Context is Everything
I am thrilled to be guest-blogging for Concurring Opinions for the month of August. For my first post, I thought I would draw your attention to an interesting case out of the Seventh Circuit last month. In Passananti v. Cook County, the court considered a hostile work environment sexual harassment claim brought by an investigator for the Cook County Sheriff’s Department. The primary issue on appeal was whether the “frequent and hostile use of the word ‘bitch’ [was] a gender-based epithet that contributed to a sexually hostile work environment.” In other words, is “bitch” always sexist?
Putting aside the use of the word in dog-training circles, you might be wondering how this word could possibly not be sexist? It turns out that the Seventh Circuit, in a prior case, actually concluded that the use of the word was not based on sex but rather on personal animosity that “arose out of an earlier failed relationship between the plaintiff and the harasser.”
But in Passananti, the Seventh Circuit reversed the lower court, finding that the mere use of the term in this case, without other gendered words, is sufficient for a finding of sexual harassment. And the court, quite reasonably, pointed out that “when gender-specific language is used in the workplace . . . context is key.” A laudable approach until you look one step further at the specific context that the court looked to for help here: “The jury heard testimony that Sullivan used the word “bitch” regularly in reference to the plaintiff. He did not use the word in jest, but instead used it together with his threats against Passananti’s employment.” Not exactly convincing. We are supposed to understand that the term is gendered because he didn’t use it in jest and was threatening her employment?
Most of us would agree that the supervisor’s use of the word “bitch” in this case was gender-derogatory for one simple reason: he is a man, using a gendered word, against a woman, and there is no other explanation for its use. Can the term have different meanings in other contexts? Absolutely. When women use it amongst themselves, for one, the term can be endearing or playful. But it is rarely benign when spoken by a man and directed at a woman. But nowhere in the court’s lengthy discussion of context does this simple truth appear. Why is the court so hesitant to name this reality – that linguistic meaning is the product of multiple contextual factors, including, importantly, the identity of the speaker?
I’ll save additional discussion and some possible answers for a later post. Suffice it to say, I am thinking a lot about this question right now and have just posted a draft of my article on the topic on SSRN. I’ll discuss the article in a later post but for now here’s the link to The N-Word at Work: Contextualizing Language in the Workplace.