Last time, I wrote that Counterclockwise—Mindful Health and the Power of Possibility by Ellen J. Langer reinforced my belief that the words we think, speak and write can become self-fulfilling prophecies. [If you have not yet read that last post, please do so now.]

Common health care terminology can make it harder to stay healthy. Langer discusses the difference between the way we speak about cancer versus the common cold. If we catch a cold, then, get well again, we speak—and therefore think—of the cold as gone or cured. If we get similar symptoms again, we speak—and think—of that as a new and different cold. Yet, a cold is a virus, and a virus can lie dormant and “come back.” We don’t know if the second cold is a new and different virus or the old virus reasserting itself.

But the mindset of having “gotten rid of” one cold gives us confidence that we can also beat each additional cold. And most experts agree confidence and hope facilitate recovery from any disease.

If a person has cancer, then, gets rid of all signs and symptoms, we say the cancer is “in remission.” Even if the remission lasts ten years, we still call it “remission,” not “cure.” This instills a mindset that the cancer is still there waiting for a chance to raise its ugly head again. What does this mindset do to the all-important confidence of the patient?

If we take an aspirin for a headache, then, feel better, we think of the headache as “gone.” But if we take an anti-depressant, then, feel better, we are still considered “depressed.” You don’t have to be a scientist to sense how being labeled as “depressed” could make you feel depressed. Langer similarly questions terms such as “recovering alcoholic,” and even the word “patient.”

She shows us how various mindsets contribute to ageism—the tendency for younger people to assume that the elderly are less capable than they might be and to treat them accordingly. Worse, those same mindsets cause the elderly persons themselves to become less capable—the self-fulfilling prophecy. [See Part I]

Here again, Counterclockwise reinforces something I have long believed: our language supports, not only ageism, but many other forms of prejudice. I can’t write about what it’s like to live with language-enabled racism or homophobia because I’m white and heterosexual. Indeed, if I tried to write about those things, I’d offend people of color and homosexuals.

But I can write about how language and iconography enable sexism. So, let’s play pretend. Think of a little boy you care about. He can be a little boy currently, or a man you knew as a boy. If you are a man, he can be you as a child.

Now imagine that little boy had to grow up in a society where:

  • Our species is often called “woman” or “womankind.”
  • The boy constantly hears the expression, “Women, men and children.”
  • When he plays cards, a queen outranks a king.
  • Most people, when speaking or writing about a person of unknown gender, use the pronouns “she” and “her.”
  • If the boy complains to his English teacher about this use of pronouns, she tells him, “It’s OK. It’s just a convenient way to speak. We know ‘she’ can mean a woman or man.”
  • In monotheism, god is presented as female.
  • If the boy complains to a priest, she tells him, “It’s OK. We know that god has all the best attributes of both female and male. It’s just a a convenient way to speak.”
  • The boy says to the priest, “OK. We’ve had a Bible all these years that makes god a woman. Turn about is fair play. What if we revise the Bible to make god a man and leave it that way for an equal number of years?” The priest says, “Oh, no. We can’t change the bible. It’s the word of god.” And of course, women wrote all the books that other women decided should be included in the Bible, and women decreed that the Bible is the unalterable word of god.
  • The boy thinks, Maybe I can be a priest when I grow up and teach people a better concept of god. But he can’t because the women priests have decreed that men can’t be priests.
  • There was a time in history when a woman’s spouse and children were considered her property, and thus, given her surname. Nowadays, if the boy grows up and marries, he will still be expected to take his wife’s surname.
  • All grown women are addressed as “Mrs.” But men are called “Master” if unmarried (like property still on the shelf) and “Mister” if married (belonging to someone else).
  • A few years ago, men tried to correct the above by coining the honorific “Mizter” to refer to any man, whether married or not. However, women simply substituted “Mizter” for “Master,” and continued labeling men in accord with their marital status—“Mizter” for single men and “Mister” for married men.

The boy is exceptional. Rather than giving up, as so many boys do, he tries to tell people how all this affects him by listing the above bullet points. He has more examples to cite, but a woman interrupts him, “OK. You’ve made your point. You don’t have to go on and on.” But that woman does not get the point because the point is that the list does go on and on and on and on. The point is how totally the message, that men have lower status than women, saturates this hypothetical society.

How do you think that little boy would turn out? How would he think of himself? How much confidence would he have? What would be his career prospects? And for that matter, how would a girl turn out after growing up in such a society? How will the boy’s future wife likely treat him?

Now put the insight you gained from this pretend game together with the fact that “women’s issues” is a misleading term because the issues in question don’t just affect women; they affect the entire society. As I have written before, the single best thing a society can do to improve the well being of all its members is to improve the status and well being of women–for sociological reasons as well as for improvement in human interactions.

You can help everyone in our real-life society by becoming more mindful about the way you speak, and even the terms in which you formulate your thoughts. Go back over the bullet list above and ask yourself what changes you will make in the language you use.