I love Sheryl Sandberg's Lean In organization. And I understand part of an organization's role involves spreading the word about its mission, sometimes by any means necessary. But Sandberg's latest media push with Girl Scouts CEO Anna Maria Chávez and former secretary of state Condoleezza Rice -- a proposed ban on the word "bossy," which she feels derides a trait in girls that is lauded in boys -- falls into the same trap similar campaigns did. Basically, a ban on any word is an infringement on the right to free speech.
I'm not saying Sandberg's wrong about how differently girls and boys are treated. She's quite right, in fact. I won't rehash Lean In's proof, but we've all seen the stats and studies showing this to be the case. So, bravo to Sandberg, Rice and Chávez for attempting to address this injustice.
But ban the behavior, not a word.
About the Ban Bossy fervor, Jill Krause of Baby Rabies said, "How about we focus on teaching our girls self worth and independence and not internalizing words. Because, sadly, 'bossy' is one of the most benign that will be thrown at them."
Or as Zach Rosenberg of 8BitDad put it, "It's all a lot more complicated than a word."
Banning words is like banning books one word at a time. When you tell me to exorcise a word from my vernacular, you are removing one tiny piece of that large and vital freedom, which, by the way, is the same one Sandberg used to make her pitch.
Now, I understand the people behind the Ban Bossy campaign really don't think they'll ever kill the word. It's just to drum up exactly the type of attention they're getting. For me, however, the messaging and implication of banning words shifts my focus from the intended topic. No matter how much I agree or disagree with a stance, free speech trumps everything. I love freedom of speech. I love it so much I want to write it a sonnet using banned words, the kind that'll make flowers wilt and Christians faint.
Look, one day, my boys will drop the f-bomb, probably during a visit with the grandparents or in front of the school principal. When that happens, I will reiterate the lesson I've been telling them since they grasped language: "Words are powerful, so use them appropriately. There's a time and a place for all words." I'll address their behavior, ask why they used it and what they thought might happen. I'll show them how they might have chosen a better word or phrase to achieve their goal. But, I won't tell them to never use it, because sometimes, you just need to. (Hell, liberal use of the f-bomb did me quite well last year.)
Rather than banning it, we can teach girls to own it, leaving us free to use it when and how we want. Mother of two Christina Berube said, "My daughter (5) has been called an alpha female since age 2. Thankfully, she is in a preschool where strong girls are admired and encouraged. I understand that her bossiness has an upside, and we are working to build up that strength--something I think could lead to leadership skills." And she added, "When my daughter orders my son around like some kind of hired plaything and begins every command with a contradictory 'NO' to his ideas, she's not showing leadership skills, she's showing dictatorship skills. She's just f*&^%ing bossy."
Besides, trying to ban the word "bossy" seems kinda bossy. Doesn't it?
The great misstep with this campaign and others like it is suggesting, even in jest, that we limit one freedom to solve a problem. Ban Bossy is just a marketing slogan, a string of words meant to serve a purpose. Unfortunately, rather than attract attention, they've driven the discussion to an entirely different issue -- one that will be debated hotly with words of all kinds by many, many bossy people.