Sometimes it makes me a bit uncomfortable when I think about how fiercely liberal I’ve become in the last few years.
I used to be totally averse to politics and refused to address the issues with my conservative family, or anywhere in my business. That was, frankly, much easier.
If you read my work on the regular, you know I often talk about my own process of waking up to the political environment we live in (especially regarding social justice) and discovering I can’t ignore it anymore.
Today I want to write about a relatively teeny tiny issue that’s near and dear to my heart: the so-called “policing” of words and syntax.
Many liberals are passionate about holding others accountable for using language that reflects a more inclusive and compassionate view of the world. Many conservatives find that ridiculous and offensive, and they dismiss the movement to change our language as either unimportant, or flying in the face of tradition.
Why I Care
As a writer, I’m sure you’ll understand that words matter to me, and on a daily basis I work to alter my language to better reflect the culture we are building, instead of the culture we are outgrowing. It’s hard work, but it’s also important work.
A few examples of syntax I’ve recently addressed and improved:
Someone explained to me that my post about having “crazy hair” was ableist, and using the word crazy is problematic because of the damaging stigmas about mental health. I changed it to “wild hair” instead.
That same week someone called me out for saying “I wish I had the balls for…” which is a phrase that continues to center the male experience as well as associating strength and courage with men, and therefore weakness and meekness with women. I added it to the list of shit to never say again, replacing it with anything from “courage” to “ovaries” depending on the context.
I learned that using the term “spirit animal” colloquially and playfully (which I absolutely have, for my whole life) is disrespectful to the cultures who consider the spirit animal to be sacred. After reading a bit about this, I’ve decided to replace it with either “Patronus,” “daemon,” or simply changing my phrasing to something like “I feel like I have a special connection to frogs.”
The list of words and phrases that are problematic will continue to grow, and my hope is that no matter which side of the political line you stand on, the following metaphor will help you see why it’s important that we all do the work to examine and alter our language to “be the change” we wish to see in the world.
Why Addressing Syntax Is Important
Imagine you had a house back in the good old days. You took pride in being a good person and a good neighbor, and you smoked cigarettes because it felt good, and nobody knew they were bad for you yet because this is the good old days. 😉
Every evening when you got home from work, you would smoke a cigarette before dinner, until you discover that your child has asthma and coughs when you smoke near her, so you decide to start smoking outside instead. Slightly inconvenient, sure, but you love your child and don’t want to make her suffer.
You start smoking in your yard next to your house instead, until one day your neighbor comes over and informs you that the smoke blows right into his elderly father’s bedroom window, and the smoke is making his father sick. You wonder why his elderly father doesn’t just close the window, but you want to be a good neighbor so you immediately apologize, and promise to smoke somewhere else.
You start smoking out in a different part of your yard, which is harder to get to and pretty annoying. It goes fine for a while, until your other neighbor comes over and tells you that the smoke is coming into her house and making her very nauseous because she’s pregnant.
Frustrated now, you think about telling her to just close her damn window! But since you’ll likely have to live next to her for many more years, you make the choice to be a good neighbor, apologize, and promise to smoke somewhere else.
Now in order to enjoy your smoke, you have to take a walk alone in the woods. It’s terribly annoying and inconvenient, but you’ve maintained pleasant relationships with your neighbors and you’re proud of being a good neighbor and a good person.
You might grumble occasionally, but you recognize that nobody is trying to take away your right to smoke. You have the right to smoke anywhere on your own property, it’s just that exercising that right comes with consequences you aren’t comfortable with. This is about being the kind of person you want to be, and living in the kind of neighborhood you want to live in.
Fast forward to today.
With the internet in our modern culture, we are now all neighbors with basically everyone, and people are coming forward with things that are hurting them.
A lot of the language we use today is unintentionally hurtful, because it includes archaic messages about who is welcome and valued in our society, and who isn’t.
But many people today, particularly conservatives, find the thought of altering their syntax to stop hurting other people to be outrageous. Absurd. Offensive; even oppressive. They despair at having their “rights” taken away, and rage against the people whose mission seems to be to strip them of those rights.
I hope that, from the above metaphor, you can see that nobody is taking anyone else’s rights away by asking you to alter your language choices.
You always have the option to be a bad neighbor, and to act in a way that hurts other people, if you’re willing to live with the consequences. But you can’t do that and also pride yourself on being a good neighbor or person.
The thing is, people who don’t want to alter their syntax to be more inclusive tend to believe they are in charge of deciding who gets to be in what kind of pain.
Having never been transgender themselves for example, a person might be quick to write off the pain of a transgender person being called by the wrong pronoun. (Never mind how upsetting it would be for anyone to be called the wrong gender their whole life.)
This person might decide that since they cannot understand the kind of pain the other person is in (or because they think they have some good advice the person should take that will solve everything like “close your damn window” or “stop being so sensitive”), that their pain is silly, or stupid, or even straight-up false.
This is where I find it very difficult to have conversations with people who don’t share my world-view.
Changing the language we use is always a choice. If you wanted to stand there on your own property and smoke into your dying neighbor’s window, it would have been your right to do so, and the same is true now.
Nobody is forcing us to stop saying racist, ableist, or sexist stuff, but if we choose to continue saying those things, we simply have to be ok with the consequences— that we will end up hurting people; that we are not being good neighbors or good people.
It’s difficult at times, inconvenient and even annoying, to try to remember the appropriate way to refer to different races, to replace words that put people down, to ask for a person’s preferred pronouns, or to say things like “fireperson” instead of fireman.
It can be overwhelming to constantly learn new ways in which our language has to change, and tempting to say we must “draw a line somewhere.”
I get that.
Literally nobody is saying it’s easy or fun to alter our language in order to be kind. It’s annoying and challenging. The other day I spent like 20 minutes looking up alternative insults to use instead of “stupid” or “dumb” because I use those words a lot and I want to be a better neighbor to people of all intellects.
Times they are a-changing. We have the option to either help or hinder that change, based on how we speak and write.
So… what kind of neighbor do you want to be?
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