From the language-police blotter

Is it sexist to say that Hillary Clinton is trying to “claw her way” to the nomination? That Sen. Obama managed to “ram one of her lies back down her throat”? Would it be sexist to use the same images about Rudy Giuliani or John McCain?

Two posts yesterday attracted reader complaints about sex-biased language: one in which I speculated on what might happen if Sen. Clinton “clawed her way” to the nomination (which a friendly long-time correspondent found “sexist”), and another in which I credited Sen. Obama for “ramming a lie back down” Sen. Clinton’s throat (which a hostile first-time correspondent found “misogynist,” “rapey,” and “patriarchal.”) [In that case, the sentence expressed confidence that Sen. Obama would be able to treat Sen. McCain similarly.]

I’ve edited both posts. After all, a gentleman has been defined as someone who is never rude unintentionally, and I’m nothing if not a gentleman. And I’m completely sympathetic to the project of trying to clean up the linguistic remnants of old prejudices: our language does need policing. (George Will, that fierce enemy of the “politically correct language police,” would no doubt take offense if I referred to his “Mongoloid idiot son.” And he would be right to do so. But if we can and should learn to say “Down syndrome,” why can’t we and shouldn’t we learn to say “Native American” instead of “redskin”?)

But that doesn’t mean that every usage that someone finds offensive is actually offensive. I’m prepared to give most groups pretty complete control over how they’re labeled, and expressions such as “jew down” and “gyp” deserve to be retired. But “claw”? “Ram a lie down the liar’s throat”? I don’t see it. In particular, I don’t think anyone would have objected had I described Rudy Giuliani as attempting to “claw his way” to the Republican nomination or urging that someone cram George W. Bush’s latest lie down his throat. Does “claw” become sexist whenever it’s applied to a woman because cats have claws and women who fight (physically or verbally) are sometimes likened to cats? As to ramming someone’s lied back down his throat down someone’s throat (or making him eat his words), it seems to me a far fetch to jump from those phrases to an image of forced oral copulation.

There’s no doubt that Hillary Clinton has drawn hostility because she is female, and that some of that hostility has been expressed in grossly sexist language. (When a voter asked John McCain “How are you going to beat the bitch,” McCain made no objection.) But that doesn’t make every attack on Hillary Clinton a sexist attack. And to impute sexism to sex-neutral “claw” and “ram down a lie” simply because in a particular instance the target is female seems unreasonable. But I’m curious about the reaction of other readers.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: