elders teach them that they will bring tremendous shame on themselves and their families if they vocalize pain during childbirth.

Traditionally, Asante women in Ghana were told that going into labor is the feminine version of going to war. Under such training, withstanding pain is not just a matter of personal pride; it’s a cultural necessity. There’s even something about gender parity going on here. In anthropology, the Asante have a reputation for having one of the most gender-egalitarian societies around. Asante queens were fierce political rulers, and kings’ mothers were accorded the highly respected title of Queen Mothers. In 1900, an Asante queen mother, Yaa Asantewaa, led a major military rebellion against the British colonial powers. Down the social hierarchy, ordinary market women continue to be respected by all. Showing vocal restraint in the face of pain during childbirth seems to be part of an overall package of demonstrating power over many arenas, including one’s bodily experience.

And let’s not even talk about the common expectation that girls undergoing genital surgery for ritual reasons in some parts of sub-Saharan Africa must remain silent to demonstrate self control . . . and train themselves to withstand the pain they will undoubtedly experience later, in childbirth.

Gendered expectations about complaining about pain operate in Western societies, too. How many men remember being told, “Buck up/be a man/don’t complain like a girl” from a young age? Later in life, alcohol may offer men a socially acceptable means to cope (quietly) with pain.

Beer in Childbirth

I don’t doubt that moaning, screaming, or “Ow-ing” can alleviate pain–in societies that train people to complain about bodily discomfort, as many Western societies train women to do. (I speak from experience here. During the last minutes of my second childbirth, my nurses chided me that I could be heard loudly by their colleagues down the hall.)

But there’s the rub. Our cultural expectations about our most intimate bodily experiences are taught to us from so early on that by the time we’re aware of them, they feel “natural.” And maybe they are–in a culturally shaped way.

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A postscript: A recent NPR piece sensitively explores the hard work of cultural listening required of health professionals who aim to treat people suffering from “depression,” “anxiety,” and other emotional disturbances. What cultural and linguistic forms do such deep-seated experiences take? Three psychiatrists and psychologists profiled in the piece (treating Asian and Asian-American patients) get it.

For those Who Decry the Degraded State of the English Language

Racist claims to the contrary (as in the Urban Dictionary’s definition of Ebonics as “A poor excuse for a failure to grasp the basics of English”), it’s good to remember that language is ALWAYS changing . . . and it’s so easy to forget–or claim shock on discovering–earlier meanings.

The pleasures of etymology can also bring pleasures of historical knowledge. Learning that at a certain point in ancient Roman society, some soldiers were paid in salt–hence our English word, “salary”–can remind us of the economic anthropologist’s first lesson: that currency can come in many forms.

Which raises the question: If Americans were paid in a staple food today, would it (sadly) be sugar?

For an excerpt of a fascinating compendium of such linguistic tidbits, check out Why Do We Say It? The Stories Behind the Words, Expressions and Clichés We Use.

Salt 1