In what ways might language be used as an instrument of oppression
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The idea that language can be used as an instrument of oppression is one that is held by many critics of varying focus who stress the fact that language is both an instrument of social constraint and a means of resisting that constraint. It is an issue deeply embedded in the literary theory of gender and sexuality, race and nationality, and even social class. In this essay I hope to consider these issues in relation to three main literary texts that I have studied across this year: Jonathon Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own, and Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness.
A good place to start is with the ideas of feminist criticism, where language is identified as one of the means through which patriarchal values are both maintained and resisted. Feminists are concerned with two main ways in which they claim women are oppressed by language, the first of which is the idea of male dominated language. In her essay ‘Man-Made Language’, Dale Spender argues that male dominated language constructs a sexist universe in which women are cast aside:
The group which has the power to ordain the structure of language, thought and reality has the potential to create a world in which they are the central figures, while those who are not of their group are peripheral and therefore may be exploited. (Spender 106) She is basically saying that general categories of persons are often constructed through the language in male terms. This process serves to make women less visible in social and cultural activity. Deborah Cameron supports this idea with the citation of the following newspaper report from The Guardian:
A coloured South African who was subjected to racial abuse by his neighbours went berserk with a machete and killed his next-door neighbour’s wife, Birmingham Crown Court heard yesterday. (80) Cameron quite rightly argues that the generic (or general) expression is next-door neighbour since it refers to both male and female neighbours, and yet it is clear that when it is used to refer to women it needs to be modified to form “neighbour’s wife”. Thus, the word neighbour, rather than being generic in this context, is in fact only referring to male neighbours.
Furthermore, there are cases where women are simply assumed to fall into the category of ‘man’ in expressions that are supposedly neutral: If a woman is swept off a ship into the water, the cry is ‘Man overboard! ‘ If a hit-and-run driver kills her, the charge is ‘manslaughter. ‘ If she is injured on the job, the coverage is ‘workmen’s compensation. ‘ But if she arrives at a threshold marked ‘Men Only,’ she knows the admonition is not intended to bar animals or plants or inanimate objects.
It is meant for her. 1 It is examples like the above two that are what makes Spender and Cameron argue that language is sexist and offensive to women. However, this is quite an extreme view to take, and although I can sympathise to some extent, I am not sure I wholeheartedly agree with them. To further investigate the ideas of both Spender and Cameron, I will examine this theory alongside Gulliver’s Travels, a novel that has been criticised in the past for its sexist attitude towards women. Consider if you will the following extract in which the narrator recounts a story told to him by his master, a Houyhnhnm:
He had heard indeed some curious Houyhnhnms observe that in most herds there was a sort of ruling Yahoo (as among us there is usually some leading or principal stag in a park) who was always more deformed in body, and mischievous in disposition, than any of the rest. That this leader had usually a favourite as like himself as he could get, whose employment was to lick his master’s feet and posteriors, and drive the female Yahoos to his kennel; for which he was now and then rewarded with a piece of ass’s flesh.
If I were to adopt Spender and Cameron’s feminist viewpoint, I would most likely object to his referral to the ‘female Yahoo’. This ties in with their argument concerning generic expression. Gulliver (or perhaps Swift) feels the need to point to the femaleness of this particular Yahoo, yet when referring to male Yahoos it seems that the term Yahoo by itself is enough. Thus, generic expressions can be ambiguous, for example, in the following paragraph taken from Part One of Gulliver’s Travels:
All crimes against the state are punished here with the utmost severity; but if the person accused make his innocence plainly to appear upon his trial, the accuser is immediately put to an ignominious death; and out of his goods or lands, the innocent person is quadruply recompensed for the loss of his time, for the danger he underwent, for the hardship of his imprisonment, and for all the charges he hath been at in making his defence. (Swift 2359) It is unclear in that particular passage whether the accused is supposed to be a man or whether this is indeed a generic use of the words he and his.
It is exactly this ambiguity and the fact that they serve to make women seem invisible that Spender and Cameron have objected to the use of generic expression. To counter this verbal discrimination of women feminists have attempted to reform the language in a variety of ways, particularly by the use of passive and plural form. To see if this works, I will attempt to rewrite the same passage from Gulliver’s Travels into a more gender-neutral format:
All crimes against the state are punished here with the utmost severity; but if the person accused make their innocence plainly to appear upon their trial, the accuser is immediately put to an ignominious death; and out of their goods or lands, the innocent person is quadruply recompensed for the loss of their time, for the danger they underwent, for the hardship of their imprisonment, and for all the charges they hath been at in making their defence. In this version it is clear that the reference is more generalized, but it is also possible to signal more confidently that there are female as well as male persons within the tale.
However, Cameron does point out that although it is easy to make such changes on a small scale, getting them adopted on a larger scale is another matter, as they would have to go through the media, government and other such establishments. But, male dominated language is not the only way in which language acts to oppress women. In their chapter on sexual difference, Bennett and Royle assert that, “all literary texts can be thought about in terms of how they represent gender difference and how far they may be said to reinforce or question gender-role stereotypes. (142)
Look again at Gulliver’s Travels where the male character of Gulliver travels extensively to undiscovered lands leaving his wife and children home alone. And even by the end of the story he is reluctant to return. This is a classic example of the oppression and repression of women in literary texts of that time; a suggestion that a woman’s place is at home with the children, and certainly not earning a living of their own. Furthermore, Gulliver’s lurid description of the female body only acts to further alienate them from this apparently male world:
I must confess that no object ever disgusted me so much as the sight of her monstrous breast, which I cannot tell what to compare with, so as to give the curious Reader an idea of its bulk, shape and colour. The nipple was about half the bigness of my head, and the hue both of that and the dug so verified with spots, pimples and freckles, that nothing could appear more nauseous. ” (Swift 2378) It seems that, for him at least, the female body is one that should be hidden away from view, much like women’s literature.
Swift’s language certainly seems to serve to oppress women, whether his intention was satire or not. A woman reading Gulliver’s Travels would certainly not be scoffed at for reaching the conclusion that Swift’s intention was to present women as a socially inferior sex. This presentation of women is not just one made by individual writers but, as many critics suggest, in the entire construction of the literary canon. In particular, critics have explored the ways in which the canon is encased in questions of class, ethnicity, education, sexual and gender difference.
In the case of women writers, it is often argued that such authors have been overlooked precisely because they are women. In her work, A Room of One’s Own, Virginia Woolf immediately hints at this exclusion of women in her description of the narrator’s visit to Oxbridge where she is repeatedly barred from areas deemed only to be for men: “His face expressed horror and indignation. Instinct rather than reason came to my help; he was a Beadle; I was a woman. This was the turf; there was the path.
Only the fellows and scholars are allowed here; the gravel is the place for me. ” (2155) It doesn’t take a mastermind to work out the link between the narrator’s experience (being chased off the grass and barred from the library) and the exclusion of women from the canon and literary establishment as a whole. Woolf continues by inventing a series of characters who further illustrate her point: Mary Seton who reflects women’s historical lack of financial resources and Mary Carmichael whose writing is that of “a woman who has forgotten that she is a woman. (2203)
Though she has no conclusion, Woolf does at least have a feminist moral. Illustrated by the two Mary’s, Woolf is alerting us to the presence of a male elitism, a conspiracy to ensure that women are prohibited from utilising resources and censored so that they are unable to voice their protests, after all men have traditionally had better access to learning and hence to the full resources of literacy, and also have had better access to the means by which books are produced.
So, Woolf seems to be highlighting at least one aspect of women’s oppression at the hands of language, or to be more specific, male dominated language. She notes, in particular, when a woman does slip through the net and produce a book, that male criticism in general functions to exclude or marginalize women’s writing by censoring its permitted subject matter or by deeming its subject matter to be insignificant and lacking general interest: “It is the masculine values that prevail [… This is an important book, the critic assumes, because it deals with war.
This is an insignificant book because it deals with the feelings of women in a drawing-room. “(Woolf 2172) Woolf shows that throughout the history of literature, male language has been valued at the expense of feminine language. Indeed, over the years male critics have constructed literary canons that exclude women writers from the history of literature, which is then reproduced in syllabuses across the country leaving male writing massively over-represented.
However, it doesn’t seem to be the case in recent years. Throughout my own studies I have encountered the novels of countless female writers and have been bombarded with feminist critiques of male writers for as long as I can remember. After all, you never get essays written about how men are represented in the writings of women, or if there is I’ve not yet heard of them. I think that overall, as the feminist movement gains momentum women are in the background less and less. However, it is not just women who may be oppressed by language.
More recently critics have began to question the way in which the English language serves to suppress the racially other. Like women, non-white writers have long been ignored by the construction of the canon. Indeed, black women’s writing has been marginalized twice over! However, the literary critic Frank Kermode puts forward his own defence of the canon, admitting that although it is undoubtedly an instrument of control and even oppression it is absolutely necessary to apply structure to our reading of texts.
And besides, it can and does develop, as other kinds of historical interpretation change through time. (pp. 108-27) Nevertheless, it is still argued that those in power (i. e. white middle-class males) place value on the texts that reflect their world. To illustrate this very idea Bennett and Royle quote a series of comments made by a literary critic and historian, Thomas Babington Macauley in his Minute on Law and Education (1835), who argues for the teaching of English and against the teaching of Arabic and Sanscrit to the Indian population.
The main basis for his argument is the (wrong) assumption that Western culture is aesthetically superior to that of Eastern cultures: It is, I believe, no exaggeration to say that all the historical information which has been collected in the Sanscrit language is less valuable than what may be found in the paltry abridgements used at preparatory schools in England. (Bennett and Royle 202) This statement is blatantly ideological, and a testament to the unashamed subjugation of any language that is not mainstream English, albeit in the Nineteenth Century.
But even now, members of the government have criticised ethnic minorities in Britain for continuing to speak their native language in the comfort of their own home. The fact is we are most comfortable around people who speak as we do. If we are uncomfortable with the language of others then we exert pressure on those others to conform. If they are unwilling or unable to conform, then the pressure is increased and barriers created. This issue is one very much at the heart of postcolonial studies. A central concern of postcolonialism is with power and the way in which European imperialism operates through capitalism.
But postcolonial criticism is also concerned with the displacement effect that followed conquest; that is, writing from non-European literary traditions that have been colonised and also how the non-European is represented in Western literature. Edward Said tackles these themes in his influential book Orientalism, where he illustrates how, over the course of two centuries, Islamic culture has been distorted and misrepresented by Western commentators, who have presented prejudice and the ideological agendas of imperialism in the guise of objective analysis.
Further implications include the way in which colonial subjects are represented as racial stereotypes. I intend to look at both of these ideas in the form of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. Chinua Achebe, the heralded father of modern African literature has long argued that Joseph Conrad was a racist. In his essay, ‘An Image of Africa’ he claims that “Heart of Darkness projects the image of Africa as ‘the other world’, the antithesis of Europe and therefore of civilisation, a place where man’s vaunted intelligence and refinement are finally mocked by triumphant bestiality. (2035)
And then of course there are the overtly stereotypical portrayals of Africans within the novel. Consider the narrator Marlow’s description of the steamer’s black fireman: He was an improved specimen; he could fire up a vertical boiler. He was there below me, and, upon my word, to look at him was as edifying as seeing a dog in a parody of breeches and a feather hat, walking on his hind legs. (Conrad 70) The very fact that Marlow compares the fireman to a dog seems to be enough to validate Achebe’s argument.
Conrad’s language seems to be presenting this man as socially inferior to Europeans. However, it has long been argued that since the views within the story are those of the narrator, Marlow, and not Conrad himself that perhaps the story should be read ironically, as a critique rather than a commendation of colonialism. This is particularly so when reading Marlow’s criticism of the Eldorado Exploring Expedition: “To tear the treasure out of the bowels of the land was their desire, with no more moral purpose at the back of it than there is in burglars breaking into a safe. (61)
And so it would seem that, although Conrad is attempting to condemn the work of the colonisers, he does present a stereotypical and, I think it’s fair to say, oppressive portrayal of those being colonised, whether it was his intention or not. So, looking at the different approaches to gender, race and class, it does seem that language does play a large role in the oppression of those who are not in power. However, I think that the following analysis of the word ‘queer’ from Bennett and Royle shows that sometimes this oppression can be rejected.
They point out that, in the 1960’s and 1970’s, it was a word that became increasingly used in the English language as a derogatory term for (usually male) homosexuals. However, they reveal, this began to change by the late 1980’s: Homosexuals themselves began to ‘reclaim’ the word, to use it in place of the gender-specific and arguably effete term ‘gay’ or the clinical and cheerless ‘homosexual’ or the polite and even mythological-sounding ‘lesbian’.
Queer becomes a term of pride and celebratory self-assertion, of difference affirmed and affirmative difference. The fact that queers are different from straight people is seen as a source of power and pride – and ‘straight’ now becomes a term with potentially negative connotations (conventional, dull, unadventurous). (179) And so it would seem that it is not just the people in position of power who can decide how language is applied.
The new application of the word ‘queer’ goes to show that people don’t just have to accept their lot in life; they can challenge the dominant ‘Eurocentric’ view of language and replace it with their own meaning. In conclusion, I would argue exactly this: language may and can be used as an instrument of oppression to a certain extent, be it through what is included in literary history (or more specifically the canon) or how the language itself is constructed.
Nevertheless, the oppressed groups can and do reject this application of language. The recent uprising of gendered, racial, social and queer approaches to language and literature have made sure that the voices of the oppressed can be heard. It is for this reason that I would suggest that, although there may have been a time when language acted as a tool to stifle the minority, it is now no longer the case, at least on a larger scale.