Words Used to Silence Us — A Glossary
New and Improved! (6/23/2015): This list has been updated since its original publication in 2012 to a) include words suggested by readers and continued experience doing this thing I do and b) clarify some of the definitions.
It happens all the time, every day, in ways we might not even notice until someone points it out to us. When people don’t like our ideas and opinions—when they don’t like the reality we tell them that we experience—they use words that attempt to reduce what we say to the rantings of some irrational creature whose emotions somehow suck all meaning from what she says and who, by the way, cannot appreciate humor.
Have a look at some of the words the people around us use to silence us when we talk about feminism—or just our lives—along with my definitions/interpretations of their meanings.
(Thanks to friends and readers here and on Facebook and Twitter for contributing to this list.)
See also “Emotional.” This word seems to be most often used in an effort to make women feel as though we are scaring people away with our terrifying emotions. We’re told that if we were only less angry, we’d reach more people. “You’ll catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” That may be true to a point, and yet anger is not only a natural reaction to the injustices we see and experience, it’s often a catalyst in our becoming activists. But people who use this word rarely allow that our anger might be justified and rational. Instead, this word (as Sid points out in the comments section below), “is meant to imply ‘flying off the handle and completely unreasonable, and by the way I can’t talk to you when you’re like this–all not agreeing with me and shit.'”
Though it’s really in a class by itself, this is one of those catch-all terms (stay tuned for more of those) that is refreshing in that it doesn’t hide behind semantics. It says what it means! You are a woman and therefore, the speaker dismisses you. You have thoughts and opinions that they don’t like, and you are not afraid to tell them when they’re wrong, and when all else fails, this word sums up all their disdain for your gender and your unladylike behavior.
Like “bitch,” the word “cunt” is gender-specific. It seems most often to be employed by people who want not only to dismiss a woman but to utterly degrade her at the same time. “Cunt” means “vulva” or “vagina” but let’s face it, those words don’t carry the same weight. This word makes clear that your being a woman is the real problem here, and by the way, the worst thing I can call you is a word for that body part that defines your sex–a word that doesn’t just identify that body part but tells us (by the context in which it is invariably used) that there’s something inherently wrong with it.
You have brought up an emotionally charged subject the speaker doesn’t want to deal with. “You’re just creating drama.” “She’s such a Drama Queen.” Yes, some people thrive on drama, stirring it up wherever they go. But discussing a subject you’re passionate about is not the same thing. Calling people out on bad behavior is not “creating drama.”
This word gets whipped out when the speaker doesn’t want to engage with our actual argument, especially when we’ve attempted to clarify it for them because they didn’t get it the first time and misconstrued our meaning. Especially if we show any emotion in the process. “See, now you’re just getting defensive.” The speaker has obviously struck a nerve, so nyah-nyah, and this renders your argument invalid somehow.
You are a woman showing emotion and that is a Bad Thing so you should stop talking now because clearly you can’t have a rational discussion if you FEEL anything. You will almost never hear this word used to describe male behavior unless actual tears are involved. Men are passionate. Women are emotional.
You are placing emphasis on something that is obviously not a priority for anyone who is not some kind of radical feminazi and you should really lighten up. “You’re exaggerating the importance of the issue. It’s not that big a deal.” Also, shut up.
Feminists are all angry lesbians who hate men and want to rule the world. Don’t you dare admit to being a feminist and for rich, old, white Pete’s sake, do not talk about sexism, rape culture, the gender gap, equality, or any of that angry woman nonsense.
You didn’t like something the speaker said or did for reasons the speaker doesn’t like and is not willing to learn about, so obviously the problem is with you. Grow a thicker skin.
Humor is King! The speaker is hereby officially, divinely, and in all other ways absolved of all responsibility for and/or scrutiny of his/her words. “I was only joking!” “Can’t you take a joke?” “You have no sense of humor!”
Not only are you a woman, but you’re a feminist, so you must hate men, so you must be a lesbian, because everyone knows lesbians hate men. “Lesbian” is the best insult some folks can come up with. I don’t personally find it insulting, but I do recognize it as a desperate attempt to shut me up.
Not All Men
What can I even say about this? It’s a phenomenon to the point where I get comments like this:
I wish I thought he was kidding, but unfortunately, I saw his other comments. This is a phenomenon to the point where a woman created the #NotAllMen hashtag to ridicule the men who say this, and they appropriated it to talk about how not all men are awful. I just…
See also “Sexist.” Along with “White Knight,” this is a go-to for Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs) who read or hear stuff they don’t like. Yes, there are women who hate men, but Google “misandry” and you’ll find hundreds of links and images whose message is “Feminism=Man Hate.” People using this word are (in my experience) mostly not interested in being a part of a conversation that includes women who identify as feminists, but rather want feminism to go away entirely.
As Sid astutely points out in her post on the subject, this word is often code for “shut up.” You have pointed out a problem, and the other person doesn’t want to hear about it. Facebook is filled with memes that tell us we have no right to be “offended” by anything, which is another way of saying we have no right to speak up when we see something that needs changing.
You are a woman with opinions you’re willing to discuss and defend. How dare you.
(See Exaggerating, Hypersensitive.)
“Calm down! You’re getting all worked up—you’re going to blow a gasket!” Shut up. No, seriously, just shut up now. The speaker is not even listening anymore, and the goal here is not to relax you but the exact opposite. Walk away and live to fight another day.
Sexist (or Reverse-Sexist)
Yes, you heard right, someone just called you “sexist” for talking about women’s rights and issues and possibly implying that men enjoy privilege and power over women in our society. This accusation is most often leveled by men who are uncomfortable having their privilege pointed out to them and really wish you’d stop.
Also, “whore.” Mandaray put it best in the comments: “A lot of times, when men are frustrated with a woman, they will immediately use one of these terms to not only dismiss her, but to imply that she is sexually “overavailable,” thus making her have even less worth somehow. ”
Bonus Word: White Knight
This one is for the guys. You’ll hear it when you speak out against sexist behavior on the part of male friends who have done their homework and know all about the feminist conspiracy to castrate all males. It means that you don’t really care about feminist issues, you just want to score points with the chicks. It means that you’re a big wussy who likes girls and girls have cooties. It means the speaker is very likely an anti-feminist MRA who believes in Straw Feminists.
Bonus Word #2: Butthurt
I saved this one for last because Wow! It combines many of the words on this list (Hypersensitive, Overreacting, Emotional, Offended, Relax, to name a few) into one neat little rape-culture-promoting package! It’s not just me, right? I really never thought about it, but when a friend wondered what it meant, I realized that this word had always bugged me due to the vaguely rapey implication. Anyway, as my friend pointed out, this word is used when the speaker wants to express utter dismissal and invalidation of your thoughts, ideas, and feelings. Neat!
Some readers also related phrases used to silence them (you’ll notice some familiar words):
“Oh, you are one of those.”
“Not THAT again!”
“We don’t want to hear from you.”
“Women like you…”
“Stop taking everything so personally!”
“Learn how to take a joke, not everything is about how hard it is to be a woman.”
“You’re too sensitive. Don’t take everything so seriously. Relax.”
“That’s just coming out of nowhere!”
“Is that what they’re telling you in those sociology classes?”
“Isn’t [feminism] when women try to be like men? Are you a lesbian?”
And here’s a topical tweet I ran across RT’d by @EverydaySexism. Follow them if you haven’t–a steady stream of eye-openers.
While there are certainly exceptions, most people who use words like these in the ways I’ve described are not trying to understand our points of view. They aren’t here learn anything, even though they may ask questions seemingly in earnest. They’ve already made up their minds, and I’ve found it’s really not worth my time (or the emotional toll) to engage with them, so I mostly don’t. But for those who say these things without thinking, maybe this will help us help them understand why words matter—how while some of us have run out of fucks to give and will probably never STFU, others hear these things and decide to stop speaking out about the things that matter to them.
We need marginalized voices, and we need privileged people to make room for those voices. One of the ways we do that is to stop resorting
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