Missing the Point on Language

In recent years, there has been a huge uptick in conversations about language and the way it reflects biases and reinforces damaging social attitudes. People are more aware of the fact that words mean things, and think more consciously about the way they use language; what it means when they say that a female politician is ‘crazy,’ for example, or what is implied in conversations about immigration where people in the United States without documentation are called ‘illegal.’

Unfortunately, a lot of these conversations have been missing the point, as a result of gross oversimplification. Many have taken the tack that language is the problem, without recognising that the issue isn’t with the language, but with the underlying attitudes. There’s nothing inherently wrong with many of these words, but rather with what they mean. The simplification of conversations about these issues means that not only are the original issues not being confronted, but the simplification itself is damaging other conversations; an entire discussion needs to be derailed, for example, to berate the author for using ‘lame.’

Language is a code. The kinds of words we use and where we use them act as signals. People hyperfocused on language rather than underlying attitudes are missing the point entirely; they seem to think that there is a dictionary of jargon they can use, and if they avoid the words, they’ve resolved the problem. Eliminating certain words from usage was never the goal of discussions about language; asking people to examine their attitudes was the goal of these conversations.

When I challenge people on language, I ask them about what they mean: What, exactly, are you trying to say when you indicate that someone is ‘insane,’ for example? The issue here isn’t that you used ‘a bad word,’ but rather the thought behind it. If you believe that someone is ‘insane’ for holding views that don’t agree with yours, for not being able to express something in a way that satisfies you, for having radical politics, or for being an asshole, this is a telling attitude. It tells me that you have certain embedded attitudes about mental illness and what it means to be mentally ill, and you’re also reinforcing social attitudes when you express your own ideas; these attitudes are the same thing that leads, for example, to the casual dismissal of conservative extremists, acting like progressives don’t need to pay attention because ‘they’re insane.’

Then, progressives are surprised when conservative rhetoric gains a foothold and gets aggressive. And they’re confused when people with mental illness feel alienated by their political conversations, because we’ve been reminded yet again that we are considered lesser and unworthy, with ideas that don’t need to be shared with the world. We’ve been told that we don’t matter and can be safely ignored because we are irrelevant.

Words aren’t the problem.

The oversimplification of the language debate means that many people think that activism stops with avoiding certain words and just substituting in new things. And it also means that people engaging in reclamatory language are criticised; I have been screamed at and called a hypocrite because I call myself crazy, for example, by people who seem to believe that this word is inherently bad and wrong and shouldn’t be used ever. Despite the fact that some crazy people find it empowering and healing to use this label, to apply it to ourselves, to take it back from the people who tried to label us with it.

I’ve seen people redact certain words from conversation because they’re afraid of upsetting people, even when these words are used critically and in context of a discussion about how words are weaponised to harm people. Or in the context of discussions about reclamatory word use: I burn with fury when I see reclamatory quotes edited and redacted, taking power away from the original speaker or writer to satisfy sensibilities about ‘bad words.’

The point with talking about language was never to banish certain words from usage. It was never to create tools people could use to derail and ignore important conversations—you used a bad word, so I don’t have to listen to anything you just said. It was never to completely shut down deeper and more important conversations. It was never to suggest that there is a right way of speaking, and that all English speakers the world over should speak in the same way, ignoring cultural, linguistic, social, and historical differences.

It was to get people to examine the casually and deeply embedded attitudes in their society, to ask people to explore the way language has influenced their own attitudes as well as those around them. The fact that some original, dynamic, and interesting conversations have turned into a superficial search for codewords in the interest of crying ‘gotcha’ really infuriates me, as a lover of language and conversations about language. I adore language. I adore talking about language. I adore looking at the social and cultural influences on language and the way it evolves over time, and I love looking at how activist movements have used language as a tool for empowerment. And it makes me so sad that the current iteration of language discussions has become so disempowering, and so performative.

It’s not about the words you do and don’t use. It’s about the beliefs behind your words, and I haven’t seen any meaningful shift in these beliefs despite the endless derails, accusations, and handwringing essays. Some of this seems to be the inherent result of a medium which rewards public performance and simplistic presentation over actual reflection and critical thinking; there is such a disconnect between Internet and reality in all these hypothetical discussions.

I’ll be happy to debate whether I’m allowed to call myself crazy when all crazy people have access to safe, stable, nonjudgmental health care from focused, attentive care providers. When all crazy people aren’t at risk from being murdered or assaulted simply for being crazy, when all crazy people aren’t marginalised and ignored by most of society, when all crazy people have full equal rights. Until then? I’m Emperor of Crazytown, and you’re going to have to deal with it.

Because the problem here isn’t the word, but the underlying attitude that the word symbolises. Which doesn’t mean people have a free pass on using slurs; because they are offensive, and they do hurt, and they are laden with decades and sometimes centuries of hatred. But it does mean that the conversation shouldn’t start, or stop, with slurs.