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.
This quirky, mighty word carries so much meaning. Self-identity, umbrella term, academic discipline, political orientation, verb, and—yes—slur.
Yet more than three decades after a fundamental shift in what this word communicates, the mainstream still resists acknowledging the fullness of what queer means. What’s this resistance to queer really about? And how should this complexity be navigated?
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?
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.
Language isn’t correct or incorrect, it’s a spectrum from violent to liberatory. When I strive to use language in ways that are inclusive of the full diversity of human experience, it’s not about being correct or avoiding offense. It’s about creating the opportunity for perspectives that have historically been squelched to shine. It’s about empowerment, and agency, and collective care. It’s about liberation.
The idea that avoiding “offending” people is the primary goal of sensitive language is inherently minimizing—it automatically calls up the idea that being offended is a result of being either overcritical or oversensitive, nothing more. It also squarely puts the burden of how language is experienced on the people who are hearing or reading it. It says that if you are offended by particular language, it’s your fault, not the speaker or author’s. Continue reading “Part 2: Insensitive Language Isn’t “Offensive,” It’s Harmful”→
Check it out: “politically correct” came into common usage in the United States in the 1940s and ’50s, when Socialists and Communists clashed over Stalin’s alliance with Hitler. Communist party doctrine was called the “correct” party line.
“The term ‘politically correct’ was used disparagingly to refer to someone whose loyalty to the [Communist party] line overrode compassion and led to bad politics. … [It] was meant to separate out Socialists who believed in equalitarian moral ideas from dogmatic Communists who would advocate and defend party positions regardless of their moral substance.”
People who were “politically correct” were people who said racism and genocide didn’t matter; people who claimed the party line was more important than actual people’s lives.
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”→