Tuesday, May 18, 2010

The Importance of Language

I've thought and discussed with others frequently about the importance of language and how our words shape our reality. But I don't think I've written about it yet, so here goes.

At its core this blog makes the case for being politically correct, so before I proceed I figured I would simply state why I feel political correctness is important: Political correctness is respectful. Now, I know how confusing it can be to keep up on what is politically correct to say. However, in 99% of the cases it takes only 2 seconds to choose politically correct language and it can speak volumes to the type of person that you are. You know, the type who cares about the feelings of other people.

Plus, as a general rule, if you if you are making an attempt to be sensitive to the situation/identities of the people around you and you slip up, they're going to cut you some slack and gently correct you. But if you're someone who throws words around like a callous jerk, you're not going to get the same understanding and you will be generally regarded as said callous jerk. Oh, and FYI, if you're not sure what to say, it's ok to ask. Most people would rather be asked how they identify in XYZ category than to have someone use a hurtful term.

Ok, so I am in favor of political correctness. I think it's respectful. Having laid that out, I want to get back to my original point...I feel that language holds enormous power over our world. I think that how we describe things plays a part in our reality and is extremely influential in how your portray yourself as a person. It is because of these reasons that I've abandoned words like "gipped" "denigrate" "bitch slap" "that's so gay" and anything else that has a sexist/racist/heterosexist or any other -ist connotation. (Not that I don't slip up and not that I know it all, but I try.)

Recently on a thread of a feministing post about abortion, community members got into a debate about how to identify those who oppose access to abortion rights. They call themselves pro-life. Feminists have been calling them anti-choice for years...so what's the answer? I see two sides to this debate:

1) Even if we disagree with their politics we should continue to call them pro-life because that is how they identify. It's rude to slap a label on them. In essence, we can't "identify them" (which I've argued before.) And it's basically childish name calling to refer to them as anti-choice, which is the same as them calling us pro-death.

2) The term pro-life is a loaded term which implies that the other side is against life and therefore, it is right to choose another term for this political position. Anti-choice is a more accurate and fairly respectful term.

My opinion falls squarely into camp #2. (In fact anti-choice has long been a subject tag on this blog.) If those who oppose access to abortion rights want to call themselves pro-life, that's fine. I however, will not call them that, because I believe we must acknowledge what power language has, and in this case using that language goes against my personal beliefs. As I said on the thread linked above:

Referring to them as anti-choice, rather, frames their position in a way which aligns with the pro-choice framework. By calling themselves pro-life, they are stating that anyone who stands in opposition to them is against life, and therefore horrible villians. When really, it's about what exactly LIFE is and who's life we're talking about.

Therefore, it is a pretty damn feminist act to call them anti-choice. Besides, why would this offend them? They are against the choice to abortion, right? Are we against life, on the other hand?

Now, I do grant there is merit to the "we can't identify" them camp (and I think this viewpoint is very important in most contexts). However, this case of identity has to do with a specific set of political beliefs, not a personal identification like race, religion, sexual orientation, or gender. Like another commenter noted on the thread when someone asked if it's ok for someone call a transgendered person by a gender they do not identify with, "It's more the equivalent of a group of people asking to be called 'The Overlords of the Universe Who Are Supreme To Everyone Else.' It's just hyperbole, it's not factual or even grounded in rational objectivity."


Now to my second point about language, and it's one I've been pondering at length lately, given that yesterday was the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHO). Specifically, my question deals with the "phobia." I've been wondering if the terms homophobia and transphobia actually encompass the litany of issues facing the GLBTQ communities.

Basically, I feel like -phobia is not a fully accurate term for what is going on in our society, mostly because other phobias are legitimate psychological disorders. What is really going on is blind hatred, removal of rights, and marginalization. Yes, there is and forever will be a connection between fear and hatred and fear is at the core of so many anti-GLBTQ things (Prop 8 anyone? "Teaching" kids gayness...?) But I feel like fear is just a tip of the iceberg for what is really going on. Many people wouldn't call themselves homophobic because they have a token gay friend or family member, but still stand in strong opposition to anything that would attempt to give GLBTQ people equal rights. (Although most racists don't call themselves racist either...)

Anyway, it's for this reason that I often say heterosexism. It's my attempt to more accurately encompass the layers of discrimination against GLBTQ individuals. I need a term like misogyny for it, I guess, but I think that it's the hate that is most salient here. And I don't think we should replace the -phobia terms, necessarily...I'm just considering if they're accurate.

Anyway, these two examples are just a few of the ways that I ponder how language plays a critical role in our society. I maintain that wording is very powerful, not only in what makes you the person you are, but also in how we exert ourselves into the world and convey ourselves to others.

So choose your words wisely.

Edit: Turns out I have talked about it...here and here, just not in this detail.


  1. That's one of the things I hate about subbing for children. I hear them say things that I consider disrespectful, and I can ask them to stop, but they don't trust me enough to have a conversation about why they shouldn't say things. Not that I don't tell them I don't allow language like that in my classroom, but still. Kids today need to learn how to use correct language.

  2. And of course, 95% of the reason that "kids today need to learn how to use correct language" is that their parents don't use it...

    Way too few people take the time to consider the impact their words have.


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