“Powerful people can do more, say more, and have their speech count for more than the powerless.” -Rae Langton
Have you ever said “that’s so lame”? As a disabled person who has trouble walking, it’s not fun to be a cultural reference point for things that suck. Alternative word choices are everywhere, like “that’s so crappy.” Or perhaps you’ve called someone a douchebag. Why exactly is it insulting to call someone a tool used to clean a vagina? Because any word associated with female genitalia is a put-down in our society, as a method of oppressing women. For centuries women have been labeled hysterical and crazy as a method of subordination and silencing.
I’ve been with people who watched someone acting odd and heard them wonder aloud if the “oddball” was bipolar. As someone who actually is bipolar, that’s offensive. Mental illness is not a joke, and it’s not just “changing your mind” like Katy Perry sang in “Hot N Cold.” Do you have a “gay friend” or a “Black friend?” Your friends and coworkers are just “your friends.” They are more than their sexual orientations and races. And “gay marriage” is just “marriage.”
Words have the power to marginalize, reinforcing “pervasive, restrictive, oppressive hierarchies… and the dominant group has the power to define reality.” Did you know the dictionary was written and updated by white men? This makes it an oppressive force. Especially when its definitions are incomplete or self-serving. The dictionary defines racism as stereotyping, prejudice, and discrimination. But that’s not ALL racism is. Many people experience those things, but only oppressed people experience all of that AND institutionalized violence and systematic erasure. We cannot turn to the dictionary for real social justice definitions because “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house” (-Audre Lorde). A more accurate definition of terms can be found in Social Justice Terminology.
“Language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old-fashioned way.” – Edward de Bono
Oppressive slang has become such a part of language that it can be difficult to pick apart its actual meaning. Bitch, for example, is defined by Andi Zeisler as “a woman who is strong, angry, uncompromising and, often, uninterested in pleasing men. We use it for the woman who doesn’t back down from a confrontation. This word perpetuates the mindset that deems powerful women to be scary, angry and, of course, unfeminine.”
Language can be used to maintain stereotypical gender norms. You may not even be aware you’re perpetuating micro-aggressions (subtle, automatic, stereotypical, insensitive behavior or comments about a person’s identity, background, ethnicity, or disability). Micro-aggressions are present in phrases like “man up”, “grow a pair” and “ballsy”, which equate strength with male genitalia, and “throwing, running, or crying like a girl” which equate weakness with being female. Skinny Girl Cocktails and Hungry-Man Dinners reinforce the beauty standard of thinness for women. What you say reflects your thoughts, perceptions, values, and beliefs.
“Language is constantly changing, both its meanings and its connotations. Words are in flux, words many of us grew up familiar with as common terms, but which we are now being encouraged to rethink.” Thirty years ago when I was in high school, it was common to hear slurs like “That’s so gay” or “He’s so retarded.” Thankfully our understanding of how wrong this is has evolved over time and fewer people say these particular phrases today. But some still do. There are still many other sexist, homophobic, and ableist terms you may not even realize are a part of your vocabulary.
Do you call women “girls”? This infantilizes them and diminishes their power. Notice that men are rarely called “boys.” Girls and boys are children, not adults. Words matter. They are not harmless; words are like mirrors- they reflect and project thoughts and actions. They create and reflect our (rape) culture. Have you ever sang along to the Christmas classic “Baby It’s Cold Outside?” Did you notice the line where she asks “what’s in this drink?” (cringe) How can Bill Cosby NOT come to mind?
My favorite swear used to be “mother-fucker” until I began looking at things with a feminist lens. Why is it an insult to have sex with someone’s mother? There is no equivalent, as no woman has ever been called a “father-fucker”, nor would it be an insult if she was. Son-of-a-bitch and Bastard are also insults based on relationship to a woman. Cocksucker and “suck my dick” speak to the projected inferiority of any person who interacts with male genitalia.
You Don’t Say Last year two student organizations at Duke University launched a campaign called “You Don’t Say” to spread awareness about commonly used phrases and their impact. Their mission advocated for ending the derogatory usage of language that marginalizes women or anyone on the gender and sexual spectrum. Since then they’ve expanded their campaign to include terms about racism, physical and mental disability, and substance abuse, among others. Their goal is to challenge marginalizing language and bias, building safer and more inclusive communities, and validating the identities and experiences of people of all backgrounds.
PC Police vs. Inclusion Political correctness is externally driven; being inclusive is internally driven. When people are politically correct it often conflicts with their values – they’re doing it because they’ve been told they should, even if they don’t believe it themselves. In contrast, when people are inclusive, value conflict doesn’t occur because being inclusive is a value.
Intentions vs. outcomes “Intentions are theoretical while outcomes are real.” People often have good intentions and don’t intend to offend. When they offend anyway, they “jump from the Political Correctness frying pan into the Victim Blaming fire.” Nobody likes to be wrong and defensiveness ensues. Regardless of what you were trying to accomplish, if someone tells you they find your language offensive, believe them. The concrete impact is what matters most. If you’re not sure if a word may be offensive, check it out before you say it! Look it up first in a Slang Dictionary to determine origins and whether or not it may be derogatory.
Lighten Up! It’s Just A Joke! When a “joke” covertly or overtly expresses violence against a group of discriminated people (those of a different gender, race, orientation, or ability), we need to hold up a mirror to make the invisible visible. Ask if this is really the intended reflection because *this reflection* from this *one joke* is how our culture continues to be consciously co-created by each of us. Micro-aggressions like “jokes” are the bedrock of our subtle oppressive culture. Ridicule is a suppression technique that diminishes and belittles its victims. Words reflect real world opinions, beliefs, prejudices, and discriminations that affect people from marginalized groups.
“Language shapes the way we think, and determines what we can think about.” – Benjamin Lee Whorf
Offensive Words and Phrases
|Stereotypical Gender Norms
||Throw, Run, Cry, or Act “Like a Girl”, “Man Up”, She’s so bossy (not used to describe a man)
||Bitch, Bitch-Slap, Son-of-a-Bitch, Bastard, Shemale, Tranny
||“Grow a Pair”, “That took Balls”, Ballsy, “Don’t be a pussy”, cunt, Twat, He’s a Prick, Dick, Mangina
|Interacting with Genitalia
||Motherfucker, Cocksucker, “Suck my Cock”, “Suck my Dick”, Douchebag, Douche, Douchecanoe
||Gay, Faggot, Fag, Homo, Pansy, Slut, Fuckboy, Skank, Whore, Hoe, Thot (That Hoe Over There), Hoebag
||The n word, Oreo, Mulatto
||Retard, Retarded, Lame, Cripple, Crazy, Mental, Mental Case, Nuts, Psycho
Sack of Shit
Call to Action
If you believe in social justice, there are many avenues to take to make a difference. Some are easier than others. Sherryl Kleinman clarifies that “language is one (thing) we can work on right now, if we’re willing. It’s easier to start saying “you all” instead of “you guys” than to change the wage gap tomorrow.”
This one situation, this moment, matters. It is a creative moment so let’s make it a conscious moment! Each one of us is individually responsible for the words we choose and the language we use to communicate with the world. We impact other people, sending ripples into our collective ocean. Let us hold each other accountable.
You can, in this moment, make an impact by calling out oppressive linguistic forces. Speak up when necessary and call attention to a lack of awareness and empathy when you see it. Self-awareness is critical for without it, how can we shine the flashlight on our own or others’ language choices? If you hear oppressive language, CALL. IT. OUT. Naming it raises awareness and allows discussion, opening the door for information and alternatives.
“For last year’s words belong to last year’s language And next year’s words await another voice.” – T.S. Eliot