Language -its fluidity, its use, and the relativity of its importance- is one of the biggest debates in social justice.
However, one of the first – and apparently most common – arguments I found myself surprised to hear when I got into activism, was that language is just language: harmless; that the way you use it doesn’t really matter when your actions speak for the quality of your intentions; and that it becomes truly harmful when you use it to categorize people, to put them into boxes and stick labels on them as if they were different brands of cereal.
Now, all these opinions make enough sense, so why would anyone who believes in freedom of expression – including me – feel uncomfortable at their phrasing? Let’s have a closer look at those statements, at what people might mean with them, and at how things may be slightly different after all.
Words matter as much as actions do
Of course no one can doubt that actions must be taken into consideration as much as words, if not more, and no one should be condemned just for a slip of their tongue when all of their actions show that they care, that they try to learn and make the world friendlier to people who are affected by discrimination. But at the same time, we must remember that people who belong in social groups that are discriminated against in most sections of their lives, and certainly have already had enough, are still affected by harmful, problematic language, and could definitely live without its use.
When, for example, you misgender a trans person (= use, accidentally or purposefully, the wrong name or pronouns, implying that they are a different gender than their own), you invalidate not just a choice of words, but the entire experience connected to their gender and the battles they’ve had to fight for it.
When you hear something directed to you that invalidates or erases your experience, offends your personality and attacks parts of your identity, you don’t really care to stop and check whether the other person’s intentions were good. You were hurt and that’s what matters and people don’t deserve to be hurt for who they are.
Language is a living organism
The language we use is not something stable. Its purpose is to serve our needs. The needs of a society change, and so should our language. Just because a word didn’t exist up to this point or because certain pronouns weren’t used, doesn’t mean that we can’t alter the way we use our language to include them.
Language doesn’t impose limits – it surpasses them
The philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein said: “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world”. That means that I cannot know anything in my world that cannot be phrased in my language.
The labels that you use in your language don’t have to limit you – they are there for you to describe yourself in a way that this self finally belongs. Of course, you are in no way obligated to use a strict label to describe the complex experiences that come with your identity, to put yourself in boxes and have them dictate what you like, who you are and how you act. If you identify as a lesbian but happen to fall in love with a man, then the way you label your sexuality should in no way be limiting. After all, sexuality and gender are fluid and people can question them all along their journey, without even having to come up to a solid realization in the end.
But at the same time, labels for some people are the way to expand the limits that a language made by other people, with different priorities, interests, and perceptions of the world, has posed for them, without their consent. I have seen on Facebook conversations cis people and, once, even a trans woman, invalidate the existence of non-binary and genderfluid people. They claimed that since we already have two pronouns in our language, remembering pronouns other than those of the binary genders (female and male) is hard and unnecessary, and that they don’t believe in the “politically correct theory” of the existence of more than two genders.
That, of course, is problematic, because there are many people whose gender falls in a spectrum outside the gender binary. That is, they identify neither as male nor as female. Non binary people shouldn’t have to debate their identities and use arguments to justify their existence to you. You just have to do so because their identities are valid as long as they experience them, and in order for you to respect them and show that you recognize their existence, you must at first use their correct pronouns. None of this is for the sake of political correctness alone; it’s about respect of their rights and their dignity instead.
That brings us to that: developing our language to make it more inclusive doesn’t limit us, but expands the limits others have set for us. You speak against the barriers people have set for you, without you. Non binary people are an example, and I use it because it’s the violation I’ve encountered more often. They have to rebuild a world where their existence is accepted, within a binary system that denies it. Changing our language is the first step to achieve that.
And remember: not all of us feel the same about our identities, labels, language, and the way we experience things. Just because you choose to identify as just human, it doesn’t mean that’s enough for everybody around you. When people need to speak for specific parts of their identities, just human is not exactly descriptive. For some people, having words – “labels” – to describe themselves, is much more important than you deem. No identity deserves more or less respect than another, so if you care not to offend the identity of a lesbian, or of a binary trans person, then you must be equally respectful towards the identity of a non-binary person.
Correct language validates people’s existence, as well as their experience. It’s much more than the ever so debated “political correctness”. It’s about accepting me as an individual, and allowing me to speak for my experiences before you do so in my place.
The diversity of language expresses the diversity of our identities
The first thing you learn when you get more into social justice, is that people are diverse. As Sian Ferguson points out in her article “Labels: Empowering, Harmful, or Both?”, people are different, and that difference is not the cause of systemic inequality, that is sometimes enforced by pre-existing language itself. People’s differences must have the correct language to be described by. A more diverse language can express a diverse culture much more effectively.
I’m pansexual. That means I’m not a lesbian. I’m not straight either, and I can’t be successfully included in each of these categories. I have different experiences than both straight and gay women, and have, on occasions, heard things from both categories of women that show lack of understanding to my own experiences. In order to have my experiences accepted, respected and understood, I need to have a word – a specific label – to properly describe them. So, when people speak of queer women, I don’t want them to limit the meaning of the word to gay. I need them to acknowledge bisexual and pansexual identities, in order to create a space for me, and for every other woman with my experiences, to speak. Same goes for all identities.
Words are the tools to build a space for our actions to matter
When you show that it’s vital to be careful with your words in order to respect a group of people, you simultaneously show that it’s vital to be careful with your actions in order to be respectful to people. When you realize how bad a racist slur is, and that you are -under no circumstances- allowed to use it, you also understand how unacceptable it is to hurt a victim of racial discrimination in any other way.
So how can homophobic actions be prevented, how can violence and abuse against trans people be perceived to be as horrible as they are, if we don’t first denaturalize and abolish homophobic and transphobic language?
Words are not just an embellishment to our actions and ourselves; they are the tools with which we build the world around us, and the way we perceive everyone and everything in it. When a person uses a label for themselves, they give life, shape and clothes to an identity that the world has, up to that moment, ignored and erased. Labels are not just labels, words are not just words: they form the space in our minds for new ideas and thoughts to grow.