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Isn’t it great that society has reached such a highly evolved, sophisticated level that we don’t burn books anymore, like the narrow minded moralizers of the past? We’re all about diversity of opinion and the right of free expression.
Uh, well, not so much, actually. Today we “burn” words.
It started with those words deemed hateful, that were dehumanizing or degrading to certain minority groups. We all know what they are – the N-word for African Americans, the F-word for homosexuals, the R-word for the developmentally disabled. They’re banned unless the members of the group decide to use them. These days the rest of us can get fired or even charged with a crime for saying them.
That’s never enough for those who claim they just want a more civil and sensitive society, who really are the current, politically correct version of the thought police. They believe that by controlling what we say, they can control what we think.
So, they have moved from hateful terms to banning those they consider merely “negative” or “discouraging.” Hence the fawning cover story in Parade magazine this past week celebrating the campaign by a number of America’s “most dynamic leaders” - including Facebook Chief Operating Officer Cheryl Sandberg, former Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez - to ban the word “bossy.”
As writer Lynn Sherr helpfully explained, the word is “a negative label they say is too often applied to young girls, and one of the many ways we discourage them from speaking up.”
OK, it is definitely a negative label. I don’t think I’ve ever heard “bossy” used as a compliment. But there were no statistics offering any proof that the term is applied more often to young girls than to anyone else.
And, as dynamic as these leaders are, they are apparently missing the fact (and yes, plenty of statistics support this) that education at all levels over the past several decades has become more friendly to females than males. The proof is in the results: There are now more women than men getting college degrees, and there will soon be more women than men getting advanced degrees.
They are apparently also missing the rampant encouragement and celebration of young girls “speaking up.” Perhaps my Northeast newspapers and television stations are outliers, but they are loud and constant supporters of young girls speaking out and taking the lead in just about anything.
It apparently also escapes them that a group of successful, powerful women dictating to the rest of us what we can and can’t say could be considered, uh, bossy.
I’m especially worried about one of my favorite comediennes – Tina Fey, of “Saturday Night Live” and “30 Rock” fame. Does this mean that all copies of her book “Bossypants” are going to get pulled from the shelves? Or can females use it without fear of sanction?
More seriously, there are so many problems here that it is hard to know where to start.
Hundreds - perhaps thousands - of words in the language are negative or discouraging. Do these women want to ban them all or just those that they perceive are aimed primarily at young girls?
It is likely that this campaign will undermine their message – that girls should be encouraged to be strong leaders. How does it help to imply that they are so fragile that being called bossy is enough to wreck their career aspirations?
They also give the word more malignancy than it deserves. “Bossy” does not seek to dehumanize an entire race or those of a sexual identity. It is just a complaint about a person’s attitude or actions, generally aimed at those who are trying to assert authority they don’t possess.
A boss has the right to tell employees what to do. A peer – friend, colleague, classmate or acquaintance – doesn’t. Those who give orders they have not earned the right to give deserve to be called bossy. You have the right to persuade, not to dictate.
There is also an unsettling undercurrent of sexism here – reverse sexism, I guess, since it is aimed at males.
In the Parade interview, Chávez praised her mother for, “instead of teaching me how to cook, (she) taught my brothers how to cook, and me how to run a board meeting.” This, in her view, was a good thing, while the reverse would have been a bad thing.
If she was really interested in an “even playing field for everyone,” a claim she made elsewhere in the interview, she would have wanted her mother to teach all her children, male and female, to cook and run a board meeting.
The most troubling element here is that being bossy, even when you’re a boss, is not good leadership. It’s being a jerk.
The message in books on leadership everywhere is that the best empower their employees, lead by example, inspire people to do their best and make employees feel invested in the culture and mission of an enterprise. They don’t dictate and browbeat people – the classic behaviors that prompt people to call someone else bossy.
The way to encourage young women to become good leaders is to set a good example for them. Banning words is the bossy way to do it.
Taylor Armerding is an independent columnist. Contact him at email@example.com