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.
Today is the Winter Solstice, the shortest day and the longest night in the Northern Hemisphere. In Inuvik, a town in the Northwest Territories of Canada, tilted by the Earth’s axis as far from the sun as possible, there is no daylight at all today.
This is a day of deep spiritual significance in many traditions, and particularly after a year that has brought so much suffering and loss, there will be millions of people reflecting today on the symbolism of the darkest night and the coming of the light.
Metaphors have deep power, and the widespread metaphor that darkness/blackness is bad, evil, or otherwise negative, while lightness/whiteness is good, pure, or otherwise positive, has inestimable effects. The metaphors we use feed implicit biases. Many different studies have shown that associating darkness with negativity translates into associating darker-skinned people with criminality. Today I am holding in my heart the words of Rev. Dr. Hope Johnson, a beloved Unitarian Universalist leader. HOPE, as she styled her name, had respiratory problems ever since serving as a first responder and chaplain on 9/11, and passed away suddenly last month, only weeks after sharing these words:
Language isn’t neutral or objective. It is a vessel of cultural stories, values, and norms. And in the United States, everyday language plays into the violent, foundational myth of this country’s origin story—Europeans “discovering” a virtually uninhabited wilderness and befriending the few primitive peoples who lived there—as well as other cultural myths and lies about Indigenous Peoples that are baked into U.S. culture and everyday life.
Be a radical copyeditor. When someone says “all lives matter,” engage with them (particularly if you are a white person, like me), and help them understand why saying this makes things worse, not better.
As many people have articulated over the seven years since the Black Lives Matter movement began, no one interrupts a breast cancer awareness event by yelling “all cancers matter,” or defaces “save the rainforest” bumper stickers with “all ecosystems matter,” or blocks a rescue crew from reaching a burning house because “all houses matter.” Continue reading ““All Lives Matter”? Not Until Black Ones Do”→
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.
Q: In response to your piece about person-centered language, my mind goes to difficult situations where I’ve interacted with marginalized people who use/identify comfortably with terms I understand to be oppressive, e.g., a trans woman using the term “tranny.”
In another more privileged direction, I’ve interacted with people who don’t identify with the term “cis” despite being cis, and have heard members of oppressed groups say, “you don’t get to choose not to be cis.”
So I guess my internal query is, how far does the agency of one’s identity go? And does language that marginalizes an oppressed group supersede the desire of an individual in their expression of identity through language?
As white supremacists march in cities across the country this month, inciting terror and violence, a lot of people are calling such people “crazy,” “insane,” or “mentally ill.” Beyond the well-documented fact that white lawbreakers are often described by the media in markedly different ways from those who are people of color, calling racism a “mental illness” has got to stop. Here’s why.
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.