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Tall Poppies and Birds of Paradise: addressing sexual harassment in Australian culture

Back in Toronto, I was friends with an Australian man. While he was a supportive and emotionally expressive friend, much of our daily banter consisted of ribbing each other, and much of that ribbing was of a sexual nature. If I went on a good date, he’d mock my “game.” If I got dressed up and put makeup on, he’d tease me about my looks. At the time, I thought this was strange – it reminded me of middle school gender dynamics, where the boys and girls who are crushing on one another tease each other relentlessly.

While I’ve only been in Sydney for a little over a month, I’m now able to put that relationship into a cultural context. It wasn’t about us – it’s the culture here. Australia suffers en masse from Tall Poppy Syndrome, a compulsion – possibly stemming from jealousy or from a desire to promote equality or camaraderie between different social strata – to put down successful or distinguished people.

We haven’t quite reached a Harry Bergeron dystopia, but I feel that this culture of put-downs and teasing limits all Australians – the mockers and the mockees. In fact, as I write this post, I can hear the critiques, “Don’t be so Canadian, mate…” and see the empathetic but resigned shrugs, “Get used to it, Aussie guys are assholes.” It limits discourse and makes authentic emotional connections difficult to achieve. It also promotes a culture of sexism and negativity. A weaker blogger might scrap the post in the face of this projected criticism but hey, if they want to call me a prudish or overly PC Canadian, so be it. I was raised to be proud of my cultural sensitivity and able to speak out when offended. And here, I am offended on an almost daily basis. I don’t want to be an average poppy or a wallflower. I want to be a bird of paradise!

I’ve been thinking about this phenomenon since I arrived, but today a friend’s facebook page featured a reaction to Sunday’s NY Times op-ed by Katie Roiphe, “In Favor of Dirty Jokes and Risqué Remarks.” Down under, the whole Herman Cain story was not on my radar, so I had some catching up to do. The American feminist blogosphere is outraged by Roiphe’s claim that a “smart, competent young professional woman” should laugh and shrug off unwanted sexual advances or inappropriate comments about her appearance, and that a workplace free of the risk of sexual harassment would be drab and quiet (because of course, there’s nothing else to laugh or chat about but your cubicle buddy’s boobs).

Roiphe criticizes the “weakness or blurriness” of the language that defines sexual harassment (uncomfortable, hostile, inappropriate) and prefers to euphemize sexual harassment by calling it “colourful.” As a high school English teacher, the issue of semantics was interesting, and indeed, addressing the “slippery” definition could be a productive exercise in a high school English or Law class. But this quote also piqued my interest:

A study recently released by the American Association of University Women shows that nearly half of students in grades 7 through 12 have experienced sexual harassment. Their definition is “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically.” Which would seem to include anyone who has been called a “whore” or “so hot” on Facebook, or is jokingly or not jokingly propositioned. (In other words, it’s surprising it’s only half.)

So the problem is the overly broad definition of “unwelcome sexual behavior that takes place in person or electronically,” not the prevalence of sexual harassment among teenage girls? Roiphe suspects that by this definition, the percentage should be much higher but immediately moves on, failing to address that even though every girl in the class might have been called flat, easy, or doable, the ubiquity of these comments does not make them excusable. Imagine telling my grade nine student whose friend jokingly called her a slut in the middle of English class, “What’s the problem? Just laugh it off. Now back to Merchant of Venice…hey, maybe you should read for Portia – that shallow ho-bag. Lol.”

I wonder what kind of language and behaviour Australian high school teachers allow. Does the ‘boys will be boys’ attitude apply in the classroom? The relentless sexual jokes in professional settings, and the general acceptance of them, seems to indicate that this is something Aussies have tolerated all their lives.

Frankly, I have been shocked by the way male and female colleagues treat one another here. It’s not just the comments about men being “distracted” by short skirts and cleavage. It’s not just the HR woman telling my senior manager friend that his Canadian accent is sexy.  It’s not just the office party binge drinking that often results in messy inter-office hook ups, sometimes with married bosses. It’s not just the female employees playing ‘who would you rather do?’ about their male colleagues over happy hour cocktails.

It’s the fact that, according to an Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade primer on the status of women, despite a relatively equal rate of education and 58% labour force participation, women hold only 12% of private sector management jobs and a mere 9% of board directorships. The Australian Human Rights Commission breaks it down:

Every year, sexual harassment in the workplace is one of the most common types of complaints received by the Commission under the Sex Discrimination Act. In 2009 – 2010, 21% of all complaints to the Australian Human Rights Commission were under the Sex Discrimination Act, and 88% of those complaints related to sex discrimination in the workplace. The wide use of new technologies such as mobile phones, email and social networking websites creates new spaces where sexual harassment may occur.

Sexual harassment at work is against the law. Sexual harassment can be committed by an employer, workmate or other people in a working relationship with the victim.

Sexual harassment can be a barrier to women participating fully in paid work. It can undermine their equal participation in organisations or business, reduce the quality of their working life and impose costs on organisations[2].

For my part, I will not “get used to it.” I will continue to let people know that I am uncomfortable with inappropriate comments. Last week I filed a complaint against a course facilitator who made derogatory remarks about women, Asians and Eskimos (sic). I will continue to tell my female Aussie friends that they don’t have to laugh, get drunk, or get liposuction to impress their male colleagues. And if I end up in a high school classroom here, I will do my best to encourage my female students to be birds of paradise and to grow tall and bright in a safe – and yes, a colourful – environment.

We all have special needs: teaching autism in english class

As a high school English teacher, the importance of using clear, precise, and respectful language is something I remind my students of all the time.  Before my grade 9s (ENG1D) begin their book club unit on the novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, I took the time in class to pause and think about the language we use when discussing the book’s protagonist, a 15-year-old boy with Asperger’s Syndrome named Christopher Boone. This was one specific goal, but in general, I wanted to raise some awareness in my class about Autism Spectrum Disorders (ASD).

The previous class, I had given the students a handout with background information about ASD and Asperger’s from Autism Canada, with a few questions to answer for homework. My random fact of the day, written on the board, was:

The WHO estimates that the rate of autism is growing at 14% around the world

We discussed why this statistic may be on the rise, and my students arrived on their own at the debate around the extent to which there is a higher incidence of autism or a higher diagnosis rate because of increased awareness of the disease.

Before the students came in, I had stuck one cue card on each of their desks with one of the following words written on each card:

Spazzer, Retard, Stupid, Mentally disabled, Autistic, Person with autism, Person with an ASD, Person with Asperger’s Syndrome, Asperger’s kid, Different, Special needs, Crip, Mong, Idiot savant, Slow, Different, Special , Sped, Handicapped , Weird, Idiot , Person with special needs

Some of these words were from the novel; some were from the schoolyard. I then drew a line on the board and asked the kids to quietly come up and stick their cue card somewhere along the line.

Offensive _________________________ Respectful

This led to a wonderfully productive discussion about the disorder, and about our use of language. As we discussed the words, I asked the students if they wanted to change the placement of any of the cue cards. I asked them questions like:

  • Which would be the most appropriate words to use when talking about Christopher?
  • Why is the language  we use so important when discussing these issues?
  • Why do some words that were OK at one time now offend people? Are there any words that used to be offensive but are now OK? (This led us to a discussion of words like “queer” and “the N word”)
  • Can a word be neutral in some contexts and offensive in others?

Students were eager to share their perspectives, including several stories about their own “special needs” and about friends or relatives who have autism.

I read a passage from the Chapter 71 of the novel:

All the other children at my school are stupid. Except I’m not meant to call them stupid, even though this is what they are. I’m meant to say that they have learning difficulties or that they have special needs… (Haddon 54).

We discussed the idea that everyone has special needs even if they don’t have Special Needs – and discussed the phrase “Normal is a dryer setting” – (also the title of a wonderful blog by Amy Wink Krebs,  a writer whose son has autism).

We ended up with all of the words beginning with “person” on one end of the line and drove home the point that a person with any sort of disability is a person first, and that they should not be labeled or defined by their disability. One student even suggested that I write “Christopher” beside “Respectful” because, indeed, the most respectful way to address a person with autism is by his or her name.

After quickly taking up the homework questions, the next activity delved into the language of the book, but still with an eye to empathizing with the challenges that everyday life poses to people with autism. I asked them how they would describe the author’s writing style (detailed, straightforward, simple words etc.).  I read an amusing passage from chapter 29 about why Christopher does not like metaphors:

The word “metaphor” means carrying something from one place to another . . . and it is when you describe something by using a word for something that it isn’t. This means that the word “metaphor” is a metaphor.

I think it should be called a lie because a pig is not like a day and people people do not have skeletons in their cupboards. And when I try and make a picture of the phrase in my head it just confuses me because imagining and apple in someone’s eye doesn’t have anything to do with liking someone a lot and it makes you forget what the person was talking about (Haddon 18-19).

We reviewed what similes and metaphors are, and I then gave them a handout about figurative speech:

An idiom is a word or phrase that is used figuratively in common speech to mean something other than its literal definition. Christopher has a hard time understanding idioms. Picture the idiom in its literal translation – this mental image might seem funny, but it could confuse and overwhelm a person with autism.

I began with the example, “I saw the school play last night. It was sick!”  I grossed them out by explaining that this could mean that everyone was sneezing all over each other and that the actors threw up on the audience. This led to a really cute impromptu comedy routine between me and the students, as they shouted out clarifications like, “No, I mean it was the bomb!” “The roof was on fire!” etc. For the rest of the period, they worked on creating straightforward, literal and direct statements out of commonly used idioms (here is the “Curious Idioms” handout).

It was a very successful lesson and I hope that today, as I observe my students’ book club discussions, I’ll see them thinking about their language and paying closer attention to the language of the text.