Discover more from Random Minds by Katherine Brodsky
The Force-Feeding of Language
...and why I reject it.
If you’ve spent any time at all on my Substack, you’ll notice that there’s no shortage of posts discussing language—especially in my word misappropriation series.
So, naturally, I’ve been questioning myself: Why is it that I care so much about using or not using certain words? Why am I so resistant to this idea that certain words should be retired and others should be used in their place?
If you’ve tuned in at all to any of my podcast appearances, like this one, I’ve gone on entire rants about a single word—“crazy”—being deemed ableist, in any context, not merely when calling someone that, which I agree is unkind. Time and time again, I’d witness the language police come out of the woodworks to admonish those who’d dare use the word. Most of the time, those being reprimanded would go on to promptly apologize and vow to do better next time. No reasoning, by the way, was ever presented as to why this word should suddenly be locked away for good, in any context. Overnight, it became “ableist.” And who wants to be ableist, right?
There’s of course, no shortage of words that have been deemed offensive. Some make sense, overweight seems somehow kinder than fat, though it doesn’t really budge any points on the scale. But then there are terms like, “black sheep,” which we’re told should be avoided— and, yes, even if you happen to be the black sheep in your family (which I most certainly am).
There’s no shortage of words and terms that those who’ve anointed themselves as language police don’t want you to use.
Blackmail, according to the CBC’s recently released list of words and phrases you want to “think twice” about using, is a no-go either.
And speaking of lists, “Black list” is off the menu too. Mr. McCarthy would no doubt be pleased.
Then there are terms like spirit animal, first-world problem, brainstorm, blindsided, blind spot, dumb, tone-deaf, and so on and so forth.
To be completely honest with myself—and you—most of the time, I’m a people pleaser. High on the agreeableness scale. I hate to admit, it, but facts are facts. I go out of my way to try and avoid hurting anyone’s feelings.
And yet, why is it that I’m so hesitant to comply? They are just words, right? What’s wrong with shifting them just a bit as to avoid hurting someone, to be kind? What’s wrong with me? Am I an insensitive monster?
Beyond the obvious issues around crediting language for literally “hurting” people, something that also happens to be in the eye of the beholder—the reason that I’m so hot and bothered—or really, just bothered, is the reason as to why we happen to feel so pressured to change how we speak.
It’s one thing to realize that perhaps a certain word is outdated or inappropriate and shift our usage of it. Or perhaps a compelling argument is made that changes our point of view. We’re just growing, learning, being more considerate, or perhaps simply being more intentional with our speech—whatever the reason is—it’s our choice.
However, it is something very different when the reason for our shifting of language is because one day a person or a group of people declare that a word or term is wrong and demands that you comply or else you’ll be stripped of social credit, attacked by an angry mob, be ostracized, or be at risk of losing your job. Things that happen on a daily basis. In that environment, there’s no longer a need to make strong arguments or have back-and-forth discussions to see which ideas win on merit. Fear is enough to secure compliance.
That’s not a kind choice, it’s coercion. By demanding that certain words are used, or others are not, it has become a way for the few to exert power over the many.
It’s absolutely true that language shifts over time, naturally, as social norms shift. There’s plenty of words and phrases that we no longer use—and good riddance. We probably never even noticed those changes as they occurred. But what’s happening lately is different. It’s no longer a gradual process, propelled bottom-up. It is now being pushed down our throats top-down, and, I’d argue that those doing the pushing are doing so to feed their most polite authoritarian impulses.
At the end of the day, I’ll consider my words carefully. I do care about being considerate, as well as precise with my language. But my choice to use a word or not should not—and will not—be dictated by others. After all, we are human beings not parrots.
So go on and say what you want to say. Or don't. Be mindful about the words you use if you want to be. Just make sure that whatever you do, it’s your choice and not because you’re succumbing to social pressures, or worse, bullying. Your words are yours to own.
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