Tuesday, May 03, 2011

Calm down, dear

David Cameron's put-down of Labour MP Angela Eagles in the House of Commons last week by telling her to "calm down, dear" has been attacked by many commentators for its sexist and patronising language and tone. One of the best responses appeared in last week's Guardian from Libby Brooks who quoted feminist linguist Dale Spender in her argument, and made the point that to dismiss it as just a joke was to misunderstand the power of language and its relationship to social context:

Because language really, really matters. It is fundamental to how we construct and convey meaning. And when that meaning is: "I am expressing paternalistic concern at your inability [as a woman] to rein in your emotion" then yes, that is sexist and yes, it is a big deal. To undermine her anger as hysteria, to reference her femaleness, is a particularly male way of putting a woman down.
Going on to link Cameron's comment to the Sky Sports sexism furore a couple of months ago, Brooks makes the point that sexist banter exists in a world where these notions aren't challenged and how we shouldn't let people (usually) men get away with this dismissive and demeaning language.

A wider point here is that taken out of context, the word dear probably isn't that bad - it's certainly not on the same level as many of the frequent, offensive terms used daily - bitch, cow, slag and the like - but it's the context that imbues it with its offence. It's the way its use represents a stance on the part of the speaker ("I am in a superior position to you and can address you in whatever way I choose") and ties in to a broader picture of social inequality - Cameron and his chums are largely the product of single-sex boarding schools, who treat gender equality as a hilarious wheeze, rather than an issue to be taken seriously - that make it such an inflammatory language act.

Edited to add comma in title - apologies for punctuation fail

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