I’ve been reading a lot lately about Brandeis’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, PARC, and its well-meaning effort to make the language less oppressive. The “oppressive language list” they’ve come up with mostly includes labels like “slave” to describe an enslaved person, “prisoner” for someone who is incarcerated, or “victim” for someone who has been victimized.
The idea here is that turning someone’s oppression or situation into a label is forcing an identity onto them. It’s especially destructive when such labels become derogatory, such as “imbecile” for people within a certain IQ range, or “dumb” for people who are incapable of speech. So a lot of the effort behind reforming language amounts to replacing one euphemism for another, less offensive or limiting one. At least temporarily. Crippled becomes handicapped becomes disabled becomes differently-abled. Learning problems become special needs, which in turn become learning differences. But these iterations never seem to last.
That’s because even when these words don’t take on negative connotations, simply using a word to classify a human being has a tendency to reduce them to just that thing. It doesn’t matter which expression we use. The harm invoked may be less a symptom of prejudice, oppression or even white supremacy than the affordances of our language system. English and similar languages break things up into subjects and objects, nouns and verbs. In most of our sentences, a subject is acting upon an object, as in “I pick the flower.” The power relationship, the subject and object pairing, is built into the very construction of the sentence.
The Western tendency to label things and people may be an embedded property of our language, which in turn informs how we look at one another and the world.
Nouns are even more troublesome. Not all languages label objects so distinctly. Once children in an English-speaking environment realize that they have names for things — usually by about two or three years old–they become fascinated with knowing the names for everything, pointing their fingers and asking “What’s this?” “What’s that?” As studies have shown, American mothers emphasize the names of objects much more than Japanese mothers–likely because our language and culture emphasizes separateness, individuality, and “thingness” more than that of the Japanese, whose language is considered more “verb dominant.”
So the Western tendency to label things and people may be an embedded property of our language, which in turn informs how we look at one another and the world. A world of things is more static, more easily understood in terms of ownership and control, self and other. Our language has enabled certain forms of empirical science, industrialism, and capitalism, among other systems (like slavery and domination) that rely on objectification and categories. And such a language has served us less well as we seek to understand whole systems, relativism, and relationships.
One of “general semantics” founder Alfred Korzybski’s students, D. David Bourland Jr., came up with a linguistic device he called “e prime” to help break some of these tendencies. His rule was to eliminate all forms of “to be” from English. So you can’t say “this is money.” You’d have to say “we use this piece of paper to represent money.” Though tricky to use all the time, e prime sure does help us avoid a lot of semantic errors, while also forcing us to use language more precisely. After all, that paper in your pocket is not really money — no more than that person is autistic.
But this all cuts both ways, informing not just our modes of oppression but the linguistic traps we can fall into as we try to undo them. Many of our efforts at social justice end up becoming arguments over which labels to use rather than questioning the use of labels at all. If we’re no longer going to “be” our labels, then a lot of the announcements and definitions we’ve been asked to make about ourselves may also need to be retired, as well.
For example, I’ve been on a number of Zoom calls where we are asked to describe ourselves in case anyone in the meeting is a person with low vision or loss of sight. So we all introduce ourselves as a cis white male or queer brown woman or Central Asian with light skin — as if our race, gender or sexuality were necessarily a component of the video image. Rather than helping create a picture for those who can’t see us, such requirements force participants to make and share conclusions about themselves.
Our language only needs to determine how we relate to ourselves and one another if we are unaware of these biases.
Most of this is a function of the structure of our language. But our language doesn’t need to determine how we relate to ourselves and one another unless we are unaware of these biases, and unwilling to both work around them and hear around them.
We can be angry at English for using so many nouns. But changing this would require we roll back its development to its point of origin and then remake the language in less objectified and more holistic ways. That’s a bit like being angry at the walls of Western architecture because we can’t walk through them. Living in houses with rooms does lead to compartmentalized thinking. I can complain that you have compartmentalized me when you show me to the “guest room.”
In some other place or even a whole society, they may not have rooms at all but big open floor plans. Those of us angry about compartmentalized living can look over there and say “look how much better they are! They have no walls! People just love each other!” But then you go over and speak to them, and they’re jealous of our walls “Wow! Can make love privately without having to wait for everyone else to fall asleep? That must be so cool!”
So yes, we should continue to evolve our use of language to make more people more comfortable, less negatively distinguished, and free from labels. But we must do so with more awareness of the underlying structure of the language we use, its inherently objectifying tendencies, and the challenge it poses to even the most good-willed speakers to engage thoughtfully and sensitively with others.
Making our terminology less oppressive is a great first step, and we must also accept that language is just another medium that will almost always fail to say what we truly mean.