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.
Over the last year, a number of public figures have drawn praise and ire for referring to the facilities in which tens of thousands of people are being imprisoned by the United States without due process as concentration camps.
What has resulted is a “rhetorical cacophony regarding historical accuracy and proper terminology,” in the words of Lauren Duca of The Independent.
If, like me, you believe that language not only describes but creates reality, the primary question should not be “what is the correct definition of concentration camp and is that definition being accurately applied?” but rather “how am I morally obligated to describe and respond to what is happening at the U.S.-Mexico border?”
The five practices below are designed to help you use language to humanize in the face of dehumanization and practice liberation in the face of violence and hate. But first, some context.
Sometimes you want help understanding the meaning of a word, but you’re not sure whether you can trust a dictionary to give you a definition that is rooted in anti-oppression.
Most dictionaries were originally written by white, wealthy, educationally elite, straight, able-bodied men, which means normative assumptions and prejudices about how words should be used were written into them. And although dictionaries—like words themselves—have evolved, not all of their definitions give you the information you really need, or adapt quickly enough to provide you with fully current meanings of words.
Radical copyediting helps language describe the best, most radical reality we can imagine—a world free from violence and oppression where all life, all identities and experiences, and all ways of making meaning are valued.
This means that radical copyediting is about helping people use language in ways that increase respect, love, and care for one another. The goal of radical copyediting is not to “correct” language for the sake of promoting one “right” way to use words—rather, the goal is to help people understand and care for each other across different identities and experiences.
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. Continue reading “The Spectrum of Language”→