The Power of Language Part I: Equality

Before we start, I want to acknowledge that not all human beings are able to use language in the same ways. Some don’t use verbal language at all; others have trouble understanding metaphor and so on. This post refers to people who are able to converse fluently because therein lie the issues I want to address. I refer to the English language throughout, because it is the only language in which I am culturally fluent. By culturally fluent, I mean not only functionally fluent but also aware of the subtle nuances of implication that link language and culture. For example, most people masturbate from time to time but if I called you a wanker that would be very rude of me because it means more than its literal meaning of someone who masturbates.

Language is something we come equipped with an innate ability to start learning from the day we are born. It comes so naturally to us that we often don’t realise how immensely powerful the ways in which we use it can be. We don’t really think about the words and phrases we use in day-to-day conversations. We have stock phrases and expressions and association words that we use a lot. We need to, because otherwise conversations would move at snail’s pace as our brains worked hard to find the right words among the thousands that we know.

So when we tell people that using a particular word or phrase actually contributes to oppression of a certain group of people, it’s easy to see why they often resist the idea. It’s really difficult to self-censor when it comes to words and phrases we’ve used since childhood without anyone questioning it. People will often ask “why should I?” or “what difference does a word make?”

The answer to the latter question is, sometimes, “a hell of a lot.” No, really. Language is so much more powerful than we give it credit for being. The English language is so complex, so diverse and so multi-faceted that we might have hundreds or even thousands of ways in which to communicate the same broad concept. This, of course, includes non-verbal language.

One thing that really frustrates me is that some people (and, in fairness, I only know one person who consistently does this) resent the fact that “I’m not allowed to say the word gay in its proper sense any more because of THEM taking that word.” The first problem is that the “proper sense” of that word has, as with hundreds of other words in our language, changed over the years. If everyone behaved as stubbornly as this person, we would not be speaking English at all. We have plenty of synonyms for gaiety in modern English. And actually, “gay” was used to mean promiscuous (a “gay man” was a man who slept with a lot of prostitutes) in the 19th century, so if anyone has “taken” the word, it was straight men first!

The more important problem concerns the reason why gay people had to use the word in the first place. Consider belonging to a group (simply by virtue of how you were born) that was abused, ostracised and oppressed so badly by mainstream society that you had to resort to using euphemisms to describe who you were because if you told it like it was you risked being beaten up, raped or forced to have psychiatric “correction” treatment. Then think about being a member of the group doing that oppressing, being someone who never has to fear being harmed for who you are and whom you love. But in return for that privilege, you are no longer able to use one word (that has plenty of synonyms and means nothing special to you) in its archaic sense for fear of being misunderstood. Boo hoo, poor you.

Gay people don’t oppress themselves and didn’t “steal” that word just to annoy everyone else. If people didn’t use “homo” as an insult or label their sexuality as a medical disorder, they might not have had to. Similarly, “it was all right to say [racial slur] when I was young!” is not a valid reason to carry on using it. Society is moving forward in terms of equality, and that needs to include us all. Words used to describe oppressed groups have to change frequently, because oppressors soon turn those words into slurs.

The problem with language and equality is that there are so many words and phrases embedded deeply into our language and culture that contribute to oppression.

“Stop being such a girl” – as spoken to a man who is betraying some sort of weakness.

“Ugh! You look like a homeless person.”

“Another doughnut? You are being such a fatty.”

“Modern footballers flounce around like poofs.”

“She’s a complete retard.”

“You’re behaving like a crazy person.”

We use these words and phrases in natural and glib ways, not even thinking about what they might imply about people in those oppressed groups. How they affect (in the order of the phrases) women, homeless people, fat people, gay people, people who have learning disabilities and those who suffer from mental health problems. This is why saying “but I didn’t mean it in that way” is problematic. And that is where we get the most resistance. People will say “you know very well I’m not ACTUALLY talking about gay people when I say ‘oh, that’s a bit gay.’” But then why use their name as an insult?

Firstly, if you believe that your intention excuses the end result, you are being rather insensitive. You probably wouldn’t step on a stranger’s foot deliberately in a crowded bar, but if you did it without intending it, you would probably be sorry. (I don’t know about you, but I’ve even apologised to items of furniture more times than I can recall after mistakenly believing they were people’s feet that I was standing on.) And if someone politely pointed out that you were standing on their foot when you hadn’t noticed you were then I bet you would apologise and move your foot rather than saying “But can’t you see I didn’t mean to stand on your foot? It’s ridiculous to expect me to see the floor in a place this crowded. I’m not going to move my foot, because you should realise I didn’t stand there on purpose.”

The point is that you are hurting people, whether you intended to or not. Avoiding that is hard; of course it is. Acknowledge that and be gentle with yourself, but if you use it as an excuse without making an effort to change, then you are contributing to oppression. You might think “you can’t expect me to change the way I speak – it comes naturally to me.” Yes, it takes work. But if you aren’t willing to do that work then you are implying that oppressed groups aren’t worth the effort it takes to challenge their oppression and respect them as equals. You were brought up not to treat those people as equals: society bombards you with constant messages that reinforce the status quo of inequality, so the unlearning process is huge.

Secondly, if you use a group of people to insult someone or something, then what you are doing is “othering” that group (the first sentence of this article gives a good definition if you’re unsure what that means). You are implying that they are somehow “less than” and therefore that comparing someone or something to them is insulting or lowering.

Let me tell you now, I am as guilty as this sort of behaviour as anyone else. I’m not preaching from some pulpit of self-perceived perfection here. This article is as much to help me change my own behaviour as it is to help you examine yours. It’s OK if something slips out unintentionally from time to time, because that is how we have all learned to behave. As long as we make an effort to address it, that is. How we respond is up to us: the more we watch what we say and the more we correct ourselves, the better we will be at avoiding it.

Calling other people out is even harder because often they will be defensive or put up a lot of resistance. Some people will just go, “Oh don’t be ridiculous!” Not everyone will listen. In these conversations, I try to say “I can see why you think it’s petty, but we don’t know what it’s like to be [part of the group in question] and experience discrimination because of it. I avoid using that word like that because it can really hurt [group of people].” They won’t suddenly have an epiphany and go “Gosh, you’re right, I’ll never say that again!” but you may have sown a seed that others will water. And I continue to model respectful language myself. If someone is inclined to use discriminatory slurs, they will do so more if other people around them do the same. Changing our own behaviour is a small start, but it is a start.

You might well hear “but there aren’t any [gay, Asian, fat] people in this room so who do you think I’m offending?” There are two problems with this. The first is that it isn’t the gay, Asian or fat people perpetrating the oppression of their own demographic groups, although people within oppressed groups can contribute to their own oppression (for example, women can subscribe to sexist norms and say misogynistic things. I know I have in the past). It’s the rest of us who need to stop causing it. Even if your gay friend can laugh off and even use homophobic insults, that doesn’t mean they represent the entire LGBT+ population or have never experienced the oppression that is still tied up with language.

Furthermore, if you only treat people with respect when they are in the room, then you are not treating them with respect. Insulting people when they are not even there to defend themselves is not very nice, if you think about it. It’s another example of othering: there are us in this room having a laugh, and them outside the room: we have to be careful what we say if they come in! And if you continue to use “jokey” slurs about people in their absence, then you are just reinforcing the idea that it’s OK to do so. The idea that a certain group of people (say gender non-binary people) are such a small minority that it’s ridiculous to expect everyone to go out of their way to cater for those people is equivalent to saying “there are not enough of these people to make them important enough to care about.” You are erasing that minority, making them invisible and thereby contributing to a culture that refuses to meet their needs.

I believe that every human being is important. And that every human being is as important as every other human being. It doesn’t depend on how many other human beings we think fit into the same little box as them, or how much we think their existence affects us personally. We assume that groups don’t exist or are a negligible minority just because we don’t personally know people who fall into the category. In fact, people you know could be part of that group but choose not to tell you, perhaps because of the discriminatory attitude you had no idea you were showing. A lot of people do not identify with the gender they were assigned at birth or aren’t exclusively attracted to those of the opposite sex or are devoutly religious but they aren’t obliged to tell you any of those things. People who say “everyone is different so it’s impossible to cater to everyone’s preference” are missing the point. It’s not about personal preference. If you don’t know who you are or are not “allowed” to insult, then how about not insulting anyone?

Another problem with the idea that words spoken between friends won’t offend any of Those People lies with the whole concept of “offending people.” Those who wilfully miss the point of anti-discriminatory behaviour very often use this. I remember a conversation I had with someone who was outraged that their children’s school had decided to have secular assemblies rather than focusing on hymns and Bible readings. They said, “It’s pathetic! We can’t even have traditional Christian assemblies for fear of offending some Hindu or Muslim! Why can’t they go somewhere else if they don’t like it?”

Well, it seemed to me that the person objecting to secular assembly was the one who was offended, not those they were trying to exclude. My response was, “Why should they be the ones to go somewhere else or be educated in a religion they don’t belong to? If you want your children to have a Christian education and you don’t like secular assemblies in a secular school, why didn’t you send your children to a church school? There are a lot more C of E schools in this country than there are Hindu or Muslim.”

(Those who protest that “this is a Christian country” might want to pause and consider how Christians came into this non-Christian country in the first place and appropriated the culture and celebrations of the Druids and Pagans and other ancient religions in order to wipe them out. This is NOT what is happening to you, but it is what you are trying to do to others. You still get the choice of going to church and celebrating Christian festivals however you choose.)

But what I didn’t address was this really problematic concept of “offending people.” It’s yet another tactic, like the concept of political correctness, used to minimise and dismiss the struggles of people in oppressed groups.

Most Jewish people would be no more offended to see a Christmas tree in a shop than I would be to see a menorah (i.e. not at all). We need to stop assuming that we know how people we don’t know – and clearly don’t try to understand – would feel in a particular situation. People in minority groups aren’t automatically so thin-skinned that they take offence at everything that doesn’t fit with their culture. They aren’t all weak, delicate little flowers that need constant pampering. But they do live in a world that constantly others, belittles and marginalises them. Talking about them taking offence to what’s portrayed as stupid little things is effectively saying that the problem lies with them, rather than with a society set up to keep them away from privilege. And that in itself is both oppressive and insulting.

I remember recently seeing a statement from a large organisation apologising for “offending” women after publishing something that promoted rape culture in pubs and bars. My response to this non-apology was to point out that offending people doesn’t lead to them being sexually assaulted in pubs. Don’t apologise for feelings you assume other people have. That’s taking the blame off yourself and putting it onto them. Own up and apologise for what you said or did. Language is important!

So we know it isn’t “offending people” that’s the problem. It’s perpetuating a situation that excludes them from things the dominant group can take for granted. It’s denying them access to privileges that the dominant group feel they have a right to. And if they have that right, why doesn’t everyone?

So let’s stop talking about having to walk on eggshells to avoid offending people. Let’s try thinking about including them instead. Our language is a great place to start, since it shapes how we think and vice versa. You can’t change how people think, but you can change how you use your words.

Please feel free to discuss your own experiences in the comments!

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