Words hurt. Period. End of story. My Dad’s anger only was only ever directed at me with words but I often wished he was the type of parent who would spank instead because the pain of a belt would go away…the pain of words can sting forever.
I think about this a lot whenever I see/read/hear conversations with people pushing against corrections of language. I once read the writings from a mother of a child with an intellectual disability who did not understand why people weren’t allowed to use the word “retarded” anymore. It frustrated her because – clinically speaking – it was a medical term used to describe her daughter and she found no offense. Even when nationally recognized organizations like the Special Olympics take a stand against the word, she still pushed back saying that she didn’t want anyone to stop using it – even to describe the dumb things in their life – for her sake.
And of course THAT IS HER RIGHT. And even moreso due to her personal connection to the word. That’s the thing about free speech, it’s for everyone.
But all I kept thinking when I read her piece was that, “But…surely she can see how and why others don’t like the use of the word, right? Surely she can think of things someone COULD say that would upset her and find an understanding there?” I mean, it’s not like it’s the ONLY word that people can use.
I also saw an interview one time with an immigration activist who pushed back when someone condemned his use of the phrase”illegal immigrant” because – as he said, “THE PEOPLE I’M DEFENDING CALL THEMSELVES ILLEGALS.” He frustratingly declared this adoption of “undocumented” instead of “illegal” born from people who are more academic or legislative and not actually in the trenches with the actual immigrants or else they’d know that the immigrants themselves use that word and they’d leave him alone about it. He also pointed out that it’s legally accurate and ranted a bit more about PC culture. But all I kept thinking was, “Does it matter? If a lot of people say they are hurt by the word illegal isn’t it fine to use a different word?”
That’s always where I end up at. Is, “What is the word choice that offends the least amount of people that I personally do not want to offend?” I mean, obviously there’s some people who HATE when I say, “Happy Holidays!” but they’re not typically the people I worry about offending because they’re usually militant about their Christianity. I worry more about the non-Christians who feel overwhelmed in a country that references the Christian God in documents and on currency, who would love a more generic greeting than, “Merry Christmas.”
But there’s another point I’m getting at.
At some point, EVERYONE gets their feelings hurt by someone else’s words. EVERYONE who lives long enough (unless you’re a sociopath, maybe?) feels the pain of words chosen by someone else and you think, “I really wish they hadn’t said that.”
And in reality? That’s all we’re harnessing when people like me are trying to find the right words to use. I’m just trying not to hurt people who I don’t intend to hurt. When we suggest that parents quit saying things to boys like, “Don’t act like a little girl!” if they get upset…it’s because there are tons people in the world who feel a stab in their heart that use of the feminine as a pejorative. For me? It’s personal when I hear people use “gay” as an insult. My shackles raise IMMEDIATELY and my heart wants to burst out of my chest.
So if I am trying to understand another person’s pain at certain language choices, I harness that feeling. I harness the pain that words have caused me – intentionally and unintentionally – and try to understand others to make better choices. And just because the consequences are unintentional does not negate the pain they cause.
This all came to my mind again this morning when I read that Bret Stephens – a NYT columnist who rants about PC culture constantly…got his feelings hurt yesterday. He heard about a joke someone made towards him a Twitter – someone of no consequence as far as social media goes (as he points out the tweet had 9 likes and no retweets) and emailed the professor and cc’d his boss about the joke, expressing his hurt feelings.
Now. I’m not going to make fun of him because I’m harnessing that pain that I’ve felt. And sure, he basically was just like, “SAY IT TO MY FACE!” but Bret Stephens has 140K followers on Twitter and this guy wasn’t even verified. Stephens didn’t even follow him on twitter and the guy didn’t even tag him in the tweet. So…to say emailing the guy and cc’ing HIS BOSS about it was an overreaction is probably a bit of an understatement.
But it does support what I say constantly about this “PC culture” that people like to rage about. It is simply about those of us who care, trying to find language that hurts the least amount of people you are concerned with. I personally don’t care too much about hurting the feelings of White Nationalists by calling them racists. But when I am reflecting on my language choices in consideration of people I don’t want to hurt, I think about the ways words have hurt me in the past.
Maybe this will give Bret Stephens some insight into the true and simple roots of the “PC Culture” he hates. That it really just boils down to trying to consider the feelings of people in your community before choosing your language. Recognizing that this consideration make the community AS A WHOLE safer and more supportive. I mean, in my life whenever my language has adapted I’m not giving up any unique words of consequence. It’s not like “intellectual disability” or “undocumented immigrant” doesn’t get the point across. They’re perfectly fine, so if there are people requesting those words why not use them?
Language is adaptive and if we all can truly remember how words can hurt, and sit with that pain, we may better understand the fight people put up against certain language. Maybe the next time Bret Stephens wants to write an op-ed about how much he hates how internet bullies try to control his speech – he can remember how hurt he was the day some dude on Twitter called him a bedbug.