Another Reason to Avoid Exclusionary Language

There are a lot of reasons which I think are pretty compelling to avoid the use of exclusionary language, which is to say language which is sexist, ableist, racist, transphobic, homophobic, etc. I think that one obvious reason, of course, especially if you are a social justice activist, is that such language props up problematic structures, even when you are using it in a way which you think is harmless, like calling an activity ‘retarded.’ Even if you don’t give a fig for the fact that exclusionary language supports kyriarchal structures, you might care about the fact that it hurts people, and that if you don’t want to hurt people, you might want to avoid.

These arguments may have failed to compel you, for any number of reasons. Maybe you reject the idea that using ‘gay’ as a pejorative hurts gay-identified folks, or you really want to defend your right to call things you don’t like ‘lame.’ Perhaps you reject the arguments in which these discussions are rooted about how words matter and continue to matter, about how dilution of words does not magically erase their original meaning and thus when a word used to describe someone’s identity gets used as a pejorative, it creates pejorative associations with that identity.

Well, I’ve got another reason for you to think about how you use exclusionary language: It makes you look like you have no point or argument.

The thing about exclusionary language in a pejorative sense is that it’s used as a catchall and dismissal, to indicate that something is completely not worth your time and engagement. So you say that something is [whatever] and that is generally understood to mean that this thing you are describing is bad. So bad that you can’t even be bothered to explain why it is bad. It’s so bad that everyone knows it.

But it can also be understood to mean that you don’t have an argument to support your point. You are hoping that you can hide behind a single epithet to avoid having to provide arguments which would back up the claim or assertion you are making. Now, one could argue that people do not need to justify their opinions and beliefs. But the thing is that if you are going to use your opinions and beliefs in an argument, as opposed to in a simple statement like ‘I really don’t like okra,’ it is not unreasonable to expect that these things are going to be challenged.

When a belief or opinion is being used to make an argument, it needs to supported by backup points.

Let us explore the okra example a little further. You are an okra fan, and I am arguing with you about okra and trying to convince you that you shouldn’t like it, because I think it is bad[1. This is an argument which I am going to lose because liking/disliking a vegetable is based on subjective experiences, but humour me for a moment, if you don’t mind.]. If I say ‘okra is bad,’ your response is going to be ‘ok, why? Why is it bad?’ If I keep saying ‘because it is bad,’ you are probably going to respond ‘so, basically, you have no foundation for that assertion.’ I’ve lost the argument for myself before it’s even begun.

If, on the other hand, I muster up some arguments, like ‘it is always slimy when I consume it’ or ‘it has an acrid flavour,’ then we have something to work with. I have created arguments, and you can engage with them. The fact that I have presented arguments means that I think there is merit to my case and that I actually can convince you. Those arguments provide support for my initial claim, and they provide grounds for discussion about the matter. We may ultimately disagree[2. As indeed we are fated to do in this particular case.], but at least we actually have a conversation.

Saying ‘this is bad’ over and over again does not actually cultivate a discussion. And when you find yourself doing it, you may want to ask yourself if it’s because you have no substantive points to support the claim you are making. Perhaps an epithet is the only word you can use because you’ve got nothing else. Which means that maybe, just maybe, you shouldn’t be making that assertion in the first place.

Or you should be changing the framing of the assertion. Let’s bring okra back into the conversation.

What’s the difference between these statements:

Okra is bad.

Okra is not to my preference.

One is a blanket statement. It’s categorical. It says, in a sweeping gesture, ‘this is bad.’ The other is much more accurate. It says ‘I, personally, do not like this thing which we are talking about.’ It’s harder to argue with that second point, because it is true for the speaker[3. Gotcha! I actually like okra.]. People may choose to argue with it anyway, of course; ‘have you tried it this way?’ ‘did you know if you salt it first, it’s less slimy?’ ‘how many times have you tried it?’

Watching your words isn’t just about a no-no list. In fact, if that’s all you think it is, you are completely missing the point of this discussion. It’s about really thinking about the way in which you use language, and what you mean when you say things. And, ultimately? It’s going to make you a better debater, and writer, and speaker, and communicator, when you can be more precise about how you use language. When you can force yourself to explore the meanings of things, and to think, clearly, about what it is that you want to express with the words which you are using.

You can disagree with me, vehemently, on whether or not exclusionary language should be eliminated from your vocabulary. But I’d like you to give this argument a whirl in your brainmeats, and see what you think about it.

See what I did there?

I said ‘exclusionary language is bad,’ and I provided some arguments to back up my assertion.

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