language is power

So I was just sitting here, reflecting on the crazy long statistical-analysis posts, and looking under the hood, so to speak, of this blog. And I happened upon an old post that I first wrote way back in December of last year, right before Christmas. For some reason, I didn’t publish it then, I just saved it as a draft. I can only assume, as you’ll see soon enough, that I didn’t save it because I was having one of those “Oh god I’m about to go on vacation and not post anything for a few weeks and do I really want this to be the top post on my blog for that long? dear god what if someone important reads the blog! ack!”

But, to hell with it. After that last post, I think we need to get back on track with my usual weird mix of pointed political commentary, Buddhist reflections, and whimsy.



The (appropriately) angry Asian over at Dharma Folk pointed out that Tricycle recently published a letter of mine (I’ll have to go out into the real world and verify that that’s true!) and wrote a very good post about the marginalization of Asian voices within the mainstream American Buddhist press.

I’ll tell ya what I liked about this post. I greatly appreciated the fact that he actually did some data collecting. We often complain about racism and marginalization and access to power and what-not; it’s another thing to collect some statistics and do some analysis. Props all around.

(Did I just use the word “props”?)

Meanwhile, over here in my corner of the world, I’ve been revisiting some older posts of mine and reflecting on this recurring issue of racism, sexism, heterosexism, and so forth. And I stumbled upon this funny little bit from a couple of Christmases ago. It’s about the definition of the word “clitoris.”

Have you stopped your middle-school-aged giggling? Ready to have a grown-up conversation? Good. (I promise, there will be more giggling later.)

What I noticed when I first wrote this post two years ago was that all of the dictionaries (a) claim that the clitoris is “homologous to the penis” but don’t claim the reverse, i.e., that the penis is homologous to the clitoris, and (b) that the amount of digital ink spilled on the later greatly outweighs the former, suggesting, to me anyway, that the penis is the more important organ.

Defining the female body part in terms of the male body part suggests that the male body part is the norm or standard of reference whereas the female is some derivation or sub-type of the larger category. This not only preferences the male part, but it’s misleading. After all, we’re all female until a little biochemical switch is thrown and we become male. If anything, the penis is a mutated version of the clitoris.

Of course, I’m not suggesting that the good folks down at Merriam-Webster are a bunch of Lawernce Summers who think women are inherently inferior (by the way, what’s with this?). And I’m not suggesting that there’s some dictionary publisher’s conspiracy to elevate the status of the penis and denigrate the clitoris. I’m simply pointing out the power of language. If you didn’t know the first thing about human anatomy (or if, like me, when you’re a twelve-year-old kid, you look up all the dirty words in the dictionary without knowing what they really mean) and you come across these two definitions of the word, what do you learn? You learn that the male penis is vital to the survival of the human species, and that the female clitoris just sort of sits there. Which, as I’m sure all my female readers will gladly point out, isn’t true, not by a long shot. And if we’re really worried about the survival of the human species, to paraphrase Chef, men better damn well find the clitoris.

What the hell does any of this have to do with Buddhism? I can hear you all saying. The following: language is power. And when you’re the editor of a media institution that helps frame the dialogue about some section of American life, you’re in a position of considerable power. Be mindful of what you say.

To avoid running the risk of belaboring this point, I’m going leave you with two very apropos comics from the ever on-point XKCD:

Yes, this is how sexism happens.
XKCD: how it works (borrowed image)

And everything is always relative to where you’re at.
XKCD: east and west (borrowed image)

Choose your words wisely.