Labels can be useful. Without them we wouldn’t know what’s in file folders or cans, whether food contains ingredients we’re allergic to, or whether we should launder or dry-clean our clothes.
But words, images, signs and symbols that describe and categorize people – that separate one group from another – are also labels. They can be positive, but usually they’re not. Harmful labels can spark judgment and result in stereotypes and biases, fuelling prejudice and discrimination.
The stakes are high because lives can be altered. It’s crucial to be aware, to consider the hidden meaning behind labels, their underlying messages. Semiotics is the social science that studies the nature of meaning, the symbolism communicated by objects and words. Semiotics decodes.
You don’t have to be a semiotician to understand the influence that words, signs, symbols and even gestures and body language have. We’ve all probably experienced this personally. Nevertheless, we see evidence all around us, thanks to constant media coverage, advertising, films and the like.
Labels can fuel prejudice
Our generation has witnessed how, for instance, racist and sexist remarks have promoted racism and sexism – examples of how derogatory, divisive language can fuel damaging and dangerous social “isms.” Isms that single out, judge, victimize, oppress and change lives.
In his 2017 paper, “Culture, Prejudice, Racism and Discrimination,” John R. Baldwin, professor of communication at Illinois State University, explains: “Discrimination and racism can occur through communicative behaviour. … These might include jokes, statements (e.g., about the inferiority or backwardness of a group), or slurs or names for people of another group … .”
Think about it. Not that long ago, smashed windows after a home-town sports team wins resulted in headlines labelling young white men as “out-of-control fans” and black men as “gang members.” Worse than the words is their negative impact and how that affects every aspect of black people’s lives.
There was a time when such language and its connotations would have gone unnoticed and unchallenged. But since activists called attention to it by protesting such labelling, racist overtures are no longer swept under the rug. Instead, they have given rise to a new civil rights movement: The battle isn’t over yet, but it’s a start. As a whole, society is now more educated, aware and intolerant of racism – and only good can come from that.
Negative stereotyping and its language also affect women.
In their paper, “Gender Bias and Sexism in Language,” Michela Menegatti and Monica Rubini, professors with the Department of Psychology, University of Bologna, write: “Language is one of the most powerful means through which sexism and gender discrimination are perpetrated and reproduced.”
They explain how “gender stereotypes are activated by gender-related words even in unprejudiced people who do not endorse the stereotype,” and that “personal characteristics that are assigned to women and … men are generally expressed in trait terminology.”
For years, ambitious men were considered “management material,” while their female counterparts were described as “aggressive” or “pushy.” Just words? The study “Women in the Workplace,” from LeanIn.Org and McKinsey & Company, finds that even today, while equal numbers of men and women want to be promoted, “at the first critical step up to manager, women are 18 percent less likely to be promoted than their male peers.”
Language matters. It can empower and inspire, but it can also insult, misrepresent and pigeonhole. Its detrimental effect can be long lasting and have life-changing consequences. Once an expression is ingrained in popular culture, it can be difficult (but not impossible) to erase. That’s why every word matters.
The universal “ism”
In terms of discrimination, an “ism” is defined as a prejudice on the basis of a specified attribute. Depending on your point of view, there are hundreds, if not thousands, of “isms,” most of which have little or no impact on most of us. Racism, sexism, classism, ableism and anti-Semitism are among the more commonly known “isms,” and even if we haven’t suffered their consequences, we understand their significance.
But the one “ism” that can affect every human – regardless of race, gender, religion, nationality or social status – is ageism. We’re all going to age. It’s inevitable.
Globally, there are an estimated 962 million people age 60-plus, according to the United Nations. By 2050, that number is expected to more than double to nearly 2.1 billion and jump to 3.1 billion by 2100: The 60-plus population is growing faster than all younger age groups.
So ageism should concern us all. And, in the same way as we shun racist and sexist remarks, we should also check our own use of ageist language.
Calling older people “needy” or “over the hill” and using phrases such as “you can’t teach an old dog new tricks” aren’t encouraging and should be removed from our vocabulary. We may think we’re being complimentary when we say, “you look great … for your age,” but it’s condescending and creates a double standard.
It implies it’s okay to expect less from older people – and it’s a quick trip from expecting less to thinking less. Once our worth is questioned, we’re at risk of being treated differently – which can affect us in significant and far-reaching ways.
Labels influence behaviour
There are valid socio-economic concerns when it comes to the world’s aging population. But as Andrea Charise, PhD, argues, the metaphors, words and images that roll so easily off our tongues and dominate headlines are dehumanizing and dangerous. Charise, assistant professor of English at the new Interdisciplinary Centre for Health & Society (ICHS) at the University of Toronto, Scarborough, is both a literary scholar and a geriatric medical researcher, giving her a unique perspective on the relationship between the humanities, health and medicine.
In her podcast, Rising Tide, Grey Tsunami: Charting the History of a Dangerous Metaphor, for the Canadian Geriatrics Society, she delves into the damaging role everyday speech can play in the quality of care and dignity that older people receive and the way society values them.
“‘Grey’ is a reference to aging, by way of hair colour, and ‘tsunami’ is a Japanese word referring to a large ocean wave – one that causes extreme destruction,” she says of the accepted “shorthand that refers to the socio-economic threat posed by population aging.”
“Grey tsunami” is now a phrase so common, so embedded in our culture, that a Google search turns up more than 14 million results.
“When we use the term ‘grey tsunami,’ we’re training people to think about aging in a certain way,” says Charise. “It helps create a narrative not just of decline, but of catastrophe around aging. When we have a phrase like that circulating in our society, it’s very difficult to think of aging populations as anything but a disaster.”
But it’s not just words that depict aging as a time of life to be faced with fear and dread. A picture is worth a thousand words.
An AARP (formerly, American Association of Retired Persons) video – What Is Old? – is a powerful illustration of how people internalize these messages and create labels or negative stereotypes.
In the video, when Millennials were asked to show what “old” looks like, one shuffled; another hunched her back and mimicked someone with a walker; and another seemed confused while trying to send a text message. When asked what age they consider to be “old,” the answer was “40, late 40s, maybe 50.”
Do these descriptions remind you of any 40-, 50- or 60-year-olds you know? Categorizing and describing those of us over 50 as frail, inadequate, past our prime or a cause for concern is not limited to young people like those in the video – it’s a widespread phenomenon, and most people don’t even balk at such labels.
Look at these common life-cycle symbols. Playing with our children one minute, needing a cane the next and it’s downhill from there – in a wheelchair, bed-bound and dead. We’re being counted out before we’ve really gotten started.
Once we understand the meaning and implications, it’s easy to see how language (visual and linguistic) can shape attitudes and affect our lives.
The semiotics of aging
“Semioticians don’t take words at face value. We deconstruct them and bring them to public attention,” says Marcel Danesi, PhD, a professor of semiotics and linguistic anthropology at the University of Toronto. “When people begin to understand, they can change, form new opinions and become more tolerant.”
If you’re thinking this sounds like an “ism” miracle cure, it’s not. According to Danesi, “Semioticians aren’t ‘solvers.’ We look at trends in everyday things – television, websites, advertising – and, like diagnosticians, we identify the malaise and point it out.”
Semioticians are our eyes and ears, our guides to understanding. How we process the information, what we do with it, is up to us.
Professor Danesi’s reference to advertising brings to mind the fashion and beauty industries. For years they had us believe we couldn’t be too thin and that aging was something we should fight. Now, women are speaking out, and mindsets and messages are changing. Forget anti-aging; today it’s about ageless beauty.
But there’s more work to be done. In children’s books, for instance, older women are still shown to be plump, with white hair in a bun, wearing an apron, baking cookies or using a cane. And how about the “old woman” emoji on your smartphone?
Frank Nuessel, PhD, a professor of modern languages and linguistics at the University of Louisville, has been researching, studying, writing and teaching about ageism since 1982. He agrees that harmful stereotyping with words and symbols starts early and takes root. “We’re teaching children to acquire negative images they will carry with them their entire lives – we’re recruiting them to become part of an ageist society.”
Alarmingly, we’re doing the same with medical students. In a study of medical journals, Nuessel found that “aging is represented with drawings or photographs of people who look severely debilitated.”
Misconceptions about aging are reflected in popular culture – and that’s not good.
It’s disturbing how easily and quickly ageist language can find its way into popular culture and become “normal” and “acceptable.”
Such normalization lays the foundation for negative impressions and attitudes that result in discrimination – which can impact everything from our getting jobs and proper healthcare, to being valued, respected and fully contributing members of society – not to mention what it does to our self-esteem.
As for the speed with which language finds its way into popular culture, Nuessel explains: “Thanks to the Internet, computers, smartphones and other devices, we are literally bombarded with messages of every kind, constantly and in real time.” But the good news is, if our accelerated world makes it possible for ageist language to become part of our daily lexicon in the blink of an eye, the same should hold true for positive messages.
And the most powerful message we can send is the statement we make by being positive ourselves.
When we see lifelines, not wrinkles. When we refer to ourselves as the wise generation instead of the geriatric generation. When we reject the negative labels and stereotypes and give aging a new look and a new name. When we’re living proof that getting older doesn’t mean getting old, and society has no choice but to catch up to a new reality – a reality of our making.
It was Søren Kierkegaard who said, “Once you label me, you negate me.” We can make sure it doesn’t happen to us.