On Words

(This article was originally posted on Clear Oversight and has been edited for clarity.)

Civil rights activist Audre Lorde wrote, “the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house”. How can one expect radical change in the equality and treatment of individuals if we continue to use the same words that were formed in order to disparage and demean others?

Our language and ability to communicate, convey concepts, and paint idea-scapes in the minds of others through words has played an essential role in the development of the modern world. Most importantly, language has allowed for the communion between peoples. No longer were we confined to our own heads, our own thoughts. We can connect to one another, attempt to understand one another, and allow for expression and healing. Be it spoken, written, or bodily; language has, and continues to, bring people together to create community. 

However, words are also used to alienate, intimidate, and subjugate individuals, cultures, and nations. Much like many tools left to our disposal, the responsibility to use words wisely weighs heavily on each and every single individual. Used unwisely, words can cause pain and suffering. Used maliciously, words can work to enslave the mind.

There appears to be no clear way on how to deal with this phenomenon; words that were born out of a relationship of an inequity of power, continue to be used to disregard, disparage, and dehumanize others. These are words that intend to shame and degrade sexual orientation, ethnicity, gender, or “legality”. These words we are all too familiar with: fag, nigger, bitch, illegal. The list goes on.

These words were either birthed out of the mouths of an oppressor or bastardized to be used in order to imbrue a population. Yet, now they have entered the vernacular of the general public. In some cases the words are considered empowering; no longer does the oppressor have the upper hand, since now one can use the word freely and have control over that word. But, is that really the case?

One could argue that what has occurred is the incorporation of the language of an oppressor into the common lexicon, normalizing their usage. While these words on the surface seem to no longer hold their original intent, it might suggest that people have bought into the world carved out by the language of an oppressor. Words are used in a colloquially, and in some cases, ironically.

An issue can sometimes emerge when we incorporate these words and bury their original meaning. No longer present is the critical analysis of these words, what they meant, and how they have affect peoples for generations, and how they continue to have an affect today.

The solution isn't for some form of self-censorship, and definitely not an externally imposed censorship, but a self-awareness. Think about the words we use on a regular basis, on occasion, or when we are angry; might these words be subconsciously perpetuating the stereotypes that marginalize others? Words that were built to enforce and solidify that same inequality, formed and normalized by an oppressor, should be analyzed and criticized.