A recent(ish) Big Think article crossed my Facebook feed recently and it got me thinking about language. In particular, the language that I use and how it might impact how I see the world. By reflecting on the words I use I hope to live a better life, a life that is more at peace with reality, a life in which I can reach my full potential (or at least one in which I am honest with myself about what that would cost).
Let’s take a look at the language used to describe people who think differently than I do about political issues. Once upon a time, a lifetime ago, I lived in Washington DC and worked in policy and politics. While living in DC I proudly proclaimed that I lived among “the enemy”. I was surrounded by “evil statists” and “theocrats”. The enemy was everywhere and, while I may have felt like I was fighting a good fight, I was miserable. Not only was I stressed out all the time, I really wasn’t making any positive change in the world.
How could I? When other people are my “enemy” I can’t learn from them or teach them, all I can do is seek to destroy them. You don’t treat your enemy with love and understanding, you don’t seek compromise. No, you destroy them. You dehumanize them. You reduce them to their political philosophy or religion or social views or any other convenient label that pushes them into “the other” so that you can fight them guilt-free. Eventually, even your allies become enemies because they lack the purity of your own point of view. By classifying other humans as my enemy I only succeeded in defeating myself.
Similarly, using negative language (mental and spoken) to describe my own limitations only prevents me from growing and trying. It is easy to blame genetics for my failure (“I’m not creative”, “I’m terrible at learning new languages”, “I lack the musical talent necessary to play an instrument or dance”, “I’ll never have a six-pack”, etc. etc. ad nauseam). This is all a cop-out. Being honest with myself is difficult because when I’m honest I know that I haven’t really tried. Trying may actually lead to disappointment, it is much easier to convince myself that the fates or gods or Darwin made me incapable of accomplishing a difficult task. Why put forth the effort if the result is predetermined?
But that negative view of my own abilities isn’t reality. The truth looks more like this: “Learning to play a musical instrument seems incredibly difficult and it isn’t a priority for me right now, but I could probably do it if I dedicated time and effort to it”. So, by changing my internal speech I become more honest, but an excuse disappears from my Slacker’s Toolbox. I’m forced to admit that something I claim is important (art, reading, music, fitness, etc.) isn’t actually something I value enough to work on.
Lastly, and maybe most importantly, words have power in our society. While many people claim that using certain words isn’t hurtful and asking people to change how they speak is being “politically correct”, that isn’t true. People can be hurt by words and using words derogatorily dehumanizes people. Whether it is using words like fag or retard in a negative way, or intentionally misgendering someone, words can be a weapon used to put people down and claim superiority over them. Sometimes this happens intentionally by people in power. For example, the use of masculine words as the default when the gender isn’t known. When the modern English language was evolving there was a real effort to ensure the masculine reigned supreme. According to 16th Century Grammarian William Lily “The masculine gender is more worthy than the feminine”.
Language has power, both in our personal lives and in society as a whole. It can be used to put people down and control them, or it can be used to lift people up and liberate them. It is a choice we each must make, we can just go with tradition or default to “that’s the way my parents/culture/whatever talk” or we can choose to be more sensitive and eliminate language from use that only serves to harm and separate us from our fellow humans and the potential we each have.