For many years, I’ve worked as a writer who specializes in PR and marketing and, because of this, I understand the importance of choosing your words carefully. Certain words and phrases can shade a message, or change the tone of what you’re saying, creating a particular impression in the minds of readers. Readers are often unaware of how a subtle choice of words affects their thinking or their interpretation of your writing.
Let me give you an example of what I mean. Often when there is a celebrity scandal in the news, stories will say that so-and-so “broke their silence,” instead of saying they “spoke out about…” You don’t read stories that say “Christian Bale spoke to the media about his outburst on set,” but instead, “Christian Bale broke his silence about his angry outburst on set.”
Think about this use of words; they both mean the same thing, but the phrase “broke his silence” suddenly makes it seem so much more serious and dramatic. You think of Christian Bale sitting in his yoga room meditating quietly for three days, having a religious experience that transcends his mundane existence, before deciding to share with us with his well-chosen speech. When someone “breaks their silence,” their words may seem more important and weightier. On the other hand, when someone just “speaks to the media,” it’s bland and boring and draws little interest to their words.
The writers of Watchtower literature no doubt understand this, as they often use carefully selected wording in their literature to convey a message and advance their agenda. I wouldn’t expect anything less from a religion, but as said, typically a reader isn’t paying attention to the shading or implication of certain words; they walk away with an impression or idea because of what they’ve read without realizing how their thinking has been influenced by a few choice words alone.
Ahead or Behind, But Never Equal
While I often come across these carefully selected words that are used to color the thinking of the readers of Jehovah’s Witness literature, it’s how they talk about women in their own homes that I find especially offensive. According to Jehovah’s Witnesses, a woman needs to be careful about competing with her husband if she does not fulfill her god-given role as a submissive wife. Their literature implies, quite carefully, that a woman needs to be subordinate to her husband, and anything else is an outright competition, or quest to dominate her husband.
Consider the November 2013 Awake magazine, which says in part:
“What is the woman’s role? ‘Wives, be in subjection to your own husbands.’—1 Peter 3:1… God created the woman, not to be the same as the man or to compete with him, but to be his counterpart.”
The November 2011 Awake had similar advice for successful marriages, saying in part:
“Be a supportive wife… as his complement, she does not compete with him but gives him loving support, thus promoting peace within the family. ‘Let wives be in subjection to their husbands,’ says Ephesians 5:22.”
This suggestion that women may be competing with men in their own homes was also mentioned in the November 1, 2003, Watchtower which says, in part:
“A modest, God-fearing woman does not ambitiously promote herself or compete with her husband.”
The word competition means that there is a fight with a winner and a loser; true partners do not compete or fight, as a competition involves one person coming in first place and someone else coming in second place.
I actually agree that husbands and wives should not be competing with each other; marriage is about a partnership and friendship, with two people working together equally for the common good of the family and their own relationship. Friends also typically do not compete or fight with one another, as friends want each other to be happy and don’t feel that one should be in front while the other follows behind.
However, notice the context of this word, and what it implies for wives. If she is not in subjection, she is competing. Those are her only two options; either subjection, being under her husband and his authority, or trying to “best” her husband and come out number one, the “winner.”
Their obvious implication is that, if a wife is not in subjection or in second place, she is then trying to be ahead of her husband, in first place. There is no concept of the wife trying to be equal to her husband in responsibilities, opinions, and input, but she is either behind him, or competing and fighting to get ahead of him.
This use of the word “compete” is insulting to women on all fronts; Jehovah’s Witnesses are saying that her desire to be anything more than subordinate to her husband is pushy or “ambitious.” If you don’t want to be dominated or in second place, then this must mean that you want to dominate the other person, and put them in that place.
The writers of the Watchtower literature seem to leapfrog right past this idea of two spouses being equal; either wives are behind their husbands, or they’re ambitiously pushing to get ahead of their husbands, but never are wives simply trying to be equal to their husbands.
Insulting to Husbands Too
However, there is also another concern with the use of this word. While the Watchtower Society tries to use it to subtly keep women in their place and paint them as pushy, ambitious, overbearing, greedy people when they don’t want to be submissive and subordinate, it also fully illustrates the fact that husbands and wives are not considered to be equals in the home, no matter what else their literature may say.
This is insulting to men in the religion as well. The wives who are accused of “competing” with their husbands are painted as wanting to push ahead of them, but doesn’t that say that these men are then already ahead of their wives? Wives are greedy and self-serving when they want the same thing that husbands already have, so what does that say about the husbands? If you’re sharing something, including respect in a relationship, there’s no reason to compete.
Because so many modern women are less inclined to accept a secondary role in their own homes and refuse to be disrespected, Jehovah’s Witnesses have tried very hard to show the arrangement of headship as being something positive for both partners, and to stress that the man is not more important or somehow better than the woman. Yet, the use of the word “compete” when talking about a woman’s place in her home betrays those claims. If men and women were equal, there would be no need for either to “compete.” If men didn’t already have first place, and both were equal in all respects, there could be no competition and no need to fight.
All in all, it’s a shameful and insulting use of a word to represent a situation that is already degrading to women. I’m sorry that the Watchtower writers need to paint women this way and that they thought they could probably do so without anyone noticing!
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