52. From gendered language to the discourse of far right politics

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Susan Gal
University of Chicago


Those of us engaged in research on gender and language are often scholar-activists. That is, in addition to our research, we have worked to make changes in public linguistic practices: for instance, to limit the deleterious effects of generic pronouns, discriminatory address terms and occupational labels for women. Attention to linguistic matters such as naming, politeness and the dynamics of power differentials in interaction have long been central in feminist politics. We have even studied our own practices of “consciousness raising” as a political genre. Communicative phenomena are crucially involved in all sorts of political activism, like fighting for reproductive rights and marriage equality. These too have attracted close analytical attention. The personal continues to be political; discourse – including our own – is crucial to both.

Yet, research paradigms have changed. Scholars, over the years, have repeatedly risen to the challenge of analyzing changing feminist dilemmas in the everyday sociopolitical world. One of these, currently, is the attack on feminist goals and policies by powerful figures of the extreme right in many parts of the world. Right-wing activists undermine feminist projects of equality in employment and wages, they counteract movements for reproductive and sexual rights, and obstruct attempts to stop domestic abuse. There is a linguistic aspect to these attacks. One way in which right-wing politicians challenge feminist projects is by creating a category of talk they deceptively label “genderism” and “gender ideology,” which they then anathemize and stigmatize in rightist speech and writing. Right-wing activists say they are “anti-gender,” a view that – to scholars who study how gender-relations work – seems to make as little sense as being against “gravity.” Political scientists point out that anathemizing of “gender” in this way is, in part, a backlash against the notable successes of feminist organizing that have made the policies of international organizations such as the United Nations and the European Union more woman-friendly, more willing to attend to the rights of women and sexual minorities. What can sociolinguistics and linguistic anthropology add to this political insight? I believe we have the analytical tools to grasp how talk of “anti-gender” spreads and how it gains its authority and persuasiveness, as it increasingly does.

For understanding the communicative aspects of this right wing discourse, the most important analytical change in language scholarship has been the turn to reflexivity or metacommunicative processes. On the one hand, reflexivity is the recognition that we are part of what we study; analysts have positions, ones we inevitably consider when describing the positions of others. There is no “view from nowhere.” On the other hand, reflexivity means that we study not just talk, but the presumptions and ideas with which we and other participants approach any instance of talk. Just as feminist theory shifted from studying women and men to studying gender as a more abstract category and a set of relations, so lesbian and gay studies shifted to conceptualizing sexualities in relation to sexual normativities. These reconceptualizations are reflexive moves. In linguistic anthropology, the same kind of leap led to posing questions not only about how men and women speak, but about what regiments and organizes the categories of masculinity and femininity and their expression in communicative practices. If these differences are neither natural, nor a matter of essences, then how can we track empirically how they are made, how they might be re-made or unmade? What kinds of authority sustain them? These are questions about communication, to be sure, but also reflexively about meta-communication.

The focus on metacommunication arose in part from unexpected complications encountered in our research. Since the 1970s and with more energy in the 1990s, gender and sexuality have been investigated as questions of “identity.” Yet, scholars have repeatedly found that “women” and “men” – “straight” and “gay” – are not homogeneous groups or categories. On the contrary, even within a single society, stereotypes of men, women and their speech vary dramatically. This is why the classic question of whether women are leaders or followers in language change is simply unanswerable. As Penelope Eckert argued long ago, stereotyped contrasts between “men” and “women” are inadequate for tracking linguistic variation. These contrasts are invariably part of wider systems of differentiation: ethnicity, race, class, cultural distinction, among others.

A further important complication was whether we were investigating stereotypes or practices. One could not take for granted which everyday linguistic and interactional practices signalled which stereotyped categories in specific sociocultural contexts. Furthermore, although speakers sometimes were found to be stigmatized for not speaking as generally expected for the local gender stereotype to which they were relegated, equally frequently, and to the surprise of scholars, speakers stretched the bounds of gender and sexuality stereotypes. The evidence from many societies and social groups has been overwhelming: sometimes women speak like men and vice versa; homosexuals speak like heterosexuals or the reverse; ethnics of various kinds imitate each other and so on and on. That is, speakers are not simply performing pre-existing selves or identities, nor are they constructing gendered practices simply through performative iterations. Rather, they are creating selves in ways that rely on presupposed normative stereotypes as starting points for interpretation, even when transgressing or contesting those very norms and creating new ones.

A key theoretical point has emerged: stereotypes are powerful not (only) because they sometimes force conformity to a norm, but because they are part of what we would now call ideological constraints to which speakers must orient in some way in everyday talk and interpretation. Participants orient in many ways: by aligning with norms, but also by disaligning, rejecting, changing or fudging norms. Or by imitating and thus citing and acquiescing with them; or by citing in a mocking frame, parodying or faking what is normally expected. One cannot speak without inviting such inferences.

We have learned that the social effect of gendering emerges out of  a three-way dynamic. Linguistic forms of many kinds – phonological, syntactic, discursive – cohere for speakers into “ways of speaking.” We would now call these “registers” of talk, what John Gumperz called contextualization cues. They index interactional stances. Such stances come to “count” as “feminine” and/or “masculine” (intersecting with other axes of difference). Participants construct and then presume the social meanings of registers, in communities of practice. On the basis of those presumptions, speakers take up and interpret what they hear and produce; they often also reconstruct how they interpret practices. Crucially, this triangulation – category presumption/ practice/ interpretive uptake – works because ways of speaking are discursively constituted as part of cultural conceptions about social difference. In short, they are aspects of language ideologies. “Ideology” here does not presume a correct vs. false consciousness. On the contrary, language ideologies are metacommunicative presuppositions – regimes of value –  that are necessary for any and every interpretation of a sign system. There is always more tan one ideology in any social scene, so a sense of contestation is built into the notion.

To put it in semiotic terms, speakers take up various ways of speaking in interactions, thereby “voicing” the social types (personae) that those forms index, and thus aligning (or disaligning, differentiating) not only with respect to their immediate interlocutors, but also simultaneously and necessarily with respect to categories of typified (stereotyped) social persons that are recognized as part of linguistic ideologies. New combinations of speech features are typified – enregistered – when a new set of speech forms is heard to index a typified persona within a field of circulating possibilities: when the forms are taken up in further interactions. A first order of indexicality, as Michael Silverstein argued, points to the stance and hence the social relationship that the register indexes in a specific situation. A simultaneous second order points to the “kind of person” who is enacted by speaking that way in such a situation for those who recognize the enacted person type. Every repetition of using the register is a citation-with-a-difference, interdiscursively linking the earlier use to the current one, indeed often constructing the new context, in relation to but distinct from the earlier context of use.

It would be a mistake to imagine that registers, stances and their related categories of personae emerge spontaneously from the interactional routines and cultural patterns of particular communities of practice. On the contrary, the making of gender stereotypes and registers is often a political and always an ideological process. Discourses about many matters – modernization, nation, moral worth – metacommunicatively constitute the “voice” of personae, even when the types of individuals who would instantiate the social categories do not exist. Miyako Inoue’s demonstration of how “modern Japanese women’s language” was constructed by intellectual men in the early 20th century is a classic example. No such educated Japanese women existed at the time, but intellectual men’s eagerness to write realist novels that would help modernize Japan led to the invention of that category of woman and its “voice.” Whether or not women actual used the idealized forms – or should do so – became a second-order issue on which politicians could take a stance, thereby expressing positions on modernization and other matters.

The concepts of language ideology, register and the discursive construction of stereotypes are all needed in conceptualizing the rightwing discourse that is currently opposing international policy towards the rights of women and sexual minorities. There is deep contradiction in this opposition. Right-wing public figures distort and ridicule feminist ideals even as these figures gain authority by “riding” on – grafting their positions onto – the increased global legitimacy of claims to rights, autonomy and equality. My own research has focused on eastern European cases. But the same processes are appearing in other regions as well. Indeed, the global circulation of the phenomenon is among its central features.

For instance, as Agnieszka Graff and others have noted, it was a shock to feminist researchers in Poland in the early 2010s to find newspaper headlines protesting against “genderism.” Most Poles had never heard of “gender” till then; it was a term limited to a small group of researchers. Yet, the terms “genderism” and later “gender ideology,” were invented in the late 1990s by Pope John Paul, taken up by Popes Benedict and Francis, and are now used widely by far right groups, journalists and writers in Europe, as well as the World Congress of Families – a U.S. based transnational group – and most recently by authoritarian leaders such as the prime minister of Hungary. The label is part of a register of denunciation against equal rights for women, civil unions, marriage equality, LGBTQ rights, reproductive rights, IVF and contraception. “Genderism” or “gender ideology” is framed, moreover, as a “colonial imposition,” a totalitarian force that is “worse than communism and fascism,” a threat to children, parents and the nation, a violation of nature, and a secret means of de-populating the world. A full analysis of this phenomoneon is beyond the task of this brief essay, but let me provide a start.

Armed with an understanding of metacommunication, we can recognize the term “genderism” as part of a discourse register. Its propositions function pragmatically as a first-order index, identifying one side of an implicit argument, arguing against the claims of feminists and sexual minorities. To simply contest its propositional content or its definition of “gender” would miss the more important second-order effect: the label identifies a political position that enables disparate rightist groups to recognize and collaborate with each other despite their vast differences. The rapid spread of the discourse suggests as much. When interviewed recently about state policies towards sexual minorities, the Hungarian prime minister promised tolerance and liberality, ending his response with: “but leave our children alone.” The phrase would have been incongruous, were it not recognizable as an exact quote (citation) from concurrent and much more rancorous Polish debates on sex. The Hungarian prime minister had not taken a substantive stance against LGBTQ people; on the contrary, he explicitly promised tolerance. But, by citing a snippet of talk common in Polish pronouncements against “genderism,” he succeeded in subtly aligning with Polish government discourse, which had. Clearly, propositionality alone is less important than pragmatics and an ideological field: what are the positions such a declaration occupies and what collaborations and opponents does it evoke. A more complicated question is how this discourse register shifts shape as it circulates. We need a parallel to Deborah Cameron’s deft anatomy of “political correctness” some twenty-five years ago.

It is also important to ask how this register gains authority, when it does. Much research has effectively analyzed several ways of establishing linguistic authority. The norms of standard languages are authorized via ideologies of correctness and reason; these erase the arbitrariness of standard forms and their positioning as gatekeeping devices. The legitimacy of ritual transformations is established by the performativity of the rituals themselves. In another kind of authority, as Judith Irvine and I have argued, one site of practice can anchor another site that is interdiscursively connected to it, and thus authorizes it, as in baptism or licensing.

The authority of “anti-gender” discourse – its persuasiveness for some audiences – is achieved in yet another way. It resembles citational phenomena of irony and parody, and the appropriation by dominant groups of forms associated with disdained subordinated groups, as in the “mock” forms described by Jane Hill. However, “anti-gender” is not based on irony; nor does it use the forms of the subordinated. On the contrary, anti-gender discourse deceptively adopts the terms and forms of the most powerful international organizations, grafting itself onto the authority of their widely accepted moral values, while directly opposing and undermining those very values. In this it is akin to “reverse racism” in the United States, which accuses subordinated racial minorities of racism. “Anti-gender” discourse presumes that “rights” are valuable, the protection of children is important, and “colonialism” and “fascism” are to be resisted. And then it accuses those speaking for the rights of women and sexual minorities of trampling rights, harming children and imposing colonial hegemony and fascism. Grafting itself onto the declared values of the EU and the UN, “anti-gender” discourses deceive by riding on the authority of values espoused by powerful international organizations, and redirecting that authority to themselves, indeed to their own diametrically opposed purposes.

The effectiveness of activist responses to this increasingly present mode of political discourse that undermines feminist and egalitarian goals will depend in part on how it is further analyzed. Our tools – especially a consistent move to reflexivity and register – are necessary to this understanding. At the same time, comprehending the mechanisms by which such counter-discourses operate under conditions of political polarization will surely extend the reach of sociolinguistic and its analysis of gender and language.