Context swap: helping others to see how their attitude offends

Recently, controversial Christian preacher Douglas Wilson took issue with women who disagreed with him. (You can read a fuller version of the story on Tim Fall’s blog and several others.) He called them pushy broads, twinkies in tight tops, or waifs with manga eyes.

I’m not interested in discussing Wilson’s views; others do a much better job of pointing out what is wrong with his theology and attitudes. Nor do I feel the need to talk about what’s offensive about these particular terms; I’m assuming that my regular blog readers already agree that the terms are sexist and racist.

Here’s what interests me: If another person has a sexist attitude or uses a sexist term and doesn’t understand why it’s offensive, how do we help him (or her) understand?

(This isn’t limited to gender matters, of course. This applies to race and sexual orientation, too.)

For someone like Wilson, who defends his remarks, it might take a lightning bolt from heaven. Human rhetoric alone isn’t likely to do the job. Human words have no power to change a heart.

But for others, the offensive terms seem to spring more from ignorance than hatred. They simply don’t see what’s wrong. Sometimes—and I see this a lot with people around me—they view charges of sexism as mere political correctness, indicative of a liberal “agenda” they have no use for, and brush it aside. This is especially true if their actual words aren’t problematic but the attitude behind the words is.      

Recently, I overheard a group of boys making fun of a different culture. I didn’t say anything. I was guilty of staying silent because:

  1. I didn’t know what to say (a terrible reason);
  2. They weren’t using ethnic slurs, but were betraying a slightly disrespectful attitude toward a different culture’s language; I couldn’t put my finger on exactly what was wrong in their silliness, only that it felt wrong and disrespectful, and
  3. The speakers were 6th grade boys, I didn’t know any of their names, and I have no idea how to talk so 11- and 12-year-old boys will listen. Especially when they’re on a noisy bus, bouncing around in excitement because they’re on a field trip and not stuck in a classroom. They were barely listening to each other, much less any adults.

But if someone is within our realm of influence, we should speak up. I should speak up. (I wish I had, and I’m deeply disappointed with myself that I didn’t. I’m open to suggestions for how to handle any similar situations.)

It’s relatively easy to point out disparaging terms. Calling a woman a broad, twinkie, bitch, and so on? Most adults I know would recognize the inappropriate nature of the words. (Keep in mind that I live in a conservative, well-educated, middle-to-upper-class demographic in the Bible Belt. Calling a woman a bitch? Impolite and unthinkable! How crass! It’s different elsewhere. Here, the putdown tactics tend to be more subtle.)

But how do you make someone see what’s offensive in an attitude

After reading a post of mine on how sexism hurts men and women, Jeannie Prinsen commented,

Recently have become more aware (because my husband points them out!) of media that treat men in a way we probably wouldn’t accept if it were women. For example, there’s a FB site called “Hot guys reading books,” which features pictures of guys reading on buses, subways, etc. I wouldn’t even have known about it if two different female bloggers I know hadn’t tweeted a link to it this week. Yet I wonder what we would think of a site called “Hot girls reading books,” in which women were photographed anonymously, maybe without their consent? Yikes!

What’s wrong with a Facebook site like this? For starters, their individuality is destroyed; they aren’t given a name, only referred to as “hot guys.” Their full humanity is reduced to one particular element—their sexuality—and their bodies are turned into objects to be admired (or lusted after), not a part of a person to be respected. In short, women are treating these men the same way females often are treated.

It’s a sexist attitude. But not everyone seems to recognize that.

Sometimes, we have to swap the context to realize why something is offensive.

Putting ourselves in another person’s place isn’t easy. It might require a little more effort on another person’s part to make me realize what’s wrong. I might look at the “Hot Guys Reading Books” and think, Oh good, men are reading books! What’s the title? And then I’d be off, thinking about whether I’d read that particular book and what his reading choice said about him and what it any good, and not questioning the oddity of photographing anonymous men and posting their photos online.

But swap the genders, as Jeannie did in her comment. Instantly, I feel creeped out. I think about all the times I’ve read a book in public. What if someone had snapped a photo of me reading and posted it online without my consent? What if it were my daughters? “Hot Girls Reading Books”? My skin crawls.

A similar technique was used years ago for a commercial. Various average-guy-looking male actors are talking to the camera about their bodies. The statements are things that normally come from the mouth of women. A guy sitting on a barstool, drinking a beer, asks the camera, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” Things like that.

It made people laugh, but it got laughs because the genders were swapped.

A woman asking that question? That’s a landmine for her significant other, a serious question revealing body-image insecurities and a craving for reassurance and approval.

A man asking the same one? We recognize how shallow the question is.

  • Does it truly matter what other people think of our clothes and body size?
  • Do we need other people’s approval to wear our jeans with confidence?
  • Isn’t it wrong and offensive to judge other people by their appearance and size?
  • Shouldn’t we be offended that women feel the need to ask this question as if their worth depends on their physical appeal?

Another example. I read an article about “microaggressions” that convey racist attitudes. Saying, “But I don’t even think of you as being black” or “I don’t see the color of your skin” would be considered two. I’ve avoided those phrases, though I didn’t quite understand what was so wrong with them.

Then I read one comment: Imagine that you’re female and some male tells you, “But I don’t see you as a woman. I don’t even think of you as a woman.”

If someone said that to me, I’d probably wonder if they needed their eyes checked (or if I needed to call a plastic surgeon ASAP to fix my body.) Being female is a huge part of my identity, so I feel slighted if someone doesn’t recognize the female aspect of my appearance.

Now I better understand why “I don’t see you as black” is insulting.

The context swap jolts us from complacency. It forces us to re-examine our presuppositions and attitudes. And it might, if articulated well, help someone understand what is offensive in their attitude. It might even change their attitude.




11 thoughts on “Context swap: helping others to see how their attitude offends

  1. I thought of that context too, Laura. If Mr. Wilson had instead been speaking about people of color, grouping people into two categories and calling one of them a racial epithet, everyone but a racist would see it for what it is. But he considers women lesser beings, based on the repeated instances of name-calling he engages in.

    When it comes to speaking up in situations where someone says such things, I remember hearing one good response. It’s a simple, “We don’t talk like that here.” If said gently and firmly, it might carry the day.


    P.S. Thanks for the linkage to my place up there.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh, that response to this situation is so obvious! I don’t know why I didn’t think of it. Thanks, Tim.

      Regarding Mr. W, I don’t know how he gets away with name calling. All I can figure out is that there’s a sizable number of people who agree with his views, which is disheartening, or that name calling (even racist or sexist slurs) is so common in our culture that many people don’t find it offensive (or not offensive enough to speak up against).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. This is a great post, Laura. It seems really appropriate today because this is “Spread the Word to End the Word” day — that is, the “R” word which is often used to describe developmentally handicapped people.

    I’m interested, though, in how the context swap might be applied in that instance, because there doesn’t seem to be any opposite or other category of persons that has its own insults attached to it. (“Yeah, well how would you like it if I called you NON-retarded?” — not a lot of traction there.) A note in Wikipedia refers to what’s called the “euphemism treadmill”: “whatever term is chosen for this condition [being developmentally handicapped/delayed], it eventually becomes perceived as an insult. The terms mental retardation and mentally retarded were invented in the middle of the 20th century to replace the previous set of terms, which were deemed to have become offensive. By the end of the 20th century, these terms themselves have come to be widely seen as disparaging, politically incorrect, and in need of replacement…”

    As a mom of a boy who’s developmentally delayed, I feel a bit discouraged by this quote, yet I’m encouraged by the fact that there IS a movement afoot to “End the Word.”

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Hm, that’s a tough question, Jeannie. A standard context swap might not work in this case. It might be more like the last example, where the commenter replaced the racial context with a gender one. So instead of trying for the opposite of the “r” word (which doesn’t exist), we could take it out of the mental realm and put it in the physical one. It’s not a great parallel, but . . .

      Most people I know are fairly insecure about their physical body. So they should (theoretically, at least) understand that it’s not okay to insult someone’s lack of physical development or someone’s unwanted over-development. For example, fat-shaming is usually considered wrong, as is pointing out a specific physical attribute that’s “lacking”, especially one that is connected with masculinity or femininity, such as, um, genitalia or breasts, all that classic locker room trash talk. (“You wouldn’t like it if I pointed out what was wrong with your body, would you? How about if I called parts of your body some nasty name and said that made you inferior to everyone else? No? Well, then don’t use that nasty word for my son, either. He’s not inferior to you or anyone else!”)

      It’s not a really accurate comparison to delays in development, though, and probably would get some obscene responses or claims that “you’re going too far.” Then again, it might jolt the person calling your son the “r” word into realizing just how offensive and rude they’re being. I don’t know.

      I hate that you have to live with this reality; it’s not one that I know firsthand, so I can only imagine what it must be like to hear your son insulted. From your blog posts, Jonathan seems like a sweet boy who loves Jesus and his family in a deep, intimate way. Every time I read about him, I end up smiling. He shouldn’t have to hear insults about his developmental delay or anything else!

      If anyone else has any ideas for Jeannie, please share them.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Thanks for this thoughtful answer, Laura. I should clarify that I have never heard Jonathan actually called that name. It’s more the general, careless use of the word in the public discourse: e.g. “Quit it, you’re acting r—-d” or “You listen to Air Supply? That’s so r—-d.”


    2. Funny, here in the UK even the word ‘handicapped’ is not considered acceptable. It’s ‘disabled’ or ‘differently-abled’ (though I find the second patronising). We don’t use the ‘r’ word. My son is generally described as having learning disabilities or special needs. Other words, though, have been used as medical terms, or general descriptive terms, which became insults and were no longer medical terms: idiot, spastic, mongol, midget, dumb, etc. Kids are cruel. If it’s not an insult they’ll turn it into one. But adults have no excuse.
      Perhaps the best we can do is remember that ‘Christian’ was at first an insult and now we use it to describe ourselves. Not sure that that works generally, though. When anyone uses the ‘n’ word, for example, it makes me shudder, whatever its context. It is a word filled with centuries of untold misery. Same with ‘slut’ or ‘slag’ or ‘slapper’ (words which are used quite readily). I don’t have any answers. I just teach my children to treat other people as they would like to be treated, and to stand up to bullying. I hope they learn by the example of my husband and I.

      Liked by 3 people

      1. Thank you for adding your thoughts, Sandy. Teaching our children (or those in our realm of influence, in the case of teachers, coaches, etc.) to respect others and use respectful terms for anything that might make them “different” is so important. It’s also important that they can stand up to bullies, whether they are the victim or another person is.

        It’s not about political correctness, it’s about respect. It’s about modeling how Christ behaved towards others while he was here. He certainly never called the woman at the well or the woman caught in adultery foul names, nor did he call the demon-possessed cruel names, either. And all those sick people were treated with respect as well. No “r” word came from the mouth of Jesus, that’s for sure!

        Liked by 3 people

  3. This is such a good question to think about. I have actually been trying to work through this very topic with the kids in my class as well as my own child who has been asking a lot of questions about what words are “bad” words. The Bible talks about the speech that should characterize Christians, giving of thanks, no course jesting, refraining from silly talk et. Basically let no unwholesome word proceed out of your mouth. Its a tall order for all of us. I know I have been careless with my words at times and have needed to apologize for it.
    I have noticed that children are very good at being unkind in their speech, and covering it up in socially acceptable terms or denying they said it. What I try to encourage them to think about is why they are saying something, not just what they are saying. Attitudes come out in tone, body language and how ideas are framed. If a child says something questionable, I ask them why they said what they did. Were you angry at your friend when you said that? Do you think you are better than your friend because you are good at _______? Our intent/perception is the most important thing and realizing that our underlying attitude comes out, even if we choose the politically correct terminology, is the key to change in my opinion. Unfortunately, we cannot make people open their eyes, just offer our opinions when we get the opportunity. Discussing this issue is a great place to start.


    1. Good thoughts, Denise. Having the person think about why they used a disparaging term is a good idea. I think it probably works well with those who are using it mindlessly, like many children or even adults do. It’s the ones who are entrenched in their hateful beliefs who are the most difficult in this regard; they don’t want to think about motivations (especially their own). But for many other people, asking, “Why did you say that? What emotion were you feeling when you used that word?” could open up their minds to self-examination and prayerful searching in the depths of their hearts.


  4. Reblogged this on multicolouredsmartypants and commented:
    Very important, interesting post here from Laura Droege.

    Something Laura wrote niggled me and has stayed with me the past few days. It coincided with certain news articles, particularly surrounding the Rotherham abuse ‘scandal’ and the mention of former ‘national treasure’ convicted paedophile Rolf Harris. I finally put my finger on what it was:

    When someone is convicted of a sexual offence, and then you casually or otherwise remark that you ‘don’t believe it’, you imply that victims are at fault. Even if this is not what you mean, if you insist that you can’t believe that a person could do such heinous acts, you disrespect – no, you dehumanise and degrade victims and former victims. These crimes leave a legacy that lasts a lifetime. Anyone who would rather look the other way than look at the awful truth head on is, in essence, spitting in my face, and the faces of those like me. And that was the politest way of saying it.
    So many times I was made to feel as if it was my fault, both overtly by the abuser, and less overtly by the fact that no one did anything (except my parents, who did all they could under the circumstances). The abuse tore our loving family apart. We are still picking up the pieces, all these years later. I thank God that we can. I thank God that it is indeed true that Love Conquers All.


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