LANGUAGE BETRAYS US.
Language makes us mean. It tricks us into revealing what we think to others. It tricks us into saying things we didn’t even know we thought.
We know, for example, that when we talk about “pro-life” or “pro-choice,” we are staking out a position in the abortion debate. But according to Eviatar Zerubavel, no matter whether we mean to or not, every single sentence we utter betrays our bias.
As Zerubavel argues in his slender new book Taken for Granted: The Remarkable Power of the Unremarkable, we declare ourselves not only through the words we use, but also — in fact, mainly — through the words we don’t use. Because it is the non-emphasized words that show how indebted we are to the tacit norms and prejudices of our society. The “unremarkable” of his title refers to our ability to overlook implications, and through “unmarked” words, entire communities.
Often, as Zerubavel points out, we only realize what our default assumptions are when we have to qualify them. The term “African-American” reminds us that unhyphenated “Americans” are assumed to be white; “same-sex marriage” reminds us that unspecified couples are assumed to be heterosexual; “women’s soccer” reminds us that “regular” players are men; “disabled access” reminds us that “normal” people can walk up steps.
Understanding our embedded biases is crucial for citizens today because the complicated question of what is “normal” is one of the drivers of the disinformation and hate-as-free-speech that characterize our contemporary national conversation. Whether it arrives through social media, propaganda broadcast groups, Russian bots, or partisan websites, what we “know” as normal comes from the language we use.
Zerubavel explains, for example, that the controversial backlash over “Black Lives Matter” is a matter of ignorance or bad faith by those who complain that “All Lives Matter.” Obviously, he notes, all lives matter, but the explicit marking of “Black Lives” by the movement is a way of showing the tragic consequences of the assumption that “unmarked” — and therefore “normal” — Americans are white.
Indeed, race is one of the more obvious categories in which language betrays our presumptions. It’s certainly not the only one. American society labors not only under its racist past but also under its homophobia. At the start of Taken for Granted, Zerubavel cites Wayne Brekhus discussing his studies of suburban gays: “I was often asked if I am gay. No one ever asked, however, if I was suburban.”
As a professor of sociology in the United States, Zerubavel is focused on an immigrant society whose diversity precludes a simple definition of “normal.” As an immigrant and someone suffering from a debilitating illness, he has skin in the language game. As the riddle of the Sphinx makes clear — and as Lennard Davis, among others, reminds us — those of us able to walk are, at best, “temporarily abled.” Zerubavel tells us in the introduction that, during the writing of the book, he was diagnosed with Parkinson’s, so when he quotes Davis quoting a disabled activist who says, “Come back in twenty years and a lot of you will be with us,” there is special resonance to the utterance.
In every area of life there are norms, and we rapidly internalize the norms of our adopted societies so that we can “fit in.” Centuries of immigrants have wanted to be unmarked Americans. And yet, ironically, though waves of American immigrants — Irish, Jewish, German, Chinese — have striven to speak English, wear blue jeans, and salute the Stars and Stripes, the “normal” community they are trying to emulate, which is supposed to be a majority, can also, “as Somerset Maugham once quipped, […] be ‘the rarest thing in the world.’”
One only has to look at the March furor in Austin, Texas, to understand the power of assumptions. When local police chief Brian Manley labeled the series of package bomb attacks “domestic terrorism,” he faced the ire of those who tacitly believed that “terrorist,” “Arab,” and “Muslim” are synonyms. When politicians like Sarah Palin define people from “the real America” as post–Native American white immigrants, Zerubavel notes they are “effectively excluding […] recent immigrants […] and thereby ‘otherize’ such ‘abnormal’ Americans.” The lines are clearly drawn “Us: Americans” on the one side, “Them: Terrorists” on the other. Manley crossed these linguistic lines and sparked outrage.
In the book, Zerubavel also discusses attempts to correct the retrograde faults of our language. Sociologists, artists, and literary theorists have talked about doing this for centuries. When anthropologist Horace Miner first suggested looking at the strange habits of the Nacirema (“American” backward), he was trying, in Proustian parlance, to “possess other eyes.” When theorist Viktor Shklovsky identified the literary trope of “defamiliarization” and Bertolt Brecht referred to his theatrical praxis as employing “Verfremdungseffekt” — alienation effect — they were figuratively achieving what Marcel Proust suggested.
Zerubavel analyzes strategies for “unmarking the hitherto marked” and “marking the hitherto unmarked.” One way is to add what Zerubavel calls “semiotic superfluity.” This marks the unmarked by showing how we had assumed that a term included its qualifier. For example, by using the phrase “historically white colleges” we show our linguistic, sociological assumption that colleges are white and, in the same breath, “de-naturalize” the patronizing phrase “historically black colleges.” When our assumptions are brought to the surface, the results can be both funny and deeply sad:
[T]he most spectacular example of the comic subversion of andronormativity is the classic riddle about a fatal car accident in which the man driving the car dies on the spot and his son is rushed to a nearby hospital, where upon seeing him there a startled surgeon exclaims: “I can’t operate on my own son!” As Douglas Hofstadter describes this seemingly illogical puzzle,
What do you make of this grim riddle? How could it be? Was the surgeon lying or mistaken? No. Did the dead father’s soul somehow get reincarnated in the surgeon’s body? No. Was the surgeon the boy’s true father and the dead man the boy’s adopted father? No. What then is the explanation?
By far the simplest solution, of course, would be that the surgeon must therefore be the boy’s mother. Yet as I have come to realize after trying this riddle on friends and students and watching many of them failing to solve it, people often seem to find it difficult to invoke the image of a female surgeon, thereby exposing the taken-for-granted conventional assumption that the term surgeon actually implies a man.
In political discourse, efforts to upset such social assumptions are often contentious. As the controversy surrounding Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s calls for an Equal Rights Amendment showed earlier this year, seemingly uncontroversial beliefs and rights such as women’s equality in law are far from accepted. We can see proof of that assertion in the constellation of marked and unmarked phrases surrounding the gendered sphere of labor. Women’s paid work needs to be specifically labeled: the phrase “working mother” stands implicitly opposed to the semiotically superfluous “working father” (we assume men, thus fathers, work). And the way that we mark the hitherto unmarked in this sphere is with the phrase “stay-at-home mom.”
Taken for Granted is listed as being 160 pages in length, but over 60 of these pages are supporting notes and citations, which gives you a sense of how condensed the main text is, but also of how you might use it. The book is perhaps best treated as a primer on how language perpetuates and exacerbates social inequalities. It is thought-provoking and mind-opening in the way that a great college lecture can be. Though not free from clunky academic language, it is rich in insight and has the power to shift a reader’s worldview. Cramming #BlackLivesMatter, Marcel Proust, Luis Buñuel, and Stephen Colbert into fewer than 100 pages of dense sociology might suggest that Zerubavel is pandering to a hip general audience. But he isn’t. The very point of the book is that language is our common property, and its workings affect every level of society.
Just to demonstrate how relevant Zerubavel’s message is, here is a passage that might as well have been inspired by two African-American men getting arrested in Starbucks: “Social dominance, in short, involves the privilege of being considered ‘normal’ and thereby assumed by default and taken for granted.” As broad questions of racial, gendered, and religious intolerance are raised nationally by the exclusionary words and actions of the current administration as well as by the revelations of the ongoing Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements, the nation is searching for common ground. But a national conversation cannot take place until we have the tools for that dialogue, and this remarkable book shows us how to make the language we need.