If you hang around in social justice circles for more than about a minute, you’ll probably encounter someone insisting that those of us paying attention to language aren’t doing anything important. Said attitude is usually displayed by people sniffing about how we’re being too politically correct. They dismiss our attempts to, for instance, get people to stop using gendered slurs or ableist insults. Even our allies sometimes have a distressing habit of downplaying such things.
I’d like those folks to read on. That’s right, downplayers: I’m talking to you.
There is a pair of assumptions operating here that just don’t work. The first is simple: some folks seem to think that just because people are paying attention to language means they have no time left for activism. That’s rather ridiculous. Assuming people don’t do activism in meatspace just because they talk on the internet says that you’re either arguing in bad faith or haven’t mastered time management. Or you think so little of other people that you can’t imagine that anyone who’s concerned about the ways language shapes our world could possibly share your own incredible multitasking skillz.
The second is rather more serious: the accusation, implied or stated, that the so-called “PC Police” aren’t doing anything to fix The World’s Most Important Problems™. I probably won’t be able to change your mind if you hold that belief for ideological reasons, of course, but let’s assume you’re perfectly free of said ideology and just haven’t considered some things.
Language matters. And you can prove it to yourself with some simple tests. Who do you think is cooler: a bunch of mixed nuts or a gathering of eclectic folk? What do you think is worse: killing an unborn baby or terminating a fetus? Would you rather have a bunch of smelly plants or a bouquet of aromatic flowers?
There’s a good reason why my dad and his fellow soldiers in Vietnam called their enemies gooks, rather than referring to their opponents as Vietnamese people. Enemy gooks were easier to kill. They’d had their humanity stripped away.
Words can help change the world.
“Them’s fightin’ words.” We have words that start battles, and words that end them. Words that wound and words that heal. Words that tear down and words that build up. Human culture is built on a foundation of words. Words coerce and persuade, connect us and tear us apart: words can begin a nation and dissolve political bonds. Actions are important, but as any pamphleteer or speech writer knows, actions may never happen without the right words.
And I find it ironic that the people who are trying to convince us that words don’t matter or don’t have a profound affect are doing so by using… words. You’re using words to claim that words don’t work? Seriously? Why would you ever do anything so useless?
Those of us policing words know how powerful words are. We know that the words people use affect how they see the world and our fellow human beings. There are some words that most of us have agreed are too terrible to be applied to certain segments of the population. People who use them are considered to be terrible, prejudiced people. We refer to some of those words only by letter. We’ve decided they’re too dehumanizing to apply to another person. And rightly so.
But there are words in everyday usage that chip away at the humanity of certain classes of people. Some of them are aimed directly at their targets; some of them graze bystanders on their way to the mark. They’re words we should use with far more caution than we currently do, because of the damage – intended or not – that they do.
It may not seem like much to you. Either you’re not in the line of fire, or you’ve got thick skin. Good for you. But the world doesn’t revolve around you. You may not be getting hurt, but that doesn’t change the fact that other people are. Is it really such a horrible imposition to retire words that hurt others? Are you so unimaginative that you can’t come up with new and creative words to replace the ones you’re being asked to avoid? Are you so devoid of empathy that you can’t see why some types of words should never be used against people at all?
And I’ll tell you something. Annoying as it might be to force yourself to change ossified linguistic habits, as petty as it might seem to make a fuss over words rather than sticks and stones, it makes a surprising difference. Not just to the people who are grateful to you for knocking off the microagression, but to you.
Let me explain. Something happened when I started changing my language. I started noticing how often and in how many ways we strip pieces of humanity away from people, without meaning to. I began to realize we’re devaluing people for things they cannot help, and for things that don’t actually make them lesser beings. I developed a hell of a lot more compassion. And it’s a lot more effective, hitting the intended target rather than a bunch of innocent bystanders.
How do you avoid the splash damage? If the words you are using punch down at a group of people that society tends to disadvantage, you should do your best to avoid them. If someone tells you a particular word hurts them, listen to their reasons. Don’t knee-jerk defend your right to use certain words. No one’s disputing that right. You still can choose for yourself whether or not to use certain words. But you don’t lose anything by listening to other people and potentially changing your mind.
None of us are perfect. We’re not all going to agree on the off-limits words. And no matter how hard we try, we won’t always live up to our own standards. But by paying attention to our words, we’ll also be paying more attention to bits of the world and people’s lived experiences that we normally don’t notice. We’ll change our behavior when we also change our words. And we’ll help change the world, one word at a time.