Dear people out there in the world,
If you and I are discussing something, and you say something that sounds racist/sexist/homophobic/classist/ableist (or otherwise marginalising towards certain groups of people), and I say to you “Wow, that’s a pretty bigoted word” please don’t think that you have offended me and that I just need to grow a thicker skin and not get offended so easily, and why do people look for stuff to go around getting offended about etc etc. (Oh no, the PC brigade is running wild!)
I’m not offended by those words. I’m contemptuous of those words, and I’m letting you know that using them just made me think less of you – less admiration, less trust, less enjoyment in your company. I don’t hold you personally in the same contempt as I do the words that you just used, at least not yet. Whether I end up doing that depends on how you react to having your word choices challenged.
How to restore my former opinion of you? Acknowledge that the words you used have their origin as tools of social exclusion, the disdain and scorn of those who appear “different” – even if you didn’t mean them to be at the time, even if they’re just words that everybody in your family uses and you never thought about those words that way – and that now that your attention has been drawn to this, you don’t want to use them that way again.
You don’t need to explain that you weren’t thinking about those aspects of the words when you said them – I’ve already assumed that by bothering to challenge you on them in the first place. If I thought you were being maliciously abusive, I would have simply reacted in kind.
I know that all of us use words unthinkingly at times because they’re part of the zeitgeist around us – what my challenge asks of you is to think more about the language we habitually use to express ourselves, particularly when we express disapproval. All of us have absorbed assumptions/attitudes about other people from those who raised us and our various peer groups. Many of these assumptions/attitudes are only ever passed on obliquely, via subtle disapproval when one doesn’t conform to the expected assumption/attitude, or a gentle but firm steering away from group interests that “just aren’t our sort of thing”.
Some of these cultural assumptions/attitudes are uplifting expressions of pride in a treasured heritage or shared talent/skill. Some of these cultural assumptions/attitudes are, quite frankly, a toxic blight on human dignity. If one wishes to be an ethical human being, then it’s important to hold one’s accumulated assumptions/attitudes up to a harsh bright light and decide which of them stand up to ethical scrutiny. Welcome to the process of self-examination – the critical analysis of internalised assumptions and attitudes.
It doesn’t make you (or anybody else) a malicious person simply because you unthinkingly use expressions that you learnt as part of a culture that is toxic in parts. Every culture is toxic in parts, because the one thing that all cultures have in common is that they are an outgrowth of systems of social control that reinforce status hierarchies, and status hierarchies require that some people are valued above other people based on assumptions about perceived attributes.
But one doesn’t have to be malicious to be cause harm by being insensitive. Exclusionary language is not neutral – by reinforcing negative social stereotypes it leads to discrimination, aggression and other oppressions against the marginalised.
Reflect on how those words are meant to be a warning to and a shaming of those who are different from the approved norm, and imagine how unwelcoming they are to anybody who identifies with the stigmatised group (which may not be immediately obvious to you as you are saying such things). Is having your words mark you as the swaggering reinforcer of rigid social norms really the impression you want to give to others? (and if you think “edgy”, “politically incorrect”, “taboo” language subverts rather than reinforces rigid social norms, there’s a lovely bridge just a short walk away that I’m sure would look lovely at the bottom of your garden (where all those fairies live) – special bargain price just for today!).
Since I started reading social justice blogs, and writing about social justice myself, there are probably around 100 words that used to be part of my lexicon that I now no longer use. At least a dozen of those were words I used quite frequently to express disapproval/disdain, without thinking about their origin as exclusionary. Yet I thought of myself as a fairly self-aware and kind-spirited person – and I mostly was! – but now I’m more consciously anti-oppressive in my language choices, which is better than just blunderingly trying to do the right thing.
Note that I don’t think I’ve rooted out all my toxic baggage, nor that anybody can entirely. We are all works in progress.
I know that sometimes, despite my best intentions, a bit of that baggage which I hadn’t realised was hiding away in one particular corner will peep out, and I’ll unthinkingly express something exclusionary/dehumanising that on reflection shames me, and requires me to publicly acknowledge the thoughtless insensitivity and the harm done thereby. More times than I’m comfortable with admitting, a bit of that toxic baggage will pop up and a marginalising expression will come to the forefront of my mind, and I will be ashamed for thinking it even though I would never, ever say it. But the more I work on examining my own heritage of toxic exclusionary tropes, the less this happens, because deconstructing my original acquisition of that vocabulary breaks the old thought routines.
My reward? Being more open to broader opportunities for welcoming other people into my social circle; knowing that by being an overt anti-oppression ally I lower the interaction anxiety for people whose lived experiences are vastly different from mine, which makes our interactions more enjoyable for all, and experiencing/reciprocating more kindness and warmth in my life as a result.
So, when I object to the marginalising words you just used, I’m not a wounded little petal petulantly nagging you about how-dare-you-offend-me. I’m showing contempt for the words you chose because of the attitudes from which they arose. You can take an opportunity to shed a weight you didn’t even realise you were carrying if you listen to the challenge, examine the source of that vocabulary and choose to jettison that toxic load.
Or you can refuse to acknowledge that choosing to use words that arise from bigotry only perpetuates that bigotry, and vigorously defend your right to express your opinions while using such words, thus demonstrating that you appear to be wearing your arse as a hat right now, and I will then loudly proclaim that those who find arsehats vile and repellent would do well to avoid you.
Never fear: most of the socially privileged secretly admire bigoted arsehats so long as they can credibly deny their bigotry, so probably “nobody who matters” will take me seriously anyway. But for those who do take these things seriously, I will keep on objecting and challenging and naming and shaming assorted arsehats. And I won’t be the only one.
Yours in ongoing self-examination,