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LTE: The importance of using compassionate language

By Giselle Hart

I would like to address an Op/ Ed that was published in the Nov. 5 issue of TNH.

In response to the opinion raised that we social justice warriors need to get over politically incorrect language and stop being so sensitive, I just have to say, sensitivity is a good thing. It’s good to care about the way your words and actions affect other people. That’s called compassion.

Paying attention to problematic language does not take away from so-called “larger problems” such as mass incarceration or climate change. In fact, it means taking a closer look at the oppression that we witness at the systemic and the personal level.

Mis-gendering people is just as much a symptom of our heteronormative culture as is the disproportionate murder of trans womyn of color. Appropriating the phrase pow-wow is just as much a symptom of colonization as is the genocide and forced relocation of Native Americans. And calling a womyn bitchy for taking leadership is just as much a symptom of patriarchy as is the fact that 1 in 4 female students will face sexual assault before they graduate college.

Analyzing language is a key way of understanding the systems of oppression that affect and sustain injustice in society. Language shapes our reality in profound ways; it is our frame for communicating our experiences. So when popular language excludes or devalues entire identities, this has far reaching consequences. Microaggressions have the effect of internalizing oppression and rendering inequalities as normal and deserved.

Language is by no means static. Language is a reflection of how our culture interprets the world, and this interpretation will evolve for as long as humans live. Human communication changes through history because human society changes through history. And our language should reflect that our species is (hopefully) moving toward a more just and equitable way of living in community together.

There is a common misconception that oppression is something that happens far away. But the reality is that oppression is deeply embedded in our culture and people face experiences with injustice everyday. This isn’t supposed to make you feel guilty, it’s supposed to make you feel outraged. But the good news is we don’t have to accept this. The world can be better if we take it there with love. We can enact public policies that can weaken systems of oppression. Let’s start with being sensitive to the way our words can hurt other people. Because we can’t solve systemic issues without also analyzing how our individual lives contribute to them.

Giselle Hart is a junior climate activist majoring in women’s studies.

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