On Sweating the Small Stuff: Words Matter

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?

Words matter.

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.

Image shows an archery target with a red bullseye. There are several arrows stuck in the bottom right of it, far from the center of the target. Some have labels such as Gendered Slurs and Ableist Insults.
Gendered slurs, ableist insults, and other language that punches down often doesn’t hit its target. Original image by Mathieu Rouaud; modified by me. (CC BY-SA 3.0)

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.

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On Sweating the Small Stuff: Words Matter
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9 thoughts on “On Sweating the Small Stuff: Words Matter

  1. 2

    By which I mean you are induitably, absolutely 100% correct and accurate and well writ.

    All the above is verifiably quantifiably factually accurate.

    Spot on.

  2. 3

    I’ve felt very similar when excising words from my vocabulary. Even if it just starts with some words, the process of becoming critical of what you’re actually saying makes so many previously invisible dynamics obvious.

    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?

    As someone who used to hold on to the this ideal in theory, if not in practice, I’d say that a lot of people are more concerned with the ideas expressed through those words, than the words themselves. Sure they use words, but the words are just a tool to bridge the gap between the minds sharing them. The idea that words carry power can seem almost supernatural, especially to those brought up with a religious background in which they were treated as such. But just because the power is not supernatural doesn’t mean there is no power whatsoever.

    The idea that you have to focus on what a person meant rather than the actual impact their words had is of course a well known way that institutionalized power is exerted, which is one of the reasons paying attentions to the actual words you use is so radical.

  3. 4

    Thank you for writing this. It is refreshing to see an author like you who is so conscientious about the words that they choose and their effect on others. With that in mind, I feel I should inform you of some problematic language that you use on your blog.

    The issue I see Is your flippant use of the Spanish Language to describe drinking alcohol. This includes the title of your blog ( which translates into nonsense in Spanish) as well as your continued reference to cantinaa, cantineros, etc. The way you use (incorrect).Spanish phases reinforces the pernicious ethic stereotype that Mexicans and Mexican-Americans are drink and lazy. This is a very damaging stereotype that causes all kinds of harm and splash damage to all Hispanic people.

    This is nothing more than sterotyping and appropriating latinx culture in order to “sound cool” while ignoring the harm and splash damage that it causes. There is very little difference in harm between this and the current awful trend of college students having “Mexican” theme parties that carelessly mock latinx culture. I know that this is not intentional, and I know that you are the last person who would ever try to hurt a marginalized person.

    I have always been a fan of your blog, but this one part of it had always hurt me. I hope that now you are aware of the splash damage, you will correct the problem. Please consider renaming your blog.

    Thank you for listening.

  4. 5

    The point I make about this issue is this: if words don’t matter, then why does it matter if you use different words that matter to other people? Don’t other people matter? Because that’s what it’s really about, is that some people dislike the idea of completely accepting the humanity of other people.

  5. 6

    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.

    THIS!! I would add that most of my change towards being more careful with my language, as well as thinking/caring about and paying more attention to groups that I hadn’t previously had on my radar, has been a result of online interaction. Being corrected on occasion for mistakes I’ve made, but mostly just watching others do the same and reading articulate posts about the importance of being mindful of how we speak about oppressed people. I mention this because there’s always a dig at people who only police people’s comments and discuss this stuff online (rather than doing activism in meatspace) as if the former is meaningless and makes little difference. But it does make a difference. It’s changed the way I speak and think and I’ve passed some of that mentality on to other privileged people I know who hadn’t considered it much before. It’s baby steps, but it is part of how things change.

  6. 7

    Nice writing! Well thought out and expressed.

    Butcept*, words matter, and in “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,” it should be “effect”, not “affect.”

    Helpful grammar hint: Affect is almost never the correct word if used as a noun. It is correct as a noun only when used in a psychological context referring to a person’s feelings/emotions.

    *”Butcept” is a family usage, but it’s meaning is intuitive. Use it if you wish.

  7. 8

    Chezjake: And see, I KNOW that, which is why I shouldn’t allow myself to type up a handwritten post and send it out into the world when I’m half asleep! LOL. I’ve almost given up, though. It seems like just the two of us care about the difference between affect/effect.

  8. rq
    9

    If words don’t matter, can’t we just go back to communicating by grunts and hisses? It would sure simplify a lot of things!

    More seriously, spelling errors aside (;) – I care about affect/effect, too!), this was an excellent and thought-provoking post. All the words had meaning and made a powerful impact. :)

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