Note: Discriminatory language is used – as examples of what not to say – in this piece.
Words really, really do matter if you fancy going about life in a kind and compassionate manner. Language has the power to hurt and exclude – sometimes without us realising it – and the quest to speak inclusively and harm less is an important one when it comes to the words we choose.
I know there’s a real tendency – a default response even – to say that things are overthought, too PC, that people are snowflakes and that things are reaching peak sensitive. But I don’t think that’s actually what’s going on.
What actually seems to be happening is that the internet has supercharged our ability to converse and share ideas. What may have taken decades to nut-out over plodding conventional and curated media (think newspapers and talkback radio) is now busting out all over and hurrying things the gosh darned up.
Now there are many, many voices all over world wide web, with many of the most interesting – and questionable – rising to the top. Concerned (and proud!) snowflakes are often at odds with the dismissive ‘toughen up’ brigade. And we’re bundling decades of social evolution into mere years, from what I can see.
The feverish us-or-them nature of many of these speedily evolving discussions often leave spectators confused, feeling like they need to pick a side – and possibly unable to make any sort of move, for fear of being shot down or making a mistake.
But the GOOD thing is that if we let the dust settle a bit, there are some strong arguments for getting in there and getting involved.
Whether you are a snowflake or in the toughen up camp, making some changes, learning more, including others and being sensitive makes the world a better place. Why the heck wouldn’t we want that?
Our use of language is a particularly easy way to do better from this very moment on – in our own corner of the world.
Here’s some I prepared earlier
Let me start by saying that I have been challenged about use of various words and expressions a few times over the years, and my inbuilt response was often – defensive! I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that, but I am learning on my feet and I admit that I haven’t always been as thoughtful with words as I should.
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not taking about obvious slurs or offensive language. I don’t make a habit of that. What I’m talking about is (possibly) less glaring words that have slipped into common conversational Australian (and other?) English.
Words that are easily substituted with something much more appropriate.
Here are a few of my own stuff ups, so you can see what I mean.
“Lorelei Gilmore is my spirit animal!” – culturally insensitive
“Yas queen!” – cultural appropriation
“Hi guys!” – many people are not guys, Pip. Try ‘Hi everybody!’
“Let’s make a tipi!’ – nope. But we can make a tent! Again, not my culture.
“A junkie is shooting up on my doorstep” – This is a slur. (I actually said PERSON, but you see what I mean. It’s easy to say ‘junkie’.)
“Hello girls!” – some of those people may want to be referred to as grown women, Pip.
“That guy is crazy” – ‘unpredictable’ or similar would be better, perhaps?
“Are you deaf or something?” – insensitive and just not necessary. (Okay, I didn’t really say this one, but you get the picture!)
I didn’t mean it like THAT
Very often we use words or expressions because they’re just second nature – and we don’t even think about their deeper meaning. But switching them out for something better is a hat tip to a kinder, more inclusive world.
Some expressions are appropriated from other cultures and best avoided – for instance the ‘spirit animal’ one I mentioned above. After pouting a bit about it – ‘I didn’t mean it like that! Everyone says it’! – I noted that it IS insensitive and changed my approach.
Some words refer to (or once referred to) health-related issues or disabilities but are used flippantly in conversation – crazy, mental, lunatic, dumb and idiot for instance. I am guilty of using many of those in a ‘light-hearted’ way. It wasn’t until I recently read an update on Twitter from a disability activist who urged people to rethink the casual use of words that might refer to mental illness, that I noted this. It quickly made sense. Why wouldn’t we want to do better?
Some people take perfectly positive words that relate to race, gender, body shape, age, sexuality or disability and turn them into a slur – gay, lesbian, autistic, insert race, for instance. Don’t EVER do that. Ugh. Perhaps you have noticed this in your own travels – in real life or online – or even been the target of this kind of terrible treatment? (Click the links to hear from people who have/more, via Twitter).
These are just a few examples, of course.
Not knowing how to use sensitive and inclusive language can leave us feeling a bit bewildered and we may respond with frustration when challenged. But the great thing is that we can learn how to better communicate, just by doing a bit of extra reading (or chatting to those who are clued in on this!)
It’s like anything really – once you realise you need to brush up, you put in the time and voila! You improve! It becomes easier! Ta-dah!
(NB: Saying ‘shut up special snowflake’ is not a strategy for improvement, it’s good to note. If you want to say that or shout ‘nanny state’ or ‘PC gone mad!’ you might be in the wrong place right now. Cheerio!)
If you’d like to find out more about inclusive language – and see if any words or expressions you are using could do with a rethink and exclude others, however unintentionally – there are heaps of resources online that can help.
Admittedly there is a lot to learn, but it’s up to us to get educated and there is no time to waste.
“Don’t be so afraid of saying the wrong thing that you don’t say anything at all”
If you Google ‘inclusive language guide’ there are lots of resources online and the general advice is to be open to new-to-you ideas: loosen up, listen and learn!
The RMIT Inclusive Language Guide is a great place to get started.
The Diversity Council of Australia has some bright ideas, too.
I found this inclusive language resource at The Australian Network on Disability.
And this piece on cultural appropriation might be useful if you want to think about how you feel about using words or expressions appropriated from other cultures (I am guilty of this. Ugh.)
And really. I am not the expert here, obviously. I’m just saying – this is a thing I am wanting to do better at, maybe you feel the same. I am learning on my feet and trying hard.
If you have any ideas/writing on adopting more inclusive language or words/expressions that often slip by, I would love to hear about that (if you fancy sharing!)
You know, we ADORE it, absolutely LOVE it, when people master language in film, books, music. We are so freaking impressed! Of course we should apply the same expectations of using words well in day to day life! Why wouldn’t we?!
Let’s start with us, right now!
PS: Also let’s face it, being politically correct is JUST FINE! We go through life resisting all kinds of urges for the benefit of ourselves and others. It’s part of being a responsible, self-actualised human being!