Why Inclusionary Language Matters

Read a Czech translation of this post, done by Vera!

I was saddened but unsurprised recently to encounter a discussion on a feminist website in which commenters were bemoaning the appearance of content about race, gender, disability, class, and other social justice issues on feminist sites. “Why can’t feminism,” commenters asked, “just be about women?”

Feminism is useless, in my mind, if it fails to recognize an overlapping and intersecting collection of injustices. Even if all that you care about is “women,” I sincerely hope that you mean “all women.” As a movement, feminism is primarily focused on issues which involve white, Western, able-bodied cis women. Some of the gains for women accomplished by feminism, as a movement, have also benefited women outside this narrow category, it’s true, but a lack of understanding about the fact that all women experience life quite differently and may in fact have different priorities and concerns is exclusionary. And, again, if you care about all women, this is a problem, because it means that you are hurting other women when you do not consider things like race, gender, disability, and class to be “women’s issues.”

Which brings me to the topic of inclusionary language. When you are a white, cis gendered, able bodied, Western feminist, you have a lot of safe spaces to go. Pretty much any space dedicated to “feminism” is safe for you, because there’s a very high chance that the people in charge of that space are like you and/or that many of the people in the site’s community are like you. When you are are a person of color, a person with disabilities, a person who transcends the gender spectrum, a person who is not from the West, a person of low social class, you have far fewer safe spaces to engage with if you are interested in feminism. In fact, the safe spaces of others may be directly damaging and harmful for you, as people who proclaim to care about “women” proceed to talk about people like you in a disparaging way. And, tragically often, to actively oppress you.

Racism, ableism, classism, cissexism, transmisogyny, transphobia, sexism, sizeism, and heterosexism are all problems in the feminist community. Many people who identify (or would like to identify) as feminists are victims of these problems. These are problems which some white, cis, middle class, able bodied, heterosexual feminists have recognized and are trying to fight, and some of these feminists identify as “allies” and try to include oppressed people in their feminism, to advocate for social justice, to recognize the need for justice for all people, not just for heterosexual white cis ladies.

Even people who are trying to be good allies mess up, though, and use exclusionary language. Many become extremely defensive and lash out when called on exclusionary behaviour. Others recognize that they have done something hurtful (sometimes doubly so in being exclusionary and then in being reactive to questioning from people who raise concerns). Some allies even feel bad about this, and apologize or make an effort to avoid making such mistakes in the future. The ally thinks that ou has done the right thing by doing this, but the ally does not necessarily recognize the harm that has been done. For the ally, it’s a slip, the use of a “bad word” or the failure to recognize a community of people in a supposedly inclusive discussion. For the person who has that word or phrase used as a slur every day, as a weapon every day, who is constantly deliberately excluded, seeing a supposed friend do it is a stab to the heart.

A not entirely unexpected stab to the heart, but still.

What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?

Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Invalid. Psycho. Step up. Asexual (not in reference to someone who identifies as asexual). Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay (not in reference to sexual orientation).  Moron. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Halfwit. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as in “the disabled.” Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man. Fat/fatty (as an insult, not an adjective).

They’re all exclusionary. Some of these words are actively used today as insults, and some of them have a historical context of use as insults which oppress, silence, and marginalize large groups of people, some of whom happen to be women. Some of these terms are racist, some are sexist, some are classist, some are cissexist, some are heterosexist, some are ableist. (I deliberately haven’t used speciesist terms here because, while I think that there is a clear intersection between animal rights issues and feminism, others may disagree, and thus, may not think that using speciesist language is exclusionary.) Many of these words are a common part of the vernacular; I use “bitch” all the time, for example. Many are examples of subconsciously exclusionary terms, in that people use them thoughtlessly, without realizing what they are really saying.

All of them should not be used by people who claim to be feminists, if feminism for them is about advocating for all women and improving conditions for all women. I include myself in this admonition. Every time we use them, we engage in othering. We exclude The Other, and make it clear that we don’t actually care about the issues that other people may experience. We make it clear that our claims of ally status are just lip service.

At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women. Not just women who fit into a very narrow set of categories. And this is why we need to use inclusionary language. This is why we need to cultivate spaces which are truly safe for everyone. This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.

Lots of people like to defend exclusionary language. They say that they like using a term, or can’t come up with a good alternative, or don’t really see why they should have to change. “The word doesn’t really mean that anymore,” or “but I’m not really [pick your poison]ist, so it’s ok.” But, here’s the thing. Even if the word doesn’t mean that anymore, that doesn’t mean that it does not carry very negative implications. Even if someone thinks that the word is being used in a positive sense, it is still loaded with negative meaning. It does not mean that the word does not have a very loaded history. It does mean that every time you use it, you are unconsciously enforcing a system of oppression. You can participate in and even perpetuate a system of oppression without actively subscribing to it.

People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved. If we ever live in a society where trans hatred doesn’t exist, everyone who is cis gendered will lose privilege, for example. As the old saying goes, “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead,” and this appears to apply to social justice issues as well, though you would be hard pressed to find someone who openly admits it. Being informed that you are hurting people with your actions threatens people when they have something to lose in this fight. This is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege.

You can believe with all your heart that sexism is terrible and evil, but when you call a woman a bitch, it kind of undermines your point. You can think that people with disabilities are oppressed and marginalized by society, and that this is wrong, but when you call something “lame,” you’re saying that you think it’s ok to continue oppressing people with disabilities. When you say that someone should “step up,” you are unconsciously erasing everyone in the population who cannot step, like wheelchair users and people who are bedbound. When you refer to someone or something as “insane” or “crazy,” you are using mental illness as a slur.

So stop it. Stop using exclusionary language. Start including people.

And stop trying to defend it. If you’re too lazy to find a better word or phrase to use, that’s your problem, not society’s. If you can’t be creative enough to think of a different word or phrase, a word or phrase which does not exclude or silence someone, you apparently have not heard of a thesaurus.

33 Replies to “Why Inclusionary Language Matters”

  1. This is a wonderful post. I know I try really hard to both remove exclusionary language from my vocabulary and to call out other people I know when they use it, but…it’s a battle. All the time.

    Lately the words I’ve been having the most trouble with are things like “crazy” or “insane” or “lunacy”, which I have a tendency to fall into using when what I really been is “bizarre” or “incomprehensible”.

    Anyway, I guess what I’m fumbling inarticulately toward is just a huge, heartfelt thank you for writing this. Because it gets to the heart of something that I think is really important.

  2. Language is complicated.

    I personally have no problem with being addressed even in an all-female group as “guys”, for example, because I view that use of it as gender-neutral.

    The pronoun thing I do find to be rather irritating. He? She? S/he? They? And I’m taking Greek right now — which has that nice anthropos thing — but my fellow students keep translating it as “man”, which is doubly annoying.

    Question: when you list “biological sex”, is that in a specific context? Because looking at it, all I see is redundancy, which presumably isn’t why it’s a problem.

  3. The term “biological sex” is viewed as cissexist by many trans folk, partly because it carries the implication of biological=real, making trans folks fake, because their gender identity conflicts with their biology. It’s right up there with “natal sex” and “woman born woman” and so forth.

    I think it’s fine to not be personally offended by exclusionary language, but it’s important to see how it is viewed and used as exclusionary. “You guys” is most definitely sexist language, because it’s using a male pronoun as a generic for “group of people of mixed gender.” In a more immediate sense, you probably would not appreciate it if I used male pronouns to refer to you, and saying “guys” to a mixed gender group is basically doing the same thing.

    Speaking of the ways in which language is complicated, “man” actually has it roots in a generic for “people” or “humans” and was used in that sense until comparatively recently, in linguistic terms. I’m actually working on a discussion of the pronoun issue and the larger issue of gendered language in English which will probably be going on up in a few weeks, as I have some other stuff I plan on putting up first.

  4. Why thank you! I was trying to cover as many bases as possible, but I can already see some things I missed.

  5. Nice post! I’ve seen all the same content before, but this does a really exceptional job of gathering it into a coherent whole. This is definitely going onto my list of “do your 101 reading before you keep talking to me” links.

  6. Very interesting. Thanks for the thoughtful essay.

    I’d find it helpful to hear more examples of how to replace the more common of these terms in our everyday language. I mean, I don’t think most people are going to have a hard time not using the words Harpy or Bitch with a little thought, but finding ways to express things that are covered by “lame” and “crazy” in the common vernacular seems a bit more complex.

    More prescriptive (rather than proscriptive) examples of how to practice thoughtful speech might help diffuse some of the arguments I’ve heard in the “but if we stop using those words how can we express anything?!” category.

  7. Eva, I’m going to refer you to the last line in the essay: “If you’re too lazy to find a better word or phrase to use, that’s your problem, not society’s. If you can’t be creative enough to think of a different word or phrase, a word or phrase which does not exclude or silence someone, you apparently have not heard of a thesaurus.”

  8. Ok, for real though, people, please do not post comments about how using inclusionary language is “hard” or “too much work” or a “sacrifice” on a post about why inclusionary language matters. Double plus bad points for using exclusionary language in your comment.

    You know what’s “hard”? Being constantly and casually othered in spoken and written communications. Hearing language from people who are supposedly your allies in which it is made clear that people like you do not matter or are not worth basic human respect. That, my friends, is hard.

  9. Maybe there isn’t a replacement for certain problematic words and phrases. Maybe there isn’t another word or phrase you can use instead, or another way to express the same thought.

    Consider that maybe that is an acceptable loss compared to reinforcing a culture that beats, rapes, institutionalizes, and kills many people based on exactly those concepts.

    I had trouble with “blind.” Being blind to your privilege, for example. But you know what? Big deal. I gave it up. I can still speak out against privilege. I just don’t get to use somebody else’s life as a tool in my pursuits. I can live with that trade-off.

  10. You know, I have been thinking about a post on the issue of religion in America. For a supposedly secular nation, we are heavily influenced and some might even say dominated by religion. This post was more directly focused on exclusionary language in feminism, and I have to admit, I haven’t seen a lot of use of religion to exclude people in feminism; this is probably related to the fact that I have not been watching out for it. In feminism, I see more a problem with lack of respect for religion than I do with lack of respect for athiests/agnostics. For example, the very patronizing attitudes from some feminists directed at the Muslim world and Muslimahs.

  11. Heather,

    Most of what you have brought up seems to be actively and consciously anti, rather than the sort of thing that the perpetrator isn’t even aware of (as with examples on meloukhia’s list). Perhaps it might be better covered under a different topic?

    (There is one item on your list whose inclusion I’m puzzled about, actually; namely, “God bless___”. As a non-atheist, I have no experience to draw on. Could you please explain its exclusionary nature?)

  12. I agree with amandaw that sometimes there really isn’t a proper synonym.

    And I was hoping that you’d bring up religious privilege. I see it every day from the President (“God bless you and may God bless the United States of America”) to my friends and family (“it’s a phase,” “I’ll pray for you,” “it takes more faith to be an atheist,” and my personal worst blood-boiler, “there are no atheists in foxholes,” etc.). It hammers down, every time I hear it so casually said, how very other I am as a non-believer.

    (Add not-quite-cisgendered, pan/poly, and mental health issues to the mix…oy.)

  13. I think that Heather’s question was entirely appropriate for the setting, actually. She was highlighting an oversight I made, in that I did not discuss exclusionary language related to religion in the post. A lot of language you see used here is used deliberately, all the time; this post is not about unconsciously exclusionary language, but about exclusionary language in general, whether it is used with deliberation and intent or not.

    As for “God bless,” it assumes that everyone believes in god of some form or another. That’s quite exclusionary.

  14. Also, I just want to point out that even people who are trying to be aware of their language can still fuck up on a pretty regular basis. I, for example, said about three different ableist things today. All of which I realized were ableist about 30 seconds after they were said, but that didn’t take away the fact that they were said, out there, for general consumption, me being a thoughtless asshole. So, you know. It’s a constant struggle.

  15. Great post. I agree with all of it. Been trying to school myself out of exclusionary language but I do fuck up. I try and call out my friends and family too.

    I do have one question though. How is idiot exclusive? Is it the origin of the word? I always thought idiot was pretty neutral.

  16. It was actually a DSM diagnosis for people with a certain IQ range. *I* have trouble with that one. Our entire system of treating higher intelligence as higher human value is a lot thicker than I think even the most radical of activists realizes or can fully address.

  17. Wow, it was a DSM diagnosis! I did not know that. I keep forgetting the highly oppressive roots of the DSM. (Uhm, not that the DSM is not oppressive now, or anything.)

  18. Idiot is an antiquated term for someone with developmental disabilities. (Same with moron, halfwit.)

    …and I’m also wrong: see Amandaw’s comment for the correct answer.

  19. And it’s wrongity wrong wrong wrong — at least as far as what Binet had in mind when he was developing the “IQ” tests. He’d never claimed it measured normal “intelligence” (whatever the hell that might be). He was just trying to identify kids who needed extra help in school so they would get it. (To be sure, he did a poor job of naming his creation.)

    It got fucked up and reified later and used in all kinds of appalling and bigoted ways: When you’ve got something that correlates a thirty-point drop in what you’re measuring with ringworm infection, it damn sure isn’t measuring “intelligence.” And if the conclusion you draw from that data is “Wow, stupid people sure do catch a lot of ringworm” you aren’t doing science.

    I could keep ranting about intelligence and the DSM but I’ll stop now.

  20. I have a question about practicalities! If someone is being a *ist jerk and clearly not caring if they are or not, is it worthwhile to call them out on it?

  21. You know, that is a really good question, and it is one I have a very tough time with.

    As a general rule, if it’s someone whom I think is trying to be conscientious about *-isms, or is receptive to having them brought to ou attention, I will say something about it. At the very least, I will say “it makes me uncomfortable when you say things like, and I don’t want to hang out with you if you are going to keep doing it.”

    But, beyond that? I don’t know. I am really bad at picking my battles (and disengaging when it is clear that a battle is not worth it), but other readers might have better rules about when to go to bat or not. For me, it depends on how the *-ism is being used? Someone using a blatantly racist slur, for example? Probably not worth it. Someone carelessly referring to “getting gypped at the store”? I might say “oh, actually, do you know the origins of that word?”

    I will also always jump in if I am in a group setting and someone says, to someone else “hey, this is offensive/something you said hurt me/etc” to support the person doing the calling out. I’ve noticed that a single person doing it is sometimes dismissed or written off, but when someone else says “actually, yes, this needs to be addressed,” people tend to take it seriously. And if they don’t? I make a note not to spend time with those people again.

  22. Aeode, I think it is, but that’s because I’m mean. I did delight yesterday in making everyone in class uncomfortable by calling someone out on their shite.

  23. Oh thanks for that. I was under the impression that moron was originally a neutral old English term for a prepubescent child and later achieved its pejorative status.

    I try and call people out on exclusionary language but I think that people will not understand the pejorative behind that (except for the obvious). I’ll try and stop using it myself though.

    Very interesting discussion

  24. Oh, no. I had no idea “moron” was one of those words. I’ve been using it as a replacement for “retard”, which was an old, bad habit I picked up in high school. I will definitely start cutting that one out, thanks.

    Isn’t the phrase “woman-born woman” just so absurd? I’m cisgendered, but I’m not a woman-born woman, and I’m glad. If I was born a woman, rather than a baby, my mom would’ve had a very hard time during labour, if she even made it that far in the pregnancy. My condolences to all of the woman-born women out there, and more importantly, their birth moms.

  25. Hey Meloukhia! Would you say that “pussying out” is in fact a reference to cats being timid, and not at all sexist language? Cause I mean, I could have sworn it was based on the use of “pussy” as an insult that conflated femininity with cowardice, but the Internet doesn’t seem to think so!

    …the funny thing is, the person who actually used the term was quite apologetic and stuff; it was the bystanders who were sticking up for the language.

  26. If I was born a woman, rather than a baby, my mom would’ve had a very hard time during labour, if she even made it that far in the pregnancy. My condolences to all of the woman-born women out there, and more importantly, their birth moms.

    Hee! I use a version of this a lot and it just tickles me no end to see it in someone else’s words. Thank you.

  27. I’m late to the party, but I thought this might be of interest – the OEtymD is probably a useful resource when determining whether a word has an oppressive back history.

    W/r/t the exchange on the origin of “moron”, the Online Etymological Dictionary indicates that it had no usage between Attic Greek and condescending 20th-century medical objectification. (Pre-DSM, but that’s a technicality – same shit, different pile.)


  28. This post was very informative and helpful. I consider myself to be fairly good at making sure that I am using inclusive language and I try my best to make sure what I say is accurate, rather than colloquial, but as we all know, that doesn’t always work as well as intended if the user of the language is of a more privileged ilk.

    Anyway, I greatly appreciate that this post was informative and educating rather than snarky and sarcastic. It’s much, much easier, as a person of many privileges, to be called out in a way that does not imply that I am a deliberately insensitive, uneducated, and hopeless ass hole.

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