Peace and Language: Eliminating Sexist Myths and Metaphors as a Step toward Peaceful Gender Relations

A principal argument for the legal approach is that it will deter would be perpetrators of gender related violence. But what evidence do we have that this approach works? Although proponents and critics of the approach have offered convincing arguments for their positions, there does not appear to be any consistent difference in the rates of gender related violence between many countries that advocate the legal approach and many of those that do not.

  peace-language-introIt seems, then, that the fear of legal consequences fails to act as a powerful deterrent of gender related violence. The ultimate question then is why? There appear to be two main reasons. The first reason is that gender-related violence, unlike most other crimes, is rarely premeditated. It usually occurs in the heat of the moment—in such situations as family arguments or war—when the perpetrator is least likely to think about the possible consequences. In the few cases where gender-violence is premeditated, the offender obviously does not expect to get caught or punished.

The second reason the legal approach often fails to deter gender related violence is that, as presently applied, punishments (e.g., the death penalty) are less swift or less certain. Courts permit an elaborate review process that sometimes lasts several years. And many times, the victims themselves do not pursue legal recourse for economic, social, or cultural reasons.

Decisions about legal rights, then, are not really about deterrence. They are about retribution—about society's revenge on a person who commits gender related violence.

In the case of gender relations, the self glorifying language is notoriously unflattering. What we often hear is a confusion of control/domination with success, an obsession with living in a "man's world," dealing with "the incredible shrinking woman," "dressing for success" (which implies dressing like a man), and having to face the "tough/iron lady," and a plethora of bloody metaphors invoking images of Darwinian jungles and guerilla warfare. If we are to listen only to the supposedly self glorifying rhetoric, we might well come away with the idea that gender relations comprise a brutal battle for survival, devoid of rules, trust, or courtesies in which mercy and mutual consideration (much less altruism and concern for the public good) are share folly. Or, at best, we might come to believe that the aim of gender relations is to join an exciting game and, above all, "have fun." Or, more cynically, gender relations present themselves as a grueling necessity, without ultimate point or purpose. Strikingly lacking is a vision: the failure to see the "human family." We read and hear about "women abandoning their traditional roles," "women want to wear the pants," "women are the source of all evil" (predicated on the biblical story of Adam and Eve), "women should be kept in their place," "women are to be seen and not heard," "women should remain in the kitchen, barefoot and pregnant," etc. As the larger vision gets lost from view, people become so entrenched in their individual and increasingly isolated positions and ambitions that they lose sight of the purpose for living in a human family. It suffices to say that this is neither healthy nor conducive to happiness and fulfillment for individuals, and nor is it healthy and conducive to cooperation and efficiency in the human community.

To paraphrase a dictum in the Seville Statement on Violence, just as gender related violence "begins in the minds of men," the respectful and peaceful treatment of women also begins in our minds. The same species who invented gender related violence are capable of inventing the respectful and peaceful treatment of women. The first aspects to reconcile in any concern about gender related violence must be against those sexist myths and metaphors that blind and govern so much of our thinking. Metaphors are not just "more picturesque speech." The power of metaphors, as linguist Anita Wenden observes, "hinges upon their ability to assimilate new experiences so as to allow the newer and abstract domain of experience to be understood in terms of the former and more concrete, and to serve as a basis and justification for policy making." That we live by and through metaphors is hardly a matter of dispute. As linguists George Lakoff and Mark Johnson put it, "The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details. Our concepts structure what we perceive, how we get around the world, and how we relate to other people. Our conceptual system thus plays a central role in defining our everyday realities. If we are right in suggesting that our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, then the way we think, what we experience, and we do every day is very much a matter of metaphor."

Given the preceding excerpt, we should be horrified by the metaphors that are the currency of everyday discourse in gender relations all over the world. There is no need to single out any country or region, as no society is free of all forms of gender related violence and sexist myths and metaphors. We hear again and again that men are "rugged, unemotional and strong" while women are "fragile, overly emotional and weak." Men are supposed to "bring home the bread." "Men are from Mars, and Women are from Venus." "Real men don't cry." A "tomboy" is a girl who acts "un-femininely." In college, students earn bachelor's and master's degrees, not bachelorette's and mistress's degrees. A weak throw or kick is "throwing or kicking like a girl." Men are "assertive" when they act that way, but women are "aggressive" when they act similarly. In dating, men are the "hunters" and women are the "preys." The female is a "tangible being," not a person with the ability to be independent, in control, and as strong as her counterpart, the male. Women are "decorative/sex objects." Blondes are "dumb."

Indeed, if we believe these descriptions of gender relations as Darwinian survivalism and sex objectification, we would be quite properly justified in outlawing all gender relations as brutal and uncivilized behavior that no society should have to tolerate. Indeed, some legal rights advocates have effectively used just such descriptions to push their approach. Of course, none of this is to deny the fact that sometimes infighting goes on in almost every family, nor is it to deny the fact that not every gender relation in the world thrives.

Business ethicist Robert C. Solomon teaches us that how we look at what individuals do has a lot to do with much of the fighting between them. Many of the casualties of gender related violence can be laid at the feet of the malevolent images that we impose on gender relations and on ourselves. Solomon notes that the word "ethics" refers somewhat ambiguously both to a set of theories and reflections about our behavior and to that behavior as such; consequently, the one influences the other. Solomon also points out that "as our theories and reflections try to be true to our actual intentions and activities, our intentions and activities themselves are shaped and are given direction by what we think about them, what we think we are doing, what we think we ought to be doing, and what we would like to think we are doing." How we think about gender relations—as a ruthless competition for control/domination or a cooperative enterprise the aim of which is the prosperity of the human community—pre-shapes much of our behavior and attitudes toward our fellow humans. Thus, gender relations and discourse are not devoid of philosophy, whether or not this philosophy is articulated as such, nor are gender relations devoid of any conception of ethics and virtue. But the philosophy that makes its rounds in gender discourse is appalling. The virtues most often celebrated in our gender relations typically belong in a locker room, if not in a treatise on Darwinism.

Therefore, we must reject those myths and metaphors that cast gender relations in a bad light and encourage such hostile, uncaring, and ultimately violent behavior. Following Solomon, some of these are quite crude and explode as soon as they are seen for what they are, but others are much more sophisticated and built into the very fabric of our current thought processes. Some can be summarized in a slogan; others do not even have names. Some seem not to be metaphors at all, notably the uncompromising emphasis on the importance of control/domination, and some seem to lie at the very basis of our conception as individuals, as if any alternative concept would have to be anti individualistic, or worse. One particular metaphor—the sex objectification metaphor—forms the basis of most gender relations today.

Thus, our task must begin in the early stages of our children's education by making them cognizant of the fact that sexist metaphors are impetus for gender related violence. Our approach must hinge on the fact that language and peaceful or un-peaceful behavior are inextricably linked. Perhaps the earliest recording of the use of language for un-peaceful purposes is the biblical account of the people of Gilead in about 1100 B.C. which recounts that they had killed a number of Ephraimites and then devised a linguistic discrimination test to flush out the remaining enemy in the land. In the book of Judges 12:5, 6, we read: "...The men of Gilead said to them, "Are you Ephraimites?" If they answered "no," they then asked them, "say the word Shibboleth." The true Ephraimites responded, "Sibboleth," for they could not pronounce it right."

Indeed, while numerous examples have been cited over the centuries about how language has been used to provoke violent actions, very little has been written about and hardly any courses exist that deal exclusively with the relationship between language and peace. As political scientist Brian Weinstein informs us, no one would disagree that language is central to human society and interpersonal relations and, thus, it is the basis of civilization. Without this communicative tool, Weinstein adds, no leader could command the resources needed for a political system that extends beyond family and neighborhood.


Abdul Karim BanguraAbdul Karim Bangura holds Ph.D.s in political science, development economics, linguistics, computer science, and mathematics. Dr. Bangura is a professor of research methodology and political science at Howard University, and a researcher-in-residence at the Center for Global Peace in the School of International Service at American University. The author of 75 books and over 600 scholarly articles, Dr. Bangura won the prestigious 2012 Cecil B. Curry Book Award for African Mathematics: From Bones to Computers.