The Spectrum of Language

United States mainstream culture promotes the idea that language is either “correct” or “incorrect” (in terms of grammar, spelling or pronunciation, word choice, and content). But language—along with everything else in this world—is so much more complex.

As a radical copyeditor and as someone who believes that words have incredible power for destruction, oppression, healing, liberation, and more, I understand language to exist on a spectrum from actively hateful to profoundly loving—and I strive to help people use language in the most life-affirming ways possible.

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Violent language is language at its worst. Violent language is the language of bullies everywhere; it actively communicates hate, disgust, intolerance, and judgment. It’s used by the brother who calls his sister a whore, the friend who says all Mexicans are “illegals” who are coming to steal our jobs, the Westboro Baptist Church member holding a sign condemning Muslim Americans.

Violent language kills, even if everyone who uses it isn’t actively trying to be hateful—it can torment people to such a degree that they take their own lives, and it can create mob mentalities that result in murder.

Coded language is the language of people who communicate prejudice and bias in covert ways, consciously or unconsciously. Coded language is often used by people who know that violent language isn’t socially acceptable, but still desire to communicate disdain, intolerance, and judgment in ways that support an oppressive status quo.

It’s used by the mom who asks “are you sure you want to wear that?”; the coworker who says a certain part of town is “sketchy”; the politician who promotes “religious freedom” as a way of supporting the freedom to discriminate. Coded language covertly communicates oppressive norms, keeping them barely masked yet perfectly clear to those who are negatively impacted by them.

Unquestioned language is the most common language there is. Unquestioned language is just everyday language that most people don’t think twice about—most of it is benign, but everyday language is rife with subtle cues that weave mainstream values into our speech, norms around what and who is valuable and what and who is not.

It’s used by the person who says “gay” or “lame” or “retarded” in demeaning ways, the art supplies manufacturer that names the beige-colored crayon “flesh,” the employee guidelines that forbid headwear, not thinking about the possibility of employing people whose religions mandate headscarves or yarmulkes. Unquestioned language slowly communicates to some people that they are “normal” and to other people that they are not; it builds up over years and lifetimes to maintain cultural values and keep playing fields far from level.

Minimizing language can often be the most confusing, because on a surface level it seems positive and supportive of human diversity. Minimizing language is used by people who sincerely believe in the worth and dignity of all people, but haven’t done the hard work involved in questioning and dismantling the undergirding values, standards, and norms that uphold oppression.

It’s used by the friend who says “I don’t see race!”; the church that puts “everyone welcome” on their road sign underneath Sunday’s sermon title, “Pray the Gay Away”; the person who says “all lives matter” as a rebuttal to the Black Lives Matter movement.

Minimizing language completely unconsciously supports the status quo and exposes the fact that positive intentions and simply changing one’s words aren’t enough to actively work against oppression; we have to unmask and change what lies beneath the words.

Liberatory language is language at its best. Liberatory language not only actively affirms all life and the full diversity of human experience, it also works constantly to communicate love, compassion, and nonviolence. Liberatory language understands that language isn’t just about the words we use, it’s about the values, intentions, and impact behind our words.

It’s used by the “special ed” teacher who tells every single one of his students that they are smart, beautiful, and powerful; the worship leader who goes out of her way to find out what language each fellow leader of an interfaith service uses to describe divinity, so she can be fully inclusive in the prayer she offers; the teenager who claims the language “queer,” “crip,” and “Boricua” for the first time to describe himself authentically.

Liberatory language imbues those who experience the words with personal and collective agency. It seeks to describe and create the best, most radical reality we can imagine—a world free from violence in all its forms; a world where all life, all identities and experiences, and all ways of making meaning are understood as valuable and sacred.

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Words matter. Victoria Pruin DeFrancisco and Catherine Helen Palczewski wrote: “Through language, people can rename, re-envision, and re-imagine the world.” And as Robin Sharma said, “Words can inspire. And words can destroy. Choose yours well.”

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