Language in Everyday Life

We need to talk about language. Certainly, in our industry, but also in our society.

Earlier today, I saw this video on twitter and posted it to Facebook with the following comment:

Recently, I’ve been examining the language I use in the context of determining if I may be inadvertently hurting anyone. For instance, using “insane” or “crazy” as synonyms for “unbelievable” probably doesn’t make people suffering from mental illness feel great.

This video does a great job of explaining why using psychological terminology as metaphors may be hurting those around you.

Pretty straightforward. There are terms out there that are offensive to people who identify as members of groups that those terms describe. The terms are offensive primarily because they connote negativity beyond the meaning of the word.

One of my friends on Facebook protested, indicating that he felt that this is political correctness gone too far and an Orwellian attempt to curtail our language.

Hrmm.

To me, the bottom-line is that these words are hurtful and there are semantically identical synonyms to use in their place, so there is no reason to continue to use them. Using the terms is hurtful and continuing to use them when you know they’re hurtful is kind of a dick move.

OK, so a back-and-fourth ensues and, like most Internet debates, the conversation becomes heated. My friend uses a counterexample to try to prove that not using a word just “because it might offend someone” is being overly sensitive. He, a red-haired chap, says that the term “ginger” might be offensive to some, but that’s not a reason not to use the term.

So “ginger” is not really a great analogue to “crazy”, but using analogues is really great for illustration, so let’s pretend that an alternate universe existed where the term “ginger” is analogous to the “insane” in our world. Then, we’ll deconstruct my friend’s argument until it no longer makes sense.

First, we’ll need the term “ginger” to carry negative social connotations from centuries of stigmatization. Imagine, in our parallel reality, that people with red hair have been the butt of jokes, treated as a burden on society, imprisoned and sterilized against their will, and experimented on for hundreds or thousands of years. Society has only recently changed its attitude towards “gingers” to accept them as members of society that have fundamental human rights just like the rest of us.

OK, great. Next, we’ll need to have a world where using the term “ginger” carries additional negative connotations beyond what we listed above. The term is a general-purpose insult to describe someone as being unreasonable. A heated argument between a couple might result in one participant saying “stop being so ginger! Ugh!” The term is also used to describe situations as extreme or incredible, like “that roller coaster was sooo ginger!”

OK, so we’ve got a word like “crazy” or “insane” that has similar historical connotations and contemporary colloquial usage. Now that the terms are analogous, let’s deconstruct why using “ginger” is offensive in our parallel world.

Obviously using “ginger” to describe or emphasize some negative aspect of a person or thing is offensive – it conflates the term with that negative meaning. My friend and I agree on this point. More subtle is the use of the word when it’s not being used to describe something negative. Let’s take a closer look.

When you use “ginger” to describe a situation, like “whoa man I’m so drunk right now it’s totally ginger”, you are trivializing the hardships of every red-haired person living with the continued social stigmatization that our society projects onto them. Being ginger is incredibly difficult in our society – people are still fired from their jobs based on their hair colour and will often hide the colour of their hair from friends and family because they are too ashamed to admit that they’re ginger.

When using a term, historical connotations need to be taken into account. Using a word, for your own purposes, that describes a group of people who have been systemically oppressed is another form of social oppression. Words are offensive not because they “might offend someone” but because they are inherently offensive.

One small side-note: sometimes there are members of a group of oppressed people who choose to reclaim a word – once used by their oppressors – as a form of social empowerment. That’s why it’s OK for members of racial groups to call each other words that aren’t OK for me to say.

In our parallel world of red-headed oppression, using the word “ginger” is a form of continued social oppression that, at best, continues subtle social oppression of red-haired people and trivializes their struggle and, at worst, continues to perpetuate negative stereotypes of red-haired people.

OK, so let’s return to reality. When you use the words “insane” and “crazy”, you’re using them at the expense of people who have mental illnesses. It is hurtful to use the words, whether you’re calling an unstable ex-lover “crazy” or saying that some roller coaster ride as “pretty crazy”. In either case, it’s a form of social oppression.

My friend Sam Marshall sent me a great list of ableist language to avoid using in everyday conversations, so let’s take a look at an example that most people would agree is offensive.

Clinically speaking, the word “retarded” used to describe someone with a developmental delay (the word is no longer used in medical settings). Colloquially, it’s used as a general insult to indicate something that, or someone who, is not intelligent. The term is still used by those who don’t know any better, or who don’t care, but most adults would agree that it is an outdated and offensive term.

OK, so we’re agreed that “retarded” is offensive and shouldn’t be used anymore, but a few years ago, it was a commonly used member of our cultural lexicon. What happened? Well, people became educated about how hurtful it is to use that word.

I believe that when it comes to using psychological terms (either currently used or historical ones), we are about to see a shift in our society away from their use – similar to the shift we saw with the term “retarded”. We’re just a little ahead of the curve right now.

One point to note is that neither I nor the video nor anyone is trying to tell you what words you are permitted to use. Instead, we’re trying to raise awareness about the connotations those words carry and to let people make their own decisions. If someone really wants to use the term “crazy”, they should be allowed to, but their decision should be an informed one. Additionally, just as they are free to say what they want, we are free to criticize the language they use as bigoted.

Language is complex and political, and as an educator, I try and make sure that the language I use is as inclusive as possible. When I ran my podcast for iOS beginners, I was very careful to not use the term “noob” because of its disparaging nature. Over the Summer, I started to reduce my use of gendered terms like “guys” because of how it can make women feel excluded in the software industry. Most recently, I’m trying to eliminate ableist terms from my vernacular.

Words matter. One thing my friend from Facebook and I agree on is the power of language. All I’m trying to do is educate myself on the possibly negative meanings that words I use can inadvertently convey. It’s not up to me to decide what terms others may feel hurt by, so if someone says that something is offensive, I’m going to listen to them.


Posted on October 31, 2014