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Back You are here: Home Social Justice People Just how useful is language policing?

Just how useful is language policing?

Language_policingIt’s very easy and common for people to be really savvy in the language they use to avoid being ableist and so on, and yet have rotten attitudes and actions. How much are we letting language policing distract us from getting to the core of the issues raised? asks Tiara the Merchgirl.

13 March 2011

I’m starting to get a little wary of language policing. Mainly because it seems a little too easy.

Instead of engaging with points of view that are challenging to yours (or just even working from a very different perspective), instead of looking within yourself to see how you’re perpetuating and practicing discrimination and harm, all you have to do is pick out a word and go “Ableist! Classist! XYZist!” and dismiss the other person altogether, self-satisfied that we’re done our Good Activist Deed Of The Day and so no one can call us out on our rubbish.

Prettying up the surface instead of dealing with the darker depths. Talking the talk but not walking the walk. Not willing to take what you dish out. Nitpicking on the small stuff because it saves us from having to tackle the hairier things.

I feel like we’re in some sort of weird semi-academic-language bubble in some internet communities, particularly Tumblr where I blog, patting ourselves on the back for not using ableist words or whatever, without actually thinking of how it works elsewhere in the world.

Honestly, outside of Tumblr, who else is going to look at words like “homophobia” and go “Oh no! That’s ableist towards people with phobias!”? Especially when the people who have a right to raise that concern haven’t brought it up in offline circles until now?

Will anyone else be able to understand why certain words are X-ist if you explain – or will they come back and say that just because they use supposedly X terms doesn’t mean they are that discriminatory in their actions?

It’s very easy (and common) for people to be really savvy in the language and yet have rotten attitudes and actions.

And speaking of savviness: I feel that language policing puts even more pressure on people whose language (mainly English) skills are already under scrutiny for not being perfect – people for whom English isn’t a first language, who learnt it in a non-English-centric country, who grew up trying to translate difficult nuances between languages and found ways that were “good enough” early on.

There’s already enough prejudice being doled out for not speaking “proper English” (as if there’s such a thing) and for not typing full sentences or using your/you’re correctly as it is.

Do we really want to privilege conversations like these towards people who have really high English language skills, whatever their perspective?

Do we really want to alienate people with important and useful perspectives because they’ve learnt to use the word “crazy” for things that don’t make sense, or can’t get people’s pronouns right because their native language only has one pronoun for any gender, or has found the term “homophobia” useful while still dealing with a debilitating phobia of spiders but doesn’t see one degrading the other?

As it is we can’t even seem to make up our minds between being descriptive and being prescriptive. “They” as a singular pronoun is OK, but you can’t use “-phobia” anymore? You shouldn’t look down at someone’s typing skills, but there’s a huge difference between “trans man” and “transman”?

I saw this happen with blogger BFP. She writes something important about having to deal with paperwork and insurance and finding it difficult due to her various health conditions, and the first responses are “This term is ableist” – when it turns out that they actually are relevant to her position.

How many of us are going to know the writer’s original life story enough to be able to make that call between “They’re ableist!” and “They lived this!”?

Do we have the right to make that call?

How much are we letting language policing distract us from getting to the core of the issues raised?

What’s important here – what they’re saying or how they’re saying it?

Tiara the Merchgirl is associate editor at The Scavenger.



+1 #3 anna 2012-02-01 14:30
It's not the fact people are being called out when they're inadvertently offensive, it's the smug self-righteousn ess people tend to use when calling them out, when let's face it, I doubt they're completely free of privilege themselves. Few of us are.
0 #2 daretoeatapeach 2011-07-02 23:33
I do believe that people are affected by the language we use. But, on the other hand, I have seen exactly what you describe on Tumblr. There are some bloggers so caught up in it I am scared to send them things because I'm afraid I'll accidentally expose myself as not PC in some way. If I'm harboring some kind of -ism, I want to be called out on it. But the Tumblr community can really get caught up in minutia sometimes, and I'm not sure if doing so helps their movement. It's something I've been pondering for a while.
-1 #1 LoriA 2011-03-25 00:32
What an unnecessary either-or proposition-- either we focus on language or we get some real work done; either we correct ableist language or we listen to people who use English as a second language!

Why can't we correct people (politely, the first time) and still respond to their points? Why can't we use progressive language while still working towards other goals?

Language is important, and hearing someone who does not (as far as I know) identify as disabled telling disabled activists what to worry about is offensive.

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