I’ve had a dilemma of sorts for the past couple of years when engaging in and outside of social justice circles, and that is the dilemma of language and word choice. And I specify word choice, because the English language is vast and dynamic, and still we collectively make the choice to use terms and phrases that disempower specific groups of people. It’s infuriating because we have, for example, about a dozen ways to describe a “womxn”, but some choose to say “bitch”. Now, there are some who state that it’s simply a reclamation of terms, but that’s a blog post for another time.
Some cite our newfound language awareness and complaints with the use of some terms as “political correctness” or language policing. And in some ways, it is. But, I don’t necessarily see those things as fully negative. Why shouldn’t we try and inform our political system to be cognizant of the emotions and beliefs of all people, especially minority groups who don’t often have full representation within the government system? And why shouldn’t we attempt to hold ourselves and others accountable when we all say things that make other people feel vulnerable and shitty?
The issue is that a number of people believe language policing isn’t our job. And it isn’t really because people can say whatever they want. But that doesn’t mean our language and continued usage of that language doesn’t come without consequence. When we call out people who speak in ways that are harmful for ourselves and those we ally with, we are providing a form of engagement that gives others who are not as well-versed in specific theories or modes of thinking an opportunity to learn about why language choice is so crucial to liberation for vulnerable communities.
Another form of contention in and out of social justice spaces is the idea that language is a minor issue in comparison to the immense, physical realities faced by disenfranchised or underrepresented people. In a sense, policing language is not as important to critically engaging with policy and lived experiences. Why should we focus on the use of terms that may make people uncomfortable when we could be dealing with housing segregation or the gender wage gap,or whatever other social issue that needs to be reworked?
While I see the merit in such an argument, I think the problem I have comes from the idea that we as activists or allies or whatever you define yourselves as can only focus on one thing at a time. Can people who are decent human beings not call out language that is problematizing AND advocate for structural changes? Because the fact is that language impacts us in profound ways, whether we like to admit it or not.
Language has the power to uplift communities in times of need. And conversely, it has the power to bring us down and remind us of the oppressions we have endured time and time again. It can make us angry, overjoyed, withdrawn. To overlook the true power of language is to overlook the very nature of how we choose to engage in our world.
We shouldn’t dilute the importance our language choice has on our experiences and how we interact with one another.
I don’t think we should have to police our language and hold back on saying things that matter to us because we’re afraid of being call out.
But, having a more heightened awareness of the impact our word choice has on those around us is imperative to creating a space that is inclusive and diverse in a way that goes beyond surface-level forms of inclusion and diversity initiatives found within corporate, academic, creative, and even social arenas.
Because if we can’t reflect on co-opting terms and phrases that marginalize some people while it benefits or privileges us, we’ll just keep furthering ourselves from physically creating a better, more just society.
Magic Mic background image created by Elena Nuez.