Updated: Apr 3
Language - Humans' Most Powerful Weapon (for good or ill)!
The pun in the title ‘Just Words’ is fully intended. The double meaning entirely encapsulates this article’s argument.
Just Words – Words that are fair and humane, for example, language that does hurt, offend
and is inclusive.
Just Words – words as a superficial expression or a gloss over something deeper.
Gemma Drinkall once again furnishes us with a very pertinent quotation:
“How you perceive your reality impacts how you experience it.”
In this experience, language is enormously important. It is incredibly powerful. Labels, titles, names shape our perceptions, both of ourselves and other people, both individually and collectively, and also, therefore, of entire societies and beyond. We use it to express and define our experience of the world, but equally our linguistic range and knowledge can’t help but shape that experience itself along with the associations we have developed with certain words.
Language is essential for human communication and survival, humour and laughter, but my goodness, can it complicate things! It is at once a central unifying social factor that brings empathy, gratitude, and solidarity, and at the same time man’s most powerful weapon to overturn social ties.
Does this make language somewhat paradoxical? No. The fact that language can both build and destroy entirely mirrors these dual and admittedly conflicting aspects of human beings.
Thucydides, all the way back in the fifth-century BC, encapsulated this exactly:
“And they changed the customary value of names/words* to fit their actions as they deemed fit/just. For unreasoned daring was now considered the bravery of a loyal partisan, considered hesitation became to be seen as a fair-sounding gloss for cowardice, restraint a cover for weakness, the power to perceive all sides of an issue equated to idleness towards all matters. Swift and rash recourse to violent anger was now classed as strength, and plotting in safety** was seen as a justified reason for self-defence.”
What Thucydides is saying is that the connotations of language can be so easily flipped and re-assigned thanks to context and dramatic events. It does not change in in of itself. Human beings are the agent of change. Amidst the changing perceptions and attitudes occasioned by the new political, social, and cultural context that they themselves have created, people repurpose the language of values to suit the new set of circumstances. The usual values are now held in contempt, those who adhere to them mocked and derided.
So why is part of my new ‘Classical Comments on Current Affairs’? Language, offence, and inclusion are a massive part of ongoing public political, cultural, and social debate, especially in the UK and the USA. The language of race, gender, sex, and culture is (rightly) an issue that demands rethinking and reflection, discussion, and dialogue. In such matters, language can be liberating blasting the prejudices and cruel labels of the past to reflect society’s progress and people’s awareness, and to promote tolerance. This, however, is not as easy as it might sound. Simple label changes, though very important in promoting the banishment of an unhealthy mindset and attitude, are not actually the solution per se, they are part of the solution. Are they actually rooting out the problem? No, but they do show how language can help perpetuate a mindset and thus, to change the language we use to frame an issue when describing and discussing can be a very important part on the road to greater awareness and equal treatment. One example, is Mrs vs Ms for a woman once married. The important thing is that she can choose. I have heard plenty of people think this is a petty or silly additional label, but I think it is fair enough that a woman should be able to be Ms if she does not want her marital status to be clear from her title. After all, is not clear either way from Mr. The converse to say, you must be Ms to show you support female equality and hammering it home in a ‘who is not with us is against us manner’. The choice is there, that is what matters.
So, language is important in helping level up the inequalities that sadly still dog modern societies. For example, gender, not the dual concept that persisted for so long, and one which must inclusively reflect people’s sense of identity beyond he/she. However, this is not simply a matter of language (it never is). A related problem is the persistence of unhealthy, and patently silly, gender stereotyping. I started reading the post of a connection of mine on LinkedIn which at first made my heart sink…at first. Her daughter had been quietly encouraged in a shop by an assistant to think about buying a doll instead of the dinosaur she selected, since that was really a boy’s toy. But my smile returned upon reading that said daughter roared back in imitation of a T-Rex and bought the dinosaur. The other one is boys wearing pink. Given that the gender assigned colours of blue and pink used to be the other way round, pink being considered close to red and, therefore, more manly, I have always found this one particularly daft. The objection may be raised, ‘well, yeah, that’s obvious.’ Okay, true. But it points to another problem. Someone I follow on Twitter sought to make a distinction between those feeling they are the wrong sex and gender, and those who have been made to feel that their tastes are the wrong gender. She was immediately accused of being transphobic and not appreciating how strongly real it was for some. I don’t think she was anything of the kind. She was rather jut pointing out two different problems. I must say I spoke in her defence, pointing out that she had quite clearly acknowledged the very real feeling some had about being the wrong sex and gender and this should be accommodated. She was simply trying to say that another, but not exactly the same, problem, was that some people felt ‘I should have been a girl’, ‘I should have been a boy’ because their tastes had been mocked as ‘wrong’ for their gender. I would like to share with you my own experience of this issue. Chatting to a friend, who said she always hated not having been a boy, her tastes were male, but boys and adult male relatives would not engage in the activities she like with her because she was a girl. I felt deeply saddened to hear this. But the problem was, in my opinion, not her gender, but the application of dated (and ANNOYING) stereotypes that made her feel weird. I say this as someone who had a genuinely pretty gender neutral upbringing. I always knew I was a girl, but I NEVER, truly, absolutely never, once had any notion of this meaning I had to conform to a particular set of likes or mode of behaviour. I had a pink tracksuit, but I used to run around in it with toy sword pretending to be She-ra. I had He-man figurines. I loved Cringer the battle cat with his slightly scary gargoyle-like mask. I played Chess (yes, once very sadly, someone queried, ‘isn’t that normally a boys’ game’ Er, no!). I had Barbies, but they were members of a detective agency. I certainly never willingly played Mummies and Daddies. Just to say I have nothing against the game. I just didn’t like it, but never felt any compulsion to play it because I was a girl. I loved the series Bravestar as a kid. When I asked a girl in my class at Junior school whether she liked it, she scornfully scoffed and said, ‘course not, that’s a boys’ programme’. I think I just shrugged and left the conversation there. But I was a little puzzled, having not really encountered this attitude before. I liked trains, I liked cars, I loved and still do love Lego, but never once did I associate this with being a girl or being weird because I was not a boy. The tale, I think proves that stereotypes are so harmful. A person might be needlessly feeling they are the wrong sex or gender because they have been mocked for their tastes. I hope also that the above story has illustrated that there is a difference between sex and gender. Sex is not a dual concept either, but broadly it is a more physical thing, defined by reproductive organs that has no preconceived prescribed course of action. Gender is what society tells you you should do because you have XX or XY chromosomes. The false duality this imposes on human tastes and behaviour is incredibly damaging and confusing, both to those who tastes are simply not typically male/female, but also to those who have a strong sense that they are not male or not female, whether they wish to be the opposite or not so stringently defined at all.
This is where the dark side of language comes in and where it can become borderline tyrannical. Stereotypes become entrenched, and so entrenched people begin to believe they are natural. Language is how these are fuelled. As Thucydides showed, abuse of language can be used to turn values on their head and condemn them entirely, and essentially to ostracise those who live by the old definition. Thus, language can be used to introduce new stereotypes and even wilfully to misrepresent or misunderstand another view, which is not designed to be prejudiced or cowardly, but can be portrayed as such because it is different from the new norm that a group is pushing.
A slip of the tongue can leave you ruined and branded ‘phobic’ in some way. Quoting an author who expressed a ‘phobic’ view or who used a taboo word in a lesson can get you sacked or forced out of employment, as if your mere quotation were evidence for your espousing and spreading the offending view behind the term.. Such events show that the oppressive usage of language can destroy its liberating power and have the exact opposite effect. This is very different from people who have expressed hateful and prejudicial views against a group, who act on such views, and by their vile language, rouse others to join their disgusting hate-campaigns. These people must take the consequences of their actions. Outdated and intolerant views should be met with the social justice and reprisals they merit.
My intention in this article was to show how powerful language is, its usage, and what should and shouldn't be said being one of today's most live and sensitive topics, We must be careful not only of how we use it, but how we measure our reaction to its usage,