Recently, a friend of mine posted a meme that recommended we should use the term “enslaved people” rather than “slaves”, because being a slave is a circumstance, rather than an identity. I did not think it was particularly useful to do so; it misses the point. The important thing, when teaching about slavery, is to teach from the perspective of the slaves themselves, so that the student never forgets that the slaves are fellow humans rather than objects, and that they have been made property despite their intrinsic human equality with their legal masters.
I have often been confounded with the need to change my language this way. When language changes more quickly than I can keep up, I often find myself misunderstood because I use the old words and people hear the new definitions. It happened when I was told that I could no longer say “all lives matter”, because it now meant that the only lives that did matter were the white, neurotypical ones. It happened when I was told that when I mourned their genocide during the Holocaust, I could not call them Gypsies, but must call them Roma instead, because that is what they call themselves. I never seem to be able to change my words as quickly as neurotypicals do. It can get frustrating.
Most of the time when this happens, I do change my language, because I recognize that neurotypicals burden words with all sorts of things not in the words’ actual definition, and then when I say them, they hear all those extra meanings too. If I want to communicate, I have to keep up. But it bothers me a great deal, for several reasons.
First, it seems that people substitute a change in language for a change in behavior. One simply cannot say the n-word without being immediately branded a racist (for an experiment, imagine what you might think of me if I had not censored it). With the extra meanings loaded onto that word, that is exactly what it means now: “I am a racist.” And if you say it, you are saying you are not just a racist, but a proud racist.
But although this word has become a taboo, many other things that are more hurtful to black people than a word will ever be, are not taboos. White people say they want to live in a good neighborhood; they mean they want to live outside a poor black neighborhood. They send their child to a “good school”, and leave the underfunded, crowded public schools for the black children. White people casually hire other white people for jobs, choose them as friends, date them, and generally perpetuate, informally, segregation. None of this is taboo, the way the n-word is. People who would never say the n-word will happily act in ways that say, “I am a racist”.
Because of this language taboo, saying you are a racist has become more shunned than actually acting like a racist.
Second, language is being used as a password into liberal, socially-conscious circles. If one does not say the right words, one is assumed not to care about human rights. The focus has changed. Instead of policing one another’s actions, people police one another’s language. A person who has not lifted a finger to help empower the minority groups in their own community can, with the full consensus of their social circle, brand another person as the enemy–even if the other person has been spending a great deal of time and effort working toward equality. Saying the right words has become a substitute for doing the right thing.
I’ve seen the same phenomenon in a very different milieu–that of fundamentalist Christianity. One must say the right words, pray the right prayers, or one is an outsider. Words are given near-magical power.
In fundamentalist circles, to use any kind of “bad language” is to be immediately castigated (and I don’t mean using God or Jesus as swear words, which would be understandable as it shows a lack of respect. Rather, it is the simple scatological and sexual language that is considered most sinful). But it is completely permitted to insult, belittle, or bully someone without that sort of language, especially if one can put it in polite terms. I have heard “God bless you” being used as a patronizing insult–multiple times.
There are superstitions surrounding language. People use “In Jesus’s name,” to close out a prayer, with the belief that if one does not pray in Jesus’s name, God will not hear. They talk about becoming a Christian by saying the right words–that one repents of sin, asks for forgiveness, and asks Christ into one’s heart–and believe that one cannot be a Christian unless one has said those words, whether or not one lives according to them.
Fundamentalists also identify one another, and exclude outsiders, by the use of language. There are so many words that are loaded with a ton of meaning outside their literal definition that communicating with a fundamentalist, in their own language, is like crossing a minefield. Terms like “God’s will”, “persecution”, “sinner”, or “end times”, come so loaded with meaning that anyone who hasn’t spent years in that culture will immediately sound like an outsider when they open their mouths. They too have fallen into the trap of policing one another’s language rather than their behavior.
It is so very similar to what I see in liberal circles, and that troubles me. Groups can lose sight of their purpose in this endless quest to affirm and reinforce their group identity, because they give language so much power.
What’s done is done: Once a word has been given a meaning, we can’t take it back. But should we really be looking for more words we can load with negative meanings and declare taboos? From where I stand, all that does is power the euphemism treadmill. People like me go from being called cretins, to morons, to retarded, to developmentally delayed; and all the time, we are treated as second-class citizens no matter how much the label changes.
As an autistic person, language is not my first language. Language is only what I translate my thoughts into when I want to communicate them to others. Yet neurotypicals seem convinced that words are thoughts and language is reality. Some even believe they can affect reality by saying the right words: Every tradition of magic, whether cultural or fictional, has to do with saying the right words, making the right gestures, and/or creating the right symbols. Does that sound familiar? It should; the ways of magic are also the ways of language, whether written, gestured, or spoken.
Neurotypicals give language power, and because culture is as real as any other idea, language is indeed granted the power they give it. But this is not intrinsic power. Language has only the power we give it, and we are giving it too much power.
As a language-user, I have no choice but to tiptoe across the minefield of connotation. If I say the wrong word, people hear things I am not saying or believe things of me that are not true. I have to spend a lot of time and effort on updating my language rather than actually doing useful things to mitigate or overturn the social systems that created the desire to linguistically distance ourselves from the atrocities associated with them. But it bothers me, because the more we focus on linguistic distance, the more we seem to lose focus on the need to actually change the way the world works.
If only we did not give language so much power, we would be much better off.