Beliefs, thoughts, words, actions, habits, values, and destiny; that is the famous order in which Gandhi suggested one becomes another. After an interesting second meeting lecture in an upper-division English class, it is words that have me wondering. We may not be so conscious of our casual use of language and the effects it has.
The instructor of this particular class, professor Helen Lee, said she reviews the campus policy on excluding sexist language with every semester’s class in order to clarify the respect and precision that she would expect in their work. We may not think sexist or discriminatory language is a prevalent issue in today’s society, but just because it is not in open or grand scales does not mean this subtle force does not hold weight.
While speaking of inaccurate language, professor Lee said, “The no. 1 negative effect is miscommunication.” Miscommunications can become misunderstandings, and misunderstandings are a breeding ground for social inequality.
One of the more troubling aspects of discriminatory language is that it takes form in ways people may not recognize. Many terms are used commonly and are not blatantly discriminatory. Officially, the English language has come a long way in recent years, adding gender neutral terms where there were commonly only masculine terms. Chairman is now often referred to as Chairperson, for example.
While some argue that this goes too far, and places an exaggerated concern on political correctness, I wonder if it is worth resisting. I understand that, traditionally, “man” denotes all of humanity, and for example, the term “man-made” does not necessarily imply that only males were involved in the construction. But consider the fact that there are very simple ways of using specifically gender neutral language. Some people- particularly those who feel ousted, the empathetic and those who value accuracy- prefer the gender neutral options. I see it as an occasion to be polite and offer recognition and courtesy.
Sexist language is only one form of inaccurate communication. Inaccuracies can feed ethnocentrism, racism, discrimination against disabled people and all kinds of stereotypes. I can only wonder how the LGBT equality movement has been effected after multiple generations used labels referring to their community as a general description for something awkward, stupid or bad. Each time a word like that is used inaccurately and goes unchecked is a perpetuation of the faulty idea that there is even anything negatively inherent in the group to begin with.
Additionally, if language is a representation of thoughts and beliefs, someone with an attitude of indifference toward their words may be showing others an inconsiderate side. People would do well to recognize they may be viewed as arrogant, thoughtless, or foolish for their words, despite not having any ill-intent.
Even the common reference to our country as “America” is an ethnocentric blunder from the start. What the title is intended to mean is “The United States of America,” or the USA, which is, of course, only part of the northernmost third of the Americas. There are 35 countries in the Americas, but only the US claims itself as “America.” Imagine what an Argentine person might think if you told them that they are not American but you are.
You can elevate yourself and a more equal and progressive society by reflecting consideration and accuracy in your language, so heed your parents words and mind your tongue.