Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Words Matter

In Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet, the couple discovers that each is a member of the family that is their own family's sworn enemy.  Juliet opines, "What's in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  

She's one to listen to, that Juliet.  In words that could well be applied to nearly every case of enmity between peoples, she says, "'Tis but thy name that is my enemy;  Thou art thyself, though, not a Montague.  What's Montague?  It is not hand, nor foot, nor arm, nor face, nor any other part belonging to a man."  We could ask:  What's Palestinian?  What's Israeli?  What's conservative or liberal?  Oh if only we could remember that it is most often our names -- and the histories that go with them -- that are the real heart of our divisions.  This one particular Montague -- Romeo Montague -- is so much easier to love than the idea, the label, of "Montague."  "That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet."  In other words, don't let the label -- the mere name, the word -- get in the way of engaging with the thing itself.  Don't get hung up on the words.

As with most ideas, of course, this is both true in some ways and quite untrue in others.  It is true that we far too often get hung up on words and so are unable to fully attend to the specific person/moment/experience before us because of all the baggage we've attached to the words we use to describe it.  That is all true.  At the same time, though, words matter.

For those of us in the dominant culture -- in which I must count myself as a straight, white, cis-gender male in the United States of the 21st century -- it may seem as though the language is changing rapidly and radically around us.  It seems as though every day brings a declaration of some new word that is now "off limits."  It can seem as though the dictionary has become a minefield ... except that using military metaphors may cause offense.  

"Political correctness" is the term most often used to describe this expectation of increasing linguistic sensitivity, and it's usually used derisively and dismissively.  The implication is that the extra care being asked of us -- again, dominant-culture "us" -- is part of some (liberal) political agenda; that it's an effort to unnaturally and unnecessarily change the perfectly natural and acceptable status quo for "political" reasons.  Why does it matter what we call things?  Aren't these words that are now "forbidden" really just racist or homophobic or whatever they're accused of being because some people have chosen to declare them so?  And haven't those people and groups chosen to do so in order to make their own "cause" seem important?

In other words, again, what's in a name?  Well .. quite a lot, as it turns out -- centuries of oppression, violence, and both cultural exploitation and extermination to name just a few things.  Perhaps an example would be helpful, and here's one that should be, by now, fairly widely understood.  In the 60s and 70s, women argued that when people -- usually men -- used the word "man" to describe humanity as a whole they were leaving out about half of the population.  No matter how inclusive the intent, women asserted, when someone said "all men are created equal" they were effectively not talking about women.  Mankind is simply not the same as humankind.

To be sure, folks enmeshed in the dominant culture -- mostly straight, white, cis-gender males (then as now) -- didn't see what all the hoopla was about.  What's in a name?  Of course women were included in "mankind."  Who could possibly think otherwise?  Well ... women, as it turns out -- women who could point to a history of being dismissed and derided as being less than men; a lived experience of being treated as property and being intentionally excluded from nearly every category open to men.  In other words, women were telling men that the only reason men thought that women were included in this male-gendered language was because, quite honestly, men weren't really thinking about women at all. Their male experience is what informed their understanding of the way things are in the world, and women argued that they would always continue to be excluded as long as they were excluded from the language being used to describe reality.  (So, in other words, both cause and effect going on here.) 

Slowly men have come to understand this argument, and changes have been made.  Not universally, unfortunately.  Within this decade, during an interview with a congregation I was interested in serving, I was asked what I thought about the current "fad" of using gender-neutral language in worship.  (True story.)  Thankfully, this kind of thing would no longer happen in most mainstream settings.  A sensitivity to gender inclusion in what we say has become a cultural norm.

This kind of thing does continue to happen however, and often, with regard to a variety of other historically marginalized groups.  One of the attributes of a dominant culture is that it doesn't think of itself as "a dominant culture" but, rather, simply as "the culture."  And when you're part of the dominant culture you get to think that the way things are for you is the way things are.  And that means, of course, the largely unconscious assumption that the way things are for you is the way they are for everybody.

Except that they're not.  The lived experiences of an African American transgender woman, an undocumented Mexican immigrant, and a White Anglo-Saxon Protestant man whose family has lived in the Hamptons for generations are ... well ... different.  And these differences are real.  The anthropologist Wade Davis named this succinctly:  "Other cultures are not failed attempts at being you ..."  The lived experiences of traditionally marginalized people are not some kind of substandard version of the experiences of straight, white, cis-gender men (and those who identify with them).  They are full and fully "real" in and of themselves without the need for any comparison to anything and anyone else.  As we become more aware of this truth, things of necessity will need to change.

It is, perhaps, important to note once again that the "we" I am addressing -- as in "As we become more aware of this truth ..." -- is the "we" of the dominant culture.  People of color, women, transgender persons, and others who have long been relegated to the margins have always known this.  They have always needed to be at least bi-culturally aware, knowing that their own distinct culture and the dominant culture exist side-by-side.  Now, though, many of us who have never really had to think about these things before are finally beginning to recognize these truths also.  We are beginning to recognize that our culture, the culture we've long taken for granted as being normative for all, is not the only culture there is.  Just as (most) men have learned that gendered language does, in point of fact, extend and exacerbate the historic exclusion of women, so too an insistence on preferencing the dominant culture maintains and magnifies the history of dominance and domination that is the long unspoken dimension of our heritage.

I will confess that at times I am overwhelmed with the demands of trying to listen to so many long-unheard voices as they cry out for recognition.  At times I want to say, "Really?  Is that word so important?"  I'll admit that I'm personally currently wrestling with the challenges of recognizing that even apparently gender-neutral language still often reflects a binary understanding of gender which can be experienced as dismissive and damaging to people whose experience of gender is more fluid than that.  The structure of the language itself, though, and not just word choice reinforces this older understanding.  Yet always new awareness has led to the use of new language.  

It isn't some kind of "political correctness" that demands change from those of us who as a group, have called the shots (or have had the shots called in our favor) for so long that we no longer even recognize that that's what's been happening.  It's really more a matter of "empathic engagement" -- caring enough about other people to recognize that they are not "failed attempts" at being like us but are people who have their own experiences of life.  When men who really wanted to be inclusive came to understand that the language they were using was in actuality exclusive, they changed their language to better reflect their really intentions.  We -- one last time, dominant-culture "we" -- say that we value all people.  So when we learn that the language we use (among other things) actually devalues huge swaths of humanity, what can we do but try to respond?  

Our response should not be to decry some words as now "forbidden."  Rather, it should be to listen carefully, closely, to the people who rarely have a say to learn how different words sound to them.  How do they hear these words that are so commonplace today?  If we learn that there are words that carry meanings that we do not intend -- even if only for some -- doesn't it make sense to look for alternative words that will more fully and accurately convey the whole of our meaning?  "Political Correctness," then, is really empathic engagement with others -- listening to their stories of their experiences -- and making changes in our language so as to respond to what we've heard and to make sure that our words do not get in the way.

Pax tecum,


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Nik Skaggs said...

But does being too careful of our words sometimes interfere with the conversation, the spontaneous communication. If I'm struggling too hard to use the "correct" word (pronoun, for example) am I missing something more important. I am careful, but sometimes I get it wrong in the excitement of reaching out. I hope I will be forgiven for that. Nik

ScottMGS said...

Nik, I know what you're saying and I struggle with more than two sets of gender (and genderless) pronouns. What I'm learning, though, is that when I think that I might be missing something more important in a conversation when I struggle to use the correct pronouns, what I might be missing is that getting the pronouns correct might be more important and affirming to the person I'm talking to.