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.
White supremacy is a system or social order that keeps power and resources consolidated among white elites, using an ideology (or way of understanding the world) that upholds whiteness—including white people, white cultural values, and white institutions—as being best or most “normal.”
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.
White nationalism is a sector of the U.S. right-wing political sphere that is characterized by a white supremacist ideology.
As Chip Berlet explained, in a 1992 piece co-authored with Margaret Quigley, white nationalism “oscillates between brutish authoritarianism and vulgar fascism in service of white male supremacy” and white nationalists believe that “social problems are caused by uncivilized people of color, lower-class foreigners, and dual-loyalist Jews.” Continue reading “What’s in a Word: white nationalism”→
Yesterday, The New York Timespublished the article “On Campus, Trump Fans Say They Need ‘Safe Spaces,'” by Anemona Hartocollis. Showcasing an appalling lack of responsible journalism, the piece attempted to present a “balanced” take on heightening tension on college campuses in the wake of the U.S. presidential election. Continue reading “The New York Times, Radically Copyedited: Reporting on Bias”→
The term alt-right, short for “alternative right,” refers to a recently developed affiliation of far-right conservatives, organized largely by way of social media, whose primary common ground is white supremacy. Continue reading “What’s in a Word: alt-right”→
I follow the school of thought that the purpose of language conventions and standards is to help people communicate as effectively as possible across lines of difference, not that their purpose is to promote one “right” or “correct” way of speaking, writing, or being.
Holding “correctness” as sacred means valuing rules more than lives, homogeneity more than diversity, norms more than divergent experiences, and standards more than feelings. There is nothing sacred or inherently valuable about being “correct.” Here’s what’s sacred and valuable: respect, care, agency, empowerment, liberation.
One of the most common arguments by people who use the term “politically correct” is that people who say they are hurt by language are just being “oversensitive.”
Remember your friend whose boyfriend just died? Would you accuse your friend of being “oversensitive” at the mention of root beer floats, or sappy movies, or any number of other things that serve as a reminder of the loss? Most people wouldn’t, because your friend’s pain is culturally accepted as real and understandable.
Yet whenever someone’s pain goes against mainstream cultural norms, that’s when “oversensitive” comes out. Death is a pretty universal experience, but when it comes to things like sexism, racism, ableism, classism, and so on, not only is not everyone negatively impacted by these things, but by their very design some people suffer while others benefit—which creates an unconscious incentive to deny the pain experienced by people who are negatively impacted. Continue reading “Part 4: There’s No Such Thing as Being “Oversensitive” over Violence, Trauma, and Oppression”→
Imagine you have a friend whose boyfriend just died. Words are really powerful in this situation: they can help communicate your care and empathy for your friend, or they can hurt your friend and cause pain. If you were to say, for instance, that it was your friend’s fault that the boyfriend was dead, those words could have a deep impact—so deep that it might even drive your friend to suicide.
Far more minor word choices could be hurtful as well. For a long while after the tragedy, you would probably try to be sensitive and aware with your language so that you don’t unintentionally cause your friend further pain. You will probably choose not to gush about the guy you’re crushing out on right now. You may decide against inviting your friend to go see that new movie with a sappy love story in it. You might avoid certain topics because you know they will serve as a reminder of the loss.