I’m sure that my title there is kind of obvious to anyone who’s part of a social justice movement. This particular post is really aimed at people who aren’t, and who haven’t thought about it.
We all know that awful old adage, ‘bricks and bones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.’ Most of us know that it couldn’t be much farther from the truth. Words hurt. We know that instinctively as children, which is why we start figuring out which words will hurt whom at a very young age. I can’t pretend I didn’t do that, though I will say most of it was tangled up in the quarrels of siblings and not vented at vulnerable people.
Here’s the thing – some words are more loaded than others. Some words are involved in systems of oppression, both empowered by the system and fueling the system. Some words are problems because they are tied to fundamental parts of who we are – our gender, our race, our religion, our disability, our sexuality, our religious beliefs. And they are painful because those words always say something deeper than that – what they say is, ‘You are not as good as me. You are not normal.’
The truly difficult part is that some of these words have become embedded in our language deeply, so that they now have a secondary meaning – bad. People my age and older have watched it happen to the word ‘gay’. You see it with the addition of the ending ‘tard’ (as in, fucktard), which is drawn from the word ‘retard’. This is when it gets insidious.
Why? Because people don’t think about the original meaning, but the word never really loses it. My father decries things he doesn’t like as ‘lame’, but he also calls me lame when I injure myself, and we call a horse that is limping ‘lame’. It means all of these things, which means that when you use it to mean ‘bad’, you reiterate the idea that the original meaning is bad. So…my abnormal gait, the thing that makes me ‘lame,’ is coded as bad.
And don’t tell me people don’t know this. Haven’t you heard kids insulting each other with the adjective ‘retarded’ and known they meant someone with developmental disabilities? We know what these words mean and we keep using them anyhow!
I’m making a list of words we should not use, but do. Please feel free to add your own, and why they shouldn’t be used! (excluding of course use in a reclamatory sense, which I’ll talk about in Social Justice 3: Reclamation)
*Blind/nearsighted/shortsighted – all references to visual acuity often used to describe making errors in judgement
*Lame – reference to altered gait used to describe things that are bad
*Cripple – reference to physical ability, usually walking ability, used as an insult. Also used as a negative adjective and verb, as in ‘a crippled bus’, ‘the strike crippled the city’.
*Spaz – reference to spasticity, used to describe erratic motion or actions
*crazy/mad/insane – references to state of sanity, used to describe the ’cause’ of all kinds of undesirable actions, without regard for the actual sanity of the person.
*psychotic – reference to state of sanity, often used to describe someone frightening, where psychopath might be a more accurate term, as psychotic just means someone who has had a break with reality (and for what it’s worth, the only psychotic person I’ve ever seen was just disconcerting, not scary – she was trying to have conversations with inanimate objects)
*schizo/schiznophrenic – reference to a specific mental illness, often used to describe unpredictable or erratic behavior
*bipolar – reference to a specific mental illness, used to describe someone who is giving two different reactions (see for example the Katy Perry song, ‘Hot and Cold’, which describes her relationship as a ‘love bipolar’)
Right, so in addition to the disability related ones, here’s a few more I put on the list of things not to be said:
*Bitch – woman as dog? Come on!
*Slut/whore – judgement made about a person’s sexual choices? Not cool.
*Gay – reference to sexuality used to describe things that are bad
*Fatty/fat as insult – referring to a person’s state of not being thin as a reason to torment and make fun of them just sucks
I know I’m missing a lot here, words that we need to really think about why we use them. In all likelihood, the best answer is to either completely remove them from our vocabularies, with a few exceptions that can be used accurately, like ‘gay’. We’re not perfect, and we’re likely to make mistakes, but choosing to engage and try to do this right is valuable.
Now, before you talk about how Political Correctness is bad or call me the PC police, trust me that I’ll get to talking about that issue in Social Justice (2) – PC Police!