The Precision of Language

I have been steering clear of any posts discussing the impending elections–a topic I feel ill-equipped and wary to weigh in on. But this post will address a matter that is intimately woven into political debate, particularly in this country: the matter of language. In this context, I’m not thinking of language in terms of systems of communication used by cultural or national communities, such as Mandarin or Spanish, though that in itself is a complex conversation in politics. Instead, I want to consider language more broadly as a set of words and rules and symbols that we imbue with meaning and that ultimately shapes the way we think about and view the world. I am particularly interested in addressing those sets of words that have been labeled as political correctness.

Political correctness, or “PC” as it can be described, is a controversial point of debate that has been subject to frequent critique from mainstream news and the topic of several South Park episodes. Perhaps the most frequent, and most simple, challenge to political correctness is the statement: “But they’re just words,” often accompanied with exclamations like “Let it go,” or “Get over it.” Among the more complex critiques is the concern that political correctness infantilizes our citizenry–over-protecting people from the real world, while simultaneously limiting the constitutional right to free speech. For the purpose of this post, however, I want to seriously consider the impact that words have on our society. Why do the words we choose to use matter, and why might people spend time advocating for certain sets of vocabulary? Why might those vocabulary terms change over time? This is an extensive subject, so I will barely scratch the surface, but I hope the following might provoke some thought.

Most of us grew up with the playground verse, “Sticks and stones may break your bones, but words can never harm you.” We now know that to be quite untrue; in fact, psychological and emotional damage has a far greater and long-standing impact on a person than many physical injuries. There are certain names, described as hate speech, that the societal majority generally agrees are completely inappropriate and damaging in their use. We run into problems, however, when language changes and when individuals belonging to a particular affiliation ask for society-at-large to alter how it identifies that affiliation, or when in a debate, each side disagrees on the meaning of a term. Suddenly, it’s not quite clear anymore where the line between words being harmful or innocuous can be drawn.

Let’s make this more concrete with some examples. I’ll begin with an area of language that is personal to me: gendered terminology. In the last few decades, our language has seen a shift from assuming male-gendered pronouns and occupation titles, e.g. “policemen”, to using more inclusive titles like “flight attendant.” Though the title “policewoman” has traditionally existed, we still typically revert to using “policeman.” Why does this matter? It establishes the assumption that policing is a predominately male job, which further reinforces a male-dominated policing culture, making it difficult for those women who do enter into a policing career. (And discouraging many more from entering the police-force, further reinforcing the assumption that policing is a male job.) Imagine how cultural dynamics within police-forces might change if the gender dynamic shifted. Traditional expectations of policing, associated with aggression and force, could experience a fundamental paradigm revolution. Current conversations about national police brutality might look quite different.

Image courtesy of Timo, via CC 2.0 license.
Image courtesy of Timo, via CC 2.0 license.

Another example of nuanced language that can make a significant difference is the term “illegal alien.” Regardless of your opinion about how we should handle illegal immigration, the phrase “illegal alien” is loaded. As an immigrant myself, though I was legal, any time I was referred to as an alien, it immediately conjured up images of grotesque green slimy creatures with weird appendages and too many eyes. I felt dehumanized, an outsider, and unfit to be a virtuous white picket fence American. Imagine adding the adjective “illegal” to the term alien and how much more dehumanizing that must feel. On the other end, for those using the phrase, it also desensitizes speakers to the fact that the “illegal aliens” crossing our borders are people like ourselves, trying to make a better life for themselves and their families. When the debate about these issues uses abstracted, dehumanizing terms, we do a disservice to the actual realities of the issue. It is not enough to simply engage our reason; as holistic human beings, we must also engage our emotions, risky though it may feel. That does not necessarily mean not making rational, difficult decisions, but we owe people the dignity of confronting their difficult situation fully and face-on.

As evidenced in both of these examples, words are always burdened with a history, with associated imagery, and with assumptions. For each individual, a word is experienced with a story behind it. When we utilize words, we tap into those stories both in delivery and receipt. Words are also associated with power structures and can either reinforce or subvert those power structures. Words over time change and are changed, people injecting new meaning into the way words are experienced and used, such as the way certain African-American communities have taken ownership over the n-word, subverting and transforming a word that has been used to demean African-Americans for decades.

The famous British cultural theorist, Raymond Williams, wrote an entire book entitled Keywords that was dedicated to this subject. In his introduction, he noted, “no word ever finally stands on its own, since it is always an element in the social process of language, and its uses depend on complex and (though variably) systematic properties of language itself” (22). He further describes his study of keywords as “not a tradition to be learned, nor a consensus to be accepted, nor a set of meaning which, because it is ‘our language’, has a natural authority; but as a shaping and reshaping, in real circumstances and from profoundly different and important points of view: a vocabulary to use, to find our own ways in, to change as we find it necessary to change it, as we go on making our own language and history” (24).

In conclusion, I wish to urge you my reader to take it seriously when heated discussions or earnest pleas regarding terminology are raised. Instead of considering these moves as calculated political attacks, take the time to learn the stories behind the words and phrases discussed and spend some time listening to those who are expressing pain or disenfranchisement. Their stories are different to yours, and therefore, they will hear and experience words different to how you might. You don’t have to agree with them, but you can give them the courtesy of acknowledging that words hold power and can hurt. You can also pay more attention to your own use of words and phrases. Why do you say something the way you say it? What assumptions and privileges are built into that language? What stories do you yourself bring to the table, and how do they impact the way you experience certain narratives?

In this particularly tumultuous election, we Americans have gotten quite good at yelling at each other and arguing our point of views. As I’ve done before, I urge you to step out of the fray and model something different: compassionate listening.

Featured image courtesy of Matus Laslofi, through a CC 2.0 license.

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