Opinion: linguistic discrimination toward powerful women asking pertinent questions in a difficult time is an insidious facet of public life

By Stephen LucekUCD 

There has been a recent dialogue in the public sphere regarding the tone that some politicians take in public remarks. Taken out of context, these might seem to be innocuous admonitions of opposition leaders. But we don’t live out of context and there are always other factors to consider. Contextually, criticism of tone has a tendency to be directed at specific types of people so let’s take a look at how two politicians were criticised for their tone.

On April 24th, Sinn Fein leader Mary Lou McDonald appeared on the Late Late Show to talk about her battle with Covid-19. Three days later, a letter about Deputy McDonald was published in The Irish Times. As a linguist, I could only read this letter one way: as an opportunity for an object lesson in some of the finer points of linguistics. This time, it wasn’t someone’s regional accent being criticised, nor was it their social class, per se. The letter that the Irish Times published was tantamount to blowing a dog whistle of misogyny with familiar themes of a powerful woman's "combative voice" contrasted against a "warmer, less strident voice" that is more pleasant.

On May 5th, British Labour Party MP Dr Rosena Allin-Khan used her time in the House of Commons to ask questions about the UK government’s strategy to fight Covid-19. The Minister’s response to these questions was to question not what Dr Allin-Khan said, but rather the way she said it. The response from the Secretary of State for Health, Matt Hancock, was to chastise the "tone" of the question.

These are just two examples of the gender-based bias toward two powerful women who are asking pertinent questions in a difficult time, something we linguists describe as Linguistic Prejudice. It usually starts off as an unconscious bias but, once raised above the level of consciousness, it's an insidious facet of public life.

While most, if not all of us, have language attitudes about the types of things that we like and dislike about language, it is another thing altogether to correlate those likes and dislikes with the social factors that make up our various groupings. For example, there's no problem with preferring the voiceover artists for one supermarket chain over another, but when the reason why you don't like those artists is because of where they come from, what social class they belong to, or their gender, then that becomes problematic. That's when attitudes lead to prejudice which then leads to discrimination.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Ryan Tubridy Show, UCD linguistics student Sascha Santschi Cooney on the little known language in the South East of Ireland called Forth and Bargy

Linguistic discrimination can take a great number of forms. The most famous academic studies focus on individuals being denied access to housing and jobs because of the way they sound over the phone or the way their name is spelled on their CV. While an individual can't be discriminated against in Ireland on nine separate grounds (gender, civil status, family status, sexual orientation, religion, age, race, membership of the Traveller community, or disability), linguistic discrimination is a bit more difficult to qualify, as it touches on a number of these other areas, but still represents its own type of discrimination. In short, individuals in Ireland can experience linguistic discrimination every day of their lives with absolutely no comeback. I wonder how many Irish Times' readers (or even employees) have experienced prejudice because of how they speak. 

This doesn't necessarily mean that we can't treat voice as a commodity. When writers and directors portray accent manipulation on screen, this is oftentimes done to the advantage of accent manipulator. Think of Spike Lee's BlacKkKlansman or Boots Reilly's Sorry to Bother You, both released in 2018. In these movies, African American characters use their "white voice" in order to access secret societies that would not be open to them as African Americans. We can even apply accent manipulation to actors who sometimes play characters who are not from the same place where they were born or reared (eg, Hugh Laurie on House).

Gender-based biases are well represented in the literature on language and bias. One early example comes from Robin Lakoff who wrote in 1973 about the role that women play in language. At that time, this message was aimed at those in the women’s liberation movement, but not a lot has changed nearly 50 years on and women are still discouraged from using their voice in a manner that men are lauded.

What’s perhaps most remarkable about Matt Hancock’s criticism of Dr Allin-Khan is that she is a medical doctor asking questions about a health-related crisis. Dr Allin-Khan is an expert asking questions of an apparatchik who can’t fault her logic, so questions her tone. And if you think that this kind of tone policing is unique to public life, it happens to business leaders and ordinary people

Most people who discriminate against others on the basis of their language use either don't know that they're doing it or have the good sense to keep it to themselves. But in this case, by allowing linguistic prejudice to exist without challenging it and without having a public debate about it, we're telling women that they have to know their place before they open their mouths on television. By giving a platform to tone policing, we’re normalising sexist ideology. Careful attention needs to be paid to these types of prejudice if any type of gender equality is to be achieved.

Dr Stephen Lucek is an Irish Research Council Government of Ireland Postdoctoral Fellow in Linguistics in the School of Languages, Cultures and Linguistics at UCD

The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ