Understanding the Impact of Words

Dana Walden, Opinion Columnist

What we say matters. When it comes to issues of social and political justice, the way we communicate about certain topics informs the way we think about them. Language is inarguably important to the way we conceptualize our identities. With words come power, and we, as a community, must learn to wield this power responsibly.

In today’s political climate, we have to be careful with the language we use. This consideration is branded as political correctness, which itself has negative connotations. If someone is aiming to be politically correct in their discourse, they are often seen as overly sensitive and judgmental, an untrue and unfit stereotype. Political correctness, in its essence, is the act of making a conversation accessible.

I have no time to associate with anyone who belittles or makes assumptions about my identities, and you probably don’t either. When we use non-politically correct language, we institute and reinforce power dynamics that exist in our language. To combat this, we discourage the use of certain phrases, or we work to reclaim that language. The act of reclaiming a word — like “queer,” “slut” and “bitch” — can be an empowering move for a community; by choosing how they define themselves, they take that power away from the oppressor that names them.

This might seem like a banal and pointless argument to some. The importance of the words we use should go without saying, but when these topics are never talked about, they are often forgotten. We cannot forget the impact of our language, even when it seems like every other word is labeled “offensive.” The English language is problematic and reflects the oppressive structures and institutions within which it is used.

Part of operating in activist fields is becoming comfortable with uncomfortable conversations. So many issues are hard to talk about for various reasons — perhaps the subject matter is traumatic, emotionally fraught or taboo. Sometimes the presence of a single word can change the tone of the entire conversation.

Who am I to say what is and is not offensive? I do not get to make this call, and neither do you. We are operating in a political world where compassion and sensitivity are looked down on. We must learn how to address these discussions in ways that allow for empathy, and to do so, we must be conscious of how our language affects other groups of people, and how our language reflects our privilege. Using incorrect or offensive language closes the conversation off to those who are integral to the topic.

If you refuse to call a person by their preferred pronouns, you are denying and silencing their identity. If you refuse to use person-first language when talking around disability, you are blocking people with disabilities from being represented and included in the dialogue. The words we use also contribute to the stigmatization and repression of various identities. For instance, those who use “insane” and “crazy” to describe an occurrence that is uncommon or odd contribute to the pathologization of non-neurotypical populations.  

Reshaping and influencing the way we talk about controversial and complicated topics is tireless work, and requires active and relentless attention to our ever-changing conceptions of discourse and identity. Even those of us who consider ourselves politically correct need to be reminded of the power of our words. If we consider how our words affect others, we can use our language to change our world for the better. We have nothing to lose by changing our vocabulary to be more inclusive, but we have everything to gain. What do you say?