The Power of Everyday Language to Cause Harm

Speech bubbles show a conversation between someone who says words can't hurt and someone who knows they do
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Anyone who has ever experienced bullying, harassment, or oppression knows that the age-old saying “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me” is at best wishful thinking and at worst a lie. This adage has been passed down, generation to generation, as if it’s a shield that can ward off the impacts of hateful speech, but it’s no protection at all. Words, like arrows, cut through the falsehood that only physical assaults cause pain, debilitation, and death. 

Violence takes infinitely variable forms. Death can occur from a single gunshot or from long-term low-level exposure to a toxin. No one would say that lead is harmless simply because it won’t kill you immediately if you ingest some. Words are the same way—most often, they cause harm through accumulation, not one-time use. 

The degree to which words wound depends on how deeply those words cut and/or how much harm has already accumulated in a person’s system. When a random person on the internet calls me stupid, I’m not very affected by that, because I’ve never been subjected to negative stereotypes about my intelligence based on my race, class, gender, ability, or accent—quite the opposite—and a random internet troll’s opinion of me doesn’t carry much weight. 

But if a Black woman gets called stupid by her boss, or a queer teen gets called an abomination by his priest, or a disabled person gets called worthless by her parents, or a trans kid gets called delusional by their healthcare provider, or an undocumented refugee gets called an animal by the president of the country he lives in, that’s really different. In those scenarios, words have been sharpened to debilitating and possibly even fatal points by a lifetime of similar words and stories from every conceivable corner—language that colors how everyone around a person perceives them and, worse, how they perceive themself.

And harmful words aren’t limited to name-calling or obvious hate speech. Language is a spectrum; harmful language can be outright violent or it can manifest in coded, unconscious, or minimizing ways. These types of language accumulate and mutually reinforce oppressive norms about who is most valuable and most deserving of life, liberty, and love. 

I find it helpful to consider three big ways that language causes harm in an environmental toxin sort of way—ever-present, ever-accumulating in all of our systems, communicating negative messages about particular people and ways of being: dehumanizing language, pathologizing language, and invisibilizing language. Those are dense words, so bear with me and I’ll unpack each one in turn.

Note: The discussion below includes examples of violent and harmful language and talks about how words connect to murder and genocide.

cloud of word bubbles of dehumanizing language about immigrants
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Dehumanizing language: Making people seem less than human 

As I’ve written about before, dehumanization is a specific psychological process that conditions people to perceive members of a target group as undeserving of basic human rights, and this process is rooted in language. The stories we hear and tell about each other shape how we perceive each other’s worth and dignity. 

When taken to the furthest extreme, dehumanization leads to genocide. Journalist and historian Anne Applebaum has written powerfully about the fact that the groundwork for mass murder of citizens by their own government for political reasons is always laid first by particular ways of using language: first, inflammatory words are used to define and stereotype the target group and next the group is demonized through propaganda.

For example, Hitler and Stalin described their target groups as “vermin” and “poisonous weeds,” the ruling Hutu party called Tutsis “cockroaches“ and “snakes” during the Rwandan genocide, and the Khmer Rouge painted the victims of the Cambodian genocide as “worms” and “parasites.”

Dehumanizing language doesn’t always result in murder, but it always conditions people to look the other way when those who are targeted by this language suffer. And dehumanizing language has been a hallmark of U.S. culture from the beginning: Indigenous Peoples are called “savages” in the Declaration of Independence itself; Black people have been painted as animals (“stock,” “brutes,” “apes,” and worse) over centuries of enslavement, lynching, and mass incarceration; and the majority of immigrant groups of particular ethnicities have been denigrated until they managed to assimilate into whiteness, for those that could.

Anti-immigrant groups and politicians have barraged the general public in recent years with language that dehumanizes immigrants, refugees, and asylum-seekers, particularly those who are people of color. Rather than describing human beings who are fleeing violence or seeking a better life, language like “illegals,” “criminals,” “aliens,” and “animals” creates less-than-human associations, and descriptions like “hordes,” “infesting,” “flood,” and “onslaught” creates a sense of threat that justifies human rights violations. 

This language matters. It conditions people who hear it to look the other way when those who are described in less-than-human ways suffer or, worse, to directly contribute to injustices themselves. 

Consider the following: In 1975, researchers at Stanford found that students who overheard fellow students being described as animals were more likely to give them what they thought were higher levels of electric shock. In 2008, researchers found that over a twenty-year period, Black defendants convicted of capital crimes were more likely to receive the death penalty when they were described in ape-like ways in the press. And in the two weeks after the 2016 U.S. presidential election, characterized by Trump’s horrific stereotyping of immigrants from Latin America, reported hate crimes against Latine people increased by 176%

When we are surrounded by language that makes people seem less than human, it’s only a matter of time before this language affects our perceptions of those people, and our actions toward them.

cloud of word bubbles of pathologizing language
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Pathologizing language: Painting people as abnormal and damaged

Pathologizing is an act of treating something as an indicator of abnormality or disease. It often involves perceiving something that’s a normal part of human diversity as damaged rather than as a natural variation, and devaluing it in the process. 

The history of modern medicine and psychology is, in part, a story of categorizing and ranking dimensions of human diversity, and pathologizing people whose bodies or behaviors don’t align with what is considered “normal” by those who have the most power.

Examples abound. Many early white, male proponents of evolutionary theory believed that women and people of color were literally less evolved than them—that their brains were inferior and that certain Black groups occupied an evolutionary position between apes and the most highly evolved subset of white people. Such pseudoscientific justifications of prejudice led to actual medical diagnoses, such as “female hysteria,” which had symptoms from anxiety to fainting to sexual desire to campaigning for equal rights, and “drapetomania”—“the disease causing slaves to run away,” as well as the widespread belief among white male elites that Black people were mentally unfit for freedom and women were mentally unfit to vote, among other things.

Meanwhile, people with disabilities were viewed as a blight and a threat to a future “healthy” nation. One of the first things the Nazi regime did was pass a law, based on similar eugenics-inspired laws in the U.S. and Europe at the time, that mandated sterilization for people who were blind or deaf, had intellectual disabilities, or had conditions such as schizophrenia and epilepsy. Later, hundreds of thousands of Germans with disabilities were murdered during the Holocaust.  

Being a woman, being Black, being blind, and having an intellectual disability are just a few of the many different ways to be human. They aren’t deviations from being a “normal,” “healthy” human being—but that’s what the legacy of pathologizing communicates: that certain ways of being are abnormal and damaged. This legacy and mindset shows up in the everyday words used to talk about certain folks, such as “victim,” “afflicted,” “suffering,” “stricken,” “impaired,” “crippled,” “challenged,” “struggling,” and so on. This language implies that all people with that experience are damaged, living in a state of perpetual suffering, and lacking in self-determination. 

Pathologizing language conditions people to think in purely negative ways about people and experiences that are stigmatized in mainstream culture—most notably, people with disabilities, mental health conditions, and medical diagnoses, but also poor folks, fat folks, LGBTQ folks, people who use substances, and all sorts of others. When the words we use and the stories we tell about certain folks reinforce the idea that they are abnormal, that there’s something damaged about them, that they are powerless, and/or that there’s no possibility of happiness or meaning in their lives, this shapes how people think about and relate to those folks. It also shapes how such folks think about themselves.

cloud of word bubbles of invisibilizing language about Indigenous Peoples
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Invisibilizing language: Rendering people nonexistent

The third major form of harmful language is invisibilizing language, or language that ignores the existence of particular people and experiences. When people are continually erased through language, it results in a lack of awareness of their experiences and lives and, when taken to the farthest extreme, a belief that they don’t actually exist.    

A prime example of invisibilizing language is the treatment of Indigenous Peoples in the stories and language of mainstream U.S. culture. The overwhelming story about Native folks, told through history books, films, museums, sports mascots, national holidays, and more, is that they are a relic of the past and no longer exist. In their book “All the Real Indians Died Off” Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz and Dina Gilio-Whitaker discuss how the myth of the “vanishing Indian” has been a central feature of the U.S. story for centuries, and that this myth—that Native people are either bound for extinction or have already disappeared—has been used to advance political agendas aimed at seizing Native lands and to justify policies of forced assimilation. 

In a comprehensive research project, Reclaiming Native Truth found that the invisibility of Indigenous Peoples in modern life results in the erosion of support for Native issues and an underestimation of the discrimination Native people experience. Sicangu CDC, a nonprofit serving the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, discusses the personal cost of invisibility on identity and self-actualization, and says invisibility may be one of the biggest barriers Native people face today.

Trans communities have also been profoundly affected by invisibility in language. For example, in HIV research, trans women have historically been wrongfully “lumped in” with MSM (“men who have sex with men”) and trans men have been absent entirely, leading to significantly delayed access to life-saving medical care. As a non-binary person, I can personally attest to how hard it is to move through the world constantly being reminded (through bathroom signs, “F or M” checkboxes, and gender binary language) that mainstream U.S. culture doesn’t believe people like me exist. Most non-binary people I know go through a phase of struggling with feeling “real” or valid.

In the massive wave of anti-trans bills that has been brought before U.S. state legislatures in recent years (more than 100 in 2021 and approximately 150 in 2022), the majority don’t actually use the word “transgender” anywhere. Instead, they intentionally invisibilize trans people by talking only about “biological sex” and “biological males” and proponents campaign with language like “save girls’ sports” and “don’t let men into women’s bathrooms.” As Emmett Schelling of the Transgender Education Network of Texas has noted, this means these proponents go beyond denying that these bills harm trans people; in essence, they are saying “trans people don’t exist, so harm is impossible.”

So not only does invisibilizing language take a huge toll on folks’ self-concept, it makes it incredibly hard to advocate for ourselves. And people don’t need to aggressively deny your existence in order to cause you harm. Most of the time, when people don’t think you exist, they simply don’t take you into account when designing programs, services, research, buildings, data management systems, and more, and it’s hard to convince them that they should. 

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Words matter. Research has increasingly shown that the language we take in and use affects our perceptions. As journalist Krista Tippett puts it, “The words we use shape how we understand ourselves, how we interpret the world, how we treat others. Words make worlds.” 

Dehumanizing, pathologizing, and invisibilizing language are three key—and often mutually reinforcing—ways that words contribute to the oppression of particular peoples. Racism, sexism, ableism, classism, and other oppressions are perpetuated through everyday language that describes what’s real and true, over and over, reaffirming that certain identities and experiences are normal and others are abnormal, wrong, lesser-than, or unreal. 

And those with the most power have an oversized influence on the words that get used and the stories that get told. The language used by those in power, such as politicians, gets repeated and mainstreamed by news media and other storytellers. Meanwhile, those with the least power often don’t have any ability to contribute to the narratives that shape how they are viewed and understood by the general public. 

So it’s not enough to simply avoid hate speech and strive to use language “neutrally,” because there’s no such thing as neutral language. Words communicate values and norms, whether we are aware of it or not. In order to avoid furthering injustice, we have to actively work to counter the subtle, everyday language that communicates oppressive values and norms. 

As feminist linguist Julia Penelope eloquently named in her book Speaking Freely, “Language is power, in ways more literal than most people think. When we speak, we exercise the power of language to transform reality.” I want to live in a world free from all forms of violence, a world in which all life is honored and all people are valued. So I strive to describe that world and make it real, through every word, thought, and action. I hope you will too. 


Questions? Quarrels? Things to add? Comment below! Want to ask a radical copyeditor something? Contact me! Was this post helpful to you? Consider making a donation!

This post was made possible by my Patreon community, who support me in being able to do in-depth research and writing on important topics like this one. 

If you’d like more on the power of language, I could not more highly recommend the lecture Toni Morrison gave upon her acceptance of the 1993 Nobel Prize in Literature. It’s available online in written and audio form. Every time I read it, it takes my breath away.

Note: This post was updated on March 12, 2022, to add the paragraph about anti-trans U.S. state bills to the section on invisibilizing language.


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One thought on “The Power of Everyday Language to Cause Harm

  1. Great point! Thank you. Even when these words aren’t aimed at a targeted group, they can be very harmful to an individual who tried to get empathy and compassion from adults, but instead got this cruel, mocking lie.

    Like

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