i’ve been thinking lately (on language, 1984 and the ‘bakla’)

I’ve been thinking more and more lately about language, and specifically their role in the formation of ideas and the creation of avenues of discourse. This won’t be a cohesive opinion, because I just want this out of my chest. I’ve been thinking too much.

In Orwell’s 1984, the idea of crimethink (which exists in vernacular as thoughtcrime) was popularized. It is, in fact, one of my favorite words in existence ever (a fact which I’m just sharing now for fun). It defines something that does exist in the real world and yet can obviously lead to harmful censorship and oppression in its most exhaustive extent, as seen in the celebrated novel.

My dictionary defines it as:

an instance of unorthodox or controversial thinking, considered as a criminal offense or as socially unacceptable

In the book, it covers mainly those thoughts which are against the government and against the kind of order the state promotes. Any thoughts which feature dissent, individuality and creativity are criminalized. (In 1984, topnotch surveillance and psychological profiling enabled authorities to pinpoint who was thinking what, even without explicit verbalization of such ideas).

Another favorite newspeak word of mine is crimestop. Crimestop describes the way people in 1984 would deliberately not think of something if they realize or feel that that “something” is dangerous, illegal or harmful. It’s like purposefully not thinking of the elephant, which they can do, just so that they don’t commit crimethink.

The discipline required to ignore budding ideas or the slope to radical ideas comes in different degrees of difficulty for some people. In the novel, majority of the people are able to accept two obviously contradicting ideas as true through a lot of compartmentalization and maybe apathy. This is described by another favorite word of mine: doublethink. In the real world, people who accept two conflicting ideas as true usually do feel some stress the moment they realize the contradiction. This is the basis of cognitive dissonance. 

Lastly. In 1984, newspeak was created and taught in such a way that any form of idea generation, creativity, dissent and opposition would not exist. Words are short and meanings are limited, so that people are less encouraged to think. It is difficult for people to name and address the grievances they feel when there are no words to describe and name them. Abuse, therefore, can go on unchecked because no one knows what abuse even is, much less that it is a bad and immoral thing.

Newspeak has come to general usage. It describes any attempt to restrict disapproved language (though for some reason my dictionary says otherwise).

As individuals cannot process anything that can destabilize the structure, society itself cannot affect the structure. When words like liberty, freedom and revolution are eradicated by newspeak, movements concerning liberty, freedom and revolution are eradicated from the realm of possibility. Ideas cannot spread when the ideas cannot take a tangible, definitive verbal form. 

But anyway, that isn’t the point of this long and rambling musing. Actually there is no effective transition here. I’m just talking about a lot of things.

The development of ideas and the spread of discourse is therefore contingent on the availability of precise and inclusive language. Words are a necessary vehicle for the dissemination of thought and the conversion of thought to idea to argument to action. 

What I’ve been thinking about lately is the state of gender politics in the Philippines, and specifically the role of local language in its development. 

The English language is adamant in its linguistic precision in discussing queer theory and feminist lit. In usual discourse, for example, the main beneficiary of patriarchal institutions are not just men, but are rather specifically cis heterosexual white men. This automatically excludes anyone else of any other combination, i.e. trans heterosexual white men, cis homosexual white men, cis heterosexual black men, cis heterosexual white women and especially trans non-heterosexual women of color are oppressed by patriarchal institutions.

This is precision in language, and it allows for the dismantling and creation of new principles. It tells us clearly the intersectionality of the issues: how do we protect the rights of trans people? non-heterosexual people? people of color? women?

And these questions are only possible because the English language has defined those terms in the first place, alongside other ideas like femininity, masculinity, gender binaries and non-binaries, spectrums and so on.

The Filipino language is not as precise. Sex and gender are generally conflated into one: kasarian, which can either be male (lalaki) or female (babae).

There are only four commonly used Filipino words to describe sexual orientation, sexual identity and even gender. They are bakla or bading for gay men. For lesbian women, the words are tibo or tomboy. 

But the failure of the Filipino language is in its ambiguity and fluidity. It fails to recognize intersectionality.

The word bakla is not actually used to define just gay men. More popularly, it actually describes a third gender of people who are born male but may crossdress, display conventionally feminine traits, and may or may not be gay or transgendered. There are even pageants. The problem here is that there are no other words for all of those entirely different things. Bakla combines all of these distinct identities: the heterosexual man, the crossdresser, the male effeminate, the flamboyant man, the trans woman. Any and all of the above become one in the Filipino language.

This is the same for the word tomboy. It conflates the trans man, the lesbian woman, the boyish girl, the gender neutral and all other combinations possible. When we see a girl with a short haircut, we immediately say tomboy! and the immediate assumption is her homosexuality and possibly transgendered identification. When in fact we could say boyish (though really, we shouldn’t either).

What does this mean? Because of the lack of words to define subsets and intersections, generalizations that attack identities and misconstrue people more readily occur. A man can be gay without crossdressing or being flamboyant. A male to female trans person can be transsexual or transgender, and she can also be a lesbian. The flamboyant man or male effeminate can choose to deviate from gender roles and still be heterosexual. Or bisexual. Or ambisexual. And so on.

It then becomes easy for people to assume others’ identities without cause, and to label (and then discriminate or bully) more feminine men or trans people as gay, or gay people as trans, or whichever way you want to run it. The point is that generalizations like these become an attack on the way people self-define, because possibly false assumptions are necessarily attached to the word that identifies them. 

And it means, then, that the limitations of vocabulary prevent the oppressed from articulating their oppression. The encompassing label of bakla or tomboy, while untrue in all of its nuances, becomes automatic and irreplaceable. Even though the experiences of a trans woman and a masculine-presenting gay man are vastly different, they are equated to one another and so are diminished of their actual values in discourse.

When discussions on sex and gender come up, bakla becomes an umbrella term for the rights and perceptions of every queer man, when that is obviously not the case. The visibility of the likes of Vice Ganda, for example, doesn’t do anything for the non-flamboyant gay person. And while BB Gandanghari can represent trans women, her representation as the bakla misaligns with other possible identities.

The ability of people to be represented in media suffers because of this generalization. And this representation directly translates to the likelihoods of acceptance in society.

A person can say “I’m not that kind of bakla!

And people can reply “Then what are you?”

And of course the person can reply however they want, but it will be too long of a description and explanation. Or it would be in English.

The existence of unnamed, immaterial and opposing identities that do not agree with the socially accepted definition of bakla or tibo then creates spaces for misunderstanding and antagonism. People fear what they do not understand, what they cannot name, and what they are unfamiliar with.

When people begin to accept the notion of the tomboy as the masculine lesbian woman,as that is the ultimate and most apparent representation used in media and discourse, it becomes difficult to even think about the feminine lesbian or the gay trans man. I have met people who were absolutely gobsmacked at the simple notion of a feminine lesbian woman or a masculine gay man. The idea is outside the ability of the language to articulate. Later on, people will learn to reject anyone claiming to be a lesbian who doesn’t come with the no-skirt-wearing, no-make-up, show-me-tattoos look. We create outliers and superminorities in already oppressed minorities.

Ultimately, the answer to “how do you identify yourself?” cannot be conceived and perceived, because in the Filipino language, it does not exist. 

And so on.


I will never have thoughts again. This opinion is now 1400 words long. I will rest my useless case.

You know, this took me more or less an hour to write, but the 1200-word essay I need to write for a contest still isn’t finished, and I’ve had literal weeks to finish that. Ugh. I mean, this isn’t technically an essay, but it’s got lots of thesis statements in it.

That is all.

Good night.

EDIT 14.Jul.2015 for grammatical errors.

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