By words we learn thoughts, and by thoughts we learn life.- Jean Baptiste Girard
People get upset a lot these days about political correctness, about the need to be so careful in how we speak, not just in the intentions behind our words. I understand this. It can feel like we’re parsing our words so carefully that we can’t say anything meaningful at all.
I believe in saying meaningful things. I believe in saying powerful things, things that sometimes people don’t want to have said because they hurt or they expose or they bear witness.
But I also believe in saying things wisely and realizing that our words not only reflect our thoughts but reinforce them and shape them.
This is why people appropriate words that have been hurtful to them in the past – queer or nigger or chick. When we use these words to bolster ourselves instead of against those we find to be “other,” we swipe their power back into our own hands.
Recent scholarship into the history of slavery in the U.S. holds a prime example of how the way we speak both shows our thoughts about it and also forms those thoughts. Today, most historians speak of “enslaved people” instead of about “slaves.” It may seem small – like the difference between the Muslims and Muslim people – but it is oh so powerful.
By changing from the use of a name – slaves – to an adjective – enslaved– we grant these individuals an identity as people and use a term to describe their position in society rather than reducing them to that position. In a small but important way, we carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time. This is not a minor thing, this change of language.
So while I certainly don’t think we should be quick to get our hackles up over generational shifts in language or the inadvertent misuse of a term in the wrong context, I do fully believe that we should be aware of the way our words change who we are as people not to mention the people to whom and about whom we speak.
After all, as writers, we understand the power of language to shape us as much as it changes those who read our work. We owe it to ourselves and our readers to use our words to make good things and honor people rather than perpetuate ideas or systems that hurt us all.
What do you think? Are we too careful about our choice of words? Not careful enough? What’s a person’s (a writer’s?) responsibility about the choice of our words?