Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me: a privileged person’s motto that we’re all expected to live by
Okay, so maybe it’s not worth the fight, but in light of Jonathan Chait’s article in New York Magazine about ‘political correctness,’ the editor-in-chief of the University conservative student newspaper The Michigan Review appearing on Fox News to claim that somehow the inclusive language campaign is a totalitarian regime trying to censor free speech, Omar Mahmood’s satirical piece in the Review mocking the very real lived experiences of microaggressions, and the really disturbing realization that one of my boyfriend’s roommates thinks ‘homosexuality is morally wrong,’ I’ve come to understand that this conversation is in desperate need of reframing. These issues are being misrepresented and misconstrued into ideas that seem controversial when really all we’re asking for is human decency.
There’s a pretty good column in The Michigan Daily critiquing the Chait piece, but I have some additional comments. Chait bemoans how “exhausting” is it to constantly police your language, and I get where he’s coming from. It is hard to do the conscious work of unlearning all of these really problematic things we’ve been taught about how the world is, and how certain people are and putting that knowledge into action—but just because it’s hard doesn’t mean we don’t do it. Of course it’s easier to continue saying “that’s so gay” when what you mean is “that’s so stupid,” but that’s not a legitimate reason to continue saying something. And it’s not a legitimate reason because your language has an impact on other people, and a negative impact at that. If someone is gay and they hear over and over again their identity used interchangeably with the word ‘stupid’ they too start to conflate the two. If somebody asks you to use the gender pronouns he/him/his and you continue to refer to the person as a she because it’s an inconvenience for you, you’re communicating to them that their identity and them feeling comfortable is less important than your comfort. When the cultural norm is to disrespect and belittle people’s identities, people internalize that shame. They are led to believe that for some reason their identity is less valuable than the dominant ones surrounding them. This is internalized racism, internalized homophobia, internalized misogyny, etc. etc. It impacts how people live their lives, how they see themselves, and so on. And I really want to stress that this isn’t just some random thing some radical liberals have by chance decided to be offended by: these are real lived experiences that play into systems oppression which allow the subordination of certain groups to continue for the benefit of those already in power. People have experienced these things as long as oppression has gone on, we’re just now hearing about them because people who have been systematically silenced for so long have finally been able to get together, stand up and say “Yeah HI, we’re people, we matter, please treat us like humans.”
And so when people say it’s too much work for them to think about the effects their words are having on other people, well that’s not really a fair argument because the ability to have that opinion, to not be impacted by words, is a very privileged position. And ignoring that privilege and saying we just shouldn’t be offended by words isn’t really something that can work in a society where we want people to live morally good lives. The purpose of thinking about how our language and our words impact others isn’t so the radical feminist in your class won’t yell at you for saying something problematic; it’s so people are treated well and people feel comfortable and confident being who they are. It’s about compassion for people who have been unjustly devalued and marginalized for so long. It’s really not that radical of an idea: let’s just stop being assholes to one another.
University of Michigan
B.A. Women’s Studies, Arts & Ideas in the Humanities| Spanish, CASC
Sexual Health Peer Educator, Sexperteam
Men’s Activism Volunteer, SAPAC
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