The Social Construction of Language

BCN 126 cover

This originally appeared in BCN issue 126, August 2014

Do the words we use express or limit how we think – and what does that mean for bisexuality?

Bisexuality can certainly be considered a marginalised sexuality in that it is often insufficiently portrayed in works surrounding sexualities and when it is taken into account it is most often than not misrepresented as a crude amalgamation of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

Bisexuality can certainly be considered a marginalised sexuality in that it is often insufficiently portrayed in works surrounding sexualities and when it is taken into account it is most often than not misrepresented as a crude amalgamation of heterosexuality and homosexuality.

As much as advocates attempt to rid it of the profound negative connotations that coincide with thoughts surrounding bisexuality, it is still an identity which is portrayed as synonymous with greed, adultery and promiscuity. Are we not working hard enough to break the negative stereotypes or are we confined by something as simple as language? I tend to agree with the latter. Language is something which each one of us uses every single day without much thought as to where the words come from or why we seem to connect certain things together based on even a single word.

As human beings we rely on language and social interaction to create meanings and understandings of society and the individuals within it. Development of this language must be based around the development of meaning; Mead suggests that we use gestures and symbols to attribute meanings to objects, gestures and eventually words. The exchange of these gestures and symbols becomes a social act in which we all partake in order to interpret meanings and therefore construct knowledge of our social surroundings. When we take part in the social act of interaction we have been socialised to understand the initial gesture behind the interaction and therefore respond appropriately. The original gesture becomes a “significant symbol” as it elicits a particular idea within an individual to which one can respond to appropriately taking into account their interpretation.

Language within Western, English speaking countries is highly diversified throughout even different areas of the same country but what most if not all have in common is that this language is evolved from a predominantly heteronormative patriarchal society, it is therefore of paramount importance to acknowledge this and attempt to rectify the negative impact that this has on non-heteronormative sexualities; particularly bisexuality.

Social Constructionism argues that knowledge and language are entirely inseparable as language provides the fundamental basis for understanding knowledge. Therefore, if we are to change the perceptions of non-heteronormative sexualities we must first understand how those perceptions have come to fruition through language.

When a specific gesture provokes the same notion in another individual as it has in the speaking individual it is then deemed ‘language’. This therefore means that language does not necessarily have to employ the spoken word, it is only compulsory that the meanings attributed to any gesture are upheld by the majority within a community.

Despite this, in most Western societies language is most often thought of as the vocalisation of opinions and ideas; not only because we view it the most clear of all communication but also because it allows us to self reflect upon hearing ourselves allowing for the  use of the correct response in a given situation. It is this self reflection and the ability to review our own responses that allows for the unconscious production of a dominant ideology as we give a greater weight to what we think is the correct response given our current environment rather than how we would like to respond.

As a result, a dominant societal ideology is created subconsciously but is regularly reaffirmed throughout society and becomes ingrained in the fundamental building blocks of language as we know it. The maintenance of the dominant ideology is maintained via social construction and the socialisation of individuals from birth; supporting the view that language is community constructed and maintained in the interests of a dominant system of ‘knowledge’. The dominant ideology in this case being heteronormative patriarchy which is instilled in us from birth and maintained throughout our socialisation; in our education systems and through many of the institutions we come into contact with throughout our lives. This then produces a language which can be seen to be in the best interests of heteronormativity, with non-heteronormative language becoming synonymous with abnormality, negativity and deviance.

To understand how the dominant ideology can be seen to take effect on an individual’s use of language from such an early age we must understand how language can allow us to establish ideas surrounding objects or gestures that we have no personal experience of. Due to our relationship with meaning and the way in which we understand meaning based on reaction and reflection it becomes relatively simple to gain an understanding of something without having to have experience of it; the response of an individual is directly correlated to the behaviour promoted by the individual initiating the interaction.  This is clearly advantageous in the early development as a child as it allows for an understanding of everyday things that will become vital to the growth of that child and its understanding of the society around it, however, since this process is not restricted to early development it can be argued that ‘symbolisation’ and often our reliance on it when constructing meaning and therefore knowledge allows for a dominant ideology of heteronormativity to be reproduced throughout society.  The ignorance that has ridiculed non-heteronormative sexualities has over Centuries been embedded into society and therefore into the language used to discuss such sexualities.  In terms of bisexuality then, the language that surrounds its discussion has been produced through a heteronormative lens and therefore carries with it the negative connotations which I am sure we are all familiar with.

However, this does not mean that there is no end in sight and that we are destined to a lifetime of scorn and uneasiness. Bisexuality cannot accept its definition as it currently stands doing so would be to accept the negativity and stigmatisation that surrounds it. In order to change we must evoke what Mead terms “rational conduct”; an individual has the ability to isolate particular stimuli in an object in order to differentiate it from another using personal experiences. This therefore means that we are not all confined to the entrenched thought process we see throughout society produced by the dominant ideology. In order to change the negative stereotypes that surround bisexuality we must exercise our rational conduct in all that we do and encourage others to do the same. In order to achieve this it is vital that we continue to contribute to the  debates that surround bisexuality, whether that be through sharing experiences with others, contributing to the academic literature surrounding bisexuality or any other form of advocation of our sexual identity; it is only in doing so can we make an autonomous change in the way that society views sexuality and particularly bisexuality.

E. L. Smith