The Ethical Dilemma: We Can’t Say ‘Bossy’ Anymore?

Who Says We Can’t Say “Bossy”? I just discovered a star-studded new campaign with celebrities (mostly female) telling people not to use the word “bossy” anymore, particularly when referring to girls.

Although I greatly admire many of the people who participated in this ad, I can’t get behind their mission. I think there’s nothing wrong with using the word bossy to mean what it means—being overbearing in telling others what to do or think or say (see any irony here?). We are advised to substitute other words, such as “leader”—but you can be a leader without being bossy and bossy without being a leader. There are times when bossy is exactly the right word.

I think these people are being really bossy themselves. Do I need to be punished?

—Not the Boss of Me

Dear Boss,

Can’t agree with you more! In the never-ending series of Words That Cannot Be Spoken or Written, this one seems to have just come out of the blue. I had no idea, until that ad debuted, that “bossy” is now a slur used to keep girls in line. Last I checked (a few decades ago), the word was also five letters and started with b but rhymed with witch, and was applied to women who were aggressive—oh, excuse me, I should have said assertive.

Dismissing or denigrating a female for being forceful in her convictions or tendency to control is certainly a matter that might bear addressing, but banning one of the many terms used to describe that particular trait (others include pushy, tough, abrasive, stubborn, domineering) isn’t a productive way to address the problem, if there really is a problem. The issue isn’t a word or words, it’s the underlying attitudes and consequences, such as ganging up against women who exhibit this behavior. Nothing is gained by simply repressing a word or attitude—you can’t just put a ring (or gag) on it, Beyonce.

It’s far more constructive not only to lean in, Sheryl, but also to embrace the issue, analyze what it’s really about (e.g., could this possibly spring from insecurity among the people being bossed as well as those being called bossy?), and then work on dynamic change—as opposed to one-dimensional censorship.

I guess we haven’t come a long way, baby. Not if women, young or mature, still crumble if someone calls them bossy when they register opinions, make decisions, or tell others what to do. Come on, are females today really that fragile (or are people still that threatened by powerful females)?

Harking back once again to the embrace of the term “queer” among gays, I think there should be a “Ban Bossy” counter-campaign: “Bossy and Proud.” Let’s all get tee-shirts—or perhaps, per Tina Fey, pants would be more appropriate, emblazoned with the word “Bossy.”

And everybody: stop telling others what words they can’t use! (Please.)

Raising Child Christian and Humanist: My dilemma is how do we, as a family unit, raise our child to view the world? I believe in humanism as spirituality, but my wife is Christian. We celebrate holidays like Christmas and Easter. I celebrate them not as a Christian but as a man who sees how much joy celebrating them brings his wife. I want to teach my child the meaning of these and many other holidays of all types of religions, and explain to him that many people believe many different things and no one knows for sure what the truth is really. I want to explain to him faith-based and science-based beliefs and let him make the choices on his own when he is old enough.

My wife and I have never argued each other’s views until now. She wants to get my son christened and baptized, which I have no issues with; he is an infant and won’t remember it. But I do take issue with him attending church on Sundays. How will I explain to her, and more importantly her family, that I don’t want my son going to church every Sunday and having Christianity jammed down his throat? I see introducing religion at such a young age when the child’s mind believes in fantasy as manipulative and deviant. Any advice would be greatly appreciated.

—First World Problems

Dear First,

This may be one of the most common dilemmas non-believers face. Without any data to back me up, it seems likely that a huge proportion of non-believers marry some form of believer. And since religion is not high on the list for non-believers, they don’t realize the depth of its hold on believers until it’s time to decide how to bring up baby.  Although some wise person said you don’t marry just your spouse, you marry his/her entire family, I don’t think the reality of that kicks in when it’s just the two adults—but it sure does when that tiny new being enters.

My greatest concern in these situations is that the non-believer tends to be the one doing most of the accommodating, because the believer figures, “You don’t have a religion and I do, so we’ll do mine.” It’s important to hold your ground. Despite not having a religion, you do have beliefs (even if they are non-beliefs) and they are just as valid (I’m being generous to a fault here) as religious ones.

I’m concerned that you are so amenable to having your son christened and baptized. It may not mean anything to him at the time, but it’s extremely fraught with significance for your wife (and her family, which also has me concerned—by the way, do you have any allies in your family who support your views?). No problem if you have already ceded this one, but you need to make the point to your wife, if not also to her extended clan, that this does not mark the beginning of your child’s indoctrination into their faith, but rather it is simply an occasion for the family to gather and celebrate his birth in a way that’s traditional for them. Establish right now that instead of their Sunday school, you would like him to attend something like an Ethical Culture or Unitarian Universalist program that educates children about many faiths. Maybe by the time he’s old enough, there will be a Sunday Assembly or other humanist program in your area that he could participate in.

Don’t get too worked up if you find yourself giving in more than you’d like. Just keep telling everyone—particularly your son—the things you said in your letter about your spirituality and the fact that no belief system has cornered the market on truth. And don’t object to your wife advocating for her faith. That dynamic in and of itself will demonstrate to your son that he has choices. And it really won’t be long before your child is exposed to many influences beyond just you, your wife, and families, all of them demonstrating the multitude of ideas people can opt to believe or not.

A message to believer/non-believer couples who haven’t yet said “I do”: Please discuss, in depth, how you would raise children with regard to religion, and be sure you really understand what that entails (i.e., you’re thinking midnight mass every Christmas eve, but your partner is thinking priesthood for the first-born son; you’re thinking eight days of Hanukah, but your partner is thinking 365 days of keeping kosher). It’s much easier to duke out these differences before the wedding—or decide not to take the plunge—than it is once the knot is tied, and the question of how you will handle parenthood progresses from prospect to predicament. Once you’re married, compromise is the name of the game.