Express Yourself

We Can Abolish Language Policing

Words can inspire reflection and growth, instead of prompting attacks

#@?! in block letters against a yellow background.
#@?! in block letters against a yellow background.
Photo: Javier Zayas Photography/Getty Images

A few months ago, I wrote an essay about why I dislike the term “differently abled.” As an Autistic person, I find it unhelpful and condescending to hide the word “disabled” behind softening euphemisms like that one. I also explained that the majority of disabled people feel the way I do about the term.

In the same piece, I also noted that the use of words like “differently abled” are revealing in a useful way; they indicate to me that a person is uncomfortable with disability, or is unfamiliar with the disability rights movement. Knowing that allows me to meet the person where they are, and (gently) encourage them to ponder how they feel about disabled people. I want to educate people about disability justice, so it’s very fruitful to approach the use of a “problematic” word in a curious, reflective way.

Many readers missed that point in my essay. They were too focused on learning that yet another phrase in their vocabulary had been deemed problematic. I had intended to invite readers to reflect on their own language use, and use language as a jumping-off point for having conversations about just how common ableism is. Instead, I was met with a mix of hand-wringing apologies and outraged defensiveness.

“I’ve been guilty of using the term differently abled,” one person wrote, “Thank you for helping me clear up my shit language.”

“These days nobody knows what words to use,” complained another commenter. “Everyone is walking on egg shells so much because we’re told that the most important thing is not to cause offense.”

I don’t think there’s any use in a person feeling guilty for having used the phrase “differently abled” in the past. Though I dislike the phrase, I don’t think it’s categorically “shit language.” A few disabled people even prefer the term. And I certainly don’t want people to walk on eggshells about which words they use. That tends to inhibit frank discussion, and makes it harder for me to connect meaningfully with people on their own terms.

With the exception of slurs, verbal abuse, and hate speech that’s clearly intended to cause harm, I don’t believe in treating words as verboten and shameful. A “problematic” word does not a problematic person make. Language is evolving very rapidly, especially in social justice circles, and the majority of people are not up to speed on all things at all times. Words are just tools. Lacking vocabulary is not a mark of shame, nor is possessing it an indicator of virtue.

Rather than shaming people for using problematic or outmoded terms, I prefer to think of language as means of starting conversation. Our vocabularies reflect our knowledge bases, the cultures and subcultures we inhabit, the assumptions we have, even our abilities and class privileges. These are all very useful things to ponder, reflect on, and share with other people about. But such thoughtful sharing is only possible when we stop rejecting those who communicate a bit differently from us.

One evening last year, I went out with my friend Sherry, a 40-year-old trans woman, and Ben, a cisgender dude Sherry’s been friends with since college. Ben is a true, lifelong friend to Sherry, and found it very easy to accept her as a woman the moment she came out. Still, Ben has some big gaps in his knowledge, particularly when it comes to trans terminology.

“My girlfriend’s kid says he doesn’t want to be a boy anymore,” Ben told us over our second round of drinks.

“So probably not he, then,” Sherry corrected.

“Yeah, probably not,” Ben replied. “He — the kid — is I guess some kind of like, hermaphrodite? Is that the word?”

“Definitely not!” I blurted, laughing uncomfortably. “That is not the word. Whatever their identity is, it’s definitely not that.”

I was a little shocked by Ben’s question, I have to admit. It struck me as incredibly ignorant. Intersex people hate being referred to using the h-word, and being intersex has nothing to do with being transgender. So his language was off base on at least two different fronts. I instantly felt put off by Ben. I wanted to get the hell away from him as quickly as possible. But Sherry was patient.

“Well, what are you trying to get at here?” she asked, in a calm, neutral tone of voice. “Does the kid see themselves as a blend of masculine and feminine qualities, or as shifting between identities? Or as kind of having no gender?”

“Blend I think sounds closest,” Ben replied. “Honestly I don’t know how the kid would put it.”

“It sounds like you should ask your girlfriend,” Sherry ventured. “Or even better, ask the kid. Just see how they describe it.”

“Yeah, you’re probably right.” Ben looked at me kinda sheepishly. “I’m sorry, I guess I probably sound like an old moron.”

“You’re fine, you’re still learning,” I said, surprised that I no longer felt angry or on edge.

The rest of the evening went off without a hitch. We talked about movies and bands we had seen at Riot Fest, and eventually we circled back to the topic of gender. Sherry and I explained the difference between being “nonbinary” and being “intersex” to Ben, and he listened carefully.

I was kind of stunned by how well the whole thing went, how patient Sherry was, and how humbly Ben accepted criticism. I was far more used to seeing people jump down an ignorant person’s throat. Hell, I’ve been among the angry throat-jumpers many times. I’ve seen plenty of people lash out when they get corrected. It had left me thinking there was little point in trying to help others learn.

But Sherry and Ben gave me reason to doubt my pessimism. Maybe there was room for slow, patient conversations about unfamiliar concepts after all. Maybe some mistakes are entirely innocent, and some conversations can proceed with a spirit of good faith.

Communication is a constantly shifting, collaborative dance, one that requires the good-faith engagement of all parties involved. You can’t truly connect to another person without taking the risk of revealing some of your ignorance to them. You can’t grow alongside a friend if you view gaps in their knowledge as shameful or dangerous faults.

Language is meant to facilitate conversation, not shut it down. But when we view language as a reflection of a person’s innate qualities, or blame a person for not possessing the most up-to-date lingo, we make further conversation and connection with them impossible. We also block ourselves from getting to learn about their outlook, because we’ve rejected their ideas for not being presented “correctly.”

In some circles, adoption of up-to-date language even serves as a form of status-signaling or fashion. Knowing which words are “out” and which are “in” is a sign you are well-read, plugged in, connected, and cool. If someone uses the wrong word, they may be deemed cringeworthy, violent, or deserving of pillorying.

I hope it’s clear just how exclusionary this approach to language is. It shuts out anyone who hasn’t had the time to read the latest discourse, or who doesn’t have cool, au courant friends. It excludes people who are new to speaking English, and those who haven’t had access to an elite education, or the formal training to sift through different online resources and determine which are rigorous and which are nonsense. Harsh policing of language also alienates disabled people, many of whom are not able to memorize new terms quickly, or closely monitor their every word.

I have noticed a lot of white people correcting other white people about their language in social justice spaces — trying to signal, I think, that they are among the virtuous ones. A lot of us want to demonstrate that we are the good accomplices, who know to call themselves “accomplices” and not “allies”; the people strong enough to admit they have “white fragility,” the warriors who know they are fighting against “white supremacy,” not merely “racism” or “inequality.” Having the most up-to-date lingo is an efficient way to communicate we are committed to the cause.

Yet all too often, we use this language to alienate the white people we ought to be helping bring into the racial justice fold. I have seen white people shout one another down over incorrect racial justice language countless times; I’ve heard dozens of white people refuse to educate a close friend or family member about racism because, “It’s not my job to educate you.”

Many of us are too intent on demonstrating our virtue and don’t care enough about being patient with the ignorant but well-intended. It almost seems, at times, as though we want to keep our social justice world small. We want the power, trust, and clout that comes with being of the few who know the fashionable words. This kind of selfish, knowledge-hoarding approach dooms our causes to failure.

So what can we do instead of policing language in these harsh, sanctimonious ways? How can we use words to invite conversation, rather than shut it down? Here are some recommendations, based on what’s worked for me:

Ask questions

Instead of telling a person they’ve used the “wrong” word, try asking them about the words they do use. Sherry could have rejected Ben out of hand for using the offensive, outdated term h*rmaphrodite, but if she had done so, she wouldn’t have figured out what Ben was trying to communicate: that his girlfriend’s kid sees themselves as a blend of both masculine and feminine. Rather than shutting Ben down with a rejection, she invited further exploration and growth.

Similarly, I have found that when a person uses words like “differently abled” or “special” instead of the preferred term, disabled, it’s useful for me to ask them sincere questions about why. Invariably, the people who use these euphemisms are well-intended, and are only avoiding the word “disabled” because they think it will be hurtful. On a good day, when I have enough patience, I can kind of walk them through realizing that it’s okay to state outright that someone has a disability, because being disabled is not actually a shameful thing.

Look at the meaning behind the words

Last week I was out on a walk, and I ran into my neighbor Adelle and her great-granddaughter Jamariana. Jamariana ran up to me excitedly, and reached out to give me an elbow-bump. When I extended my own arm, she noticed I had painted my nails.

“Boys can’t wear nail polish!” she shrieked, with the kind of confused outrage only a six-year-old can muster.

“Yes they can, baby,” said Adelle. “Yes they can.”

“No they can’t!”

“Yes they can,” Adelle declared. “He can wear anything that he wants.”

I’m nonbinary, and lately I haven’t been trying very hard to look like a boy. I haven’t been binding my chest, and I’d been off hormones for over two months. I have no idea why Adelle and Jamariana both perceived me as male. And on a different day, if I were in a more sour mood, I might’ve been pissed at Jamariana for screaming gender norms at me. But I wasn’t mad at either of them, and I didn’t correct them, because the intentions behind their exchange were entirely positive.

It was important that Jamariana learn boys can wear nail polish. It was good that she shared her confusion with Adelle and I, even if her delivery was rude. Often, people express an important idea or ask a valid question in an imperfect way. If we are invested in the growth of others, we allow some latitude for that, and avoid “tone policing” a person who has conveyed their ideas in a flawed way.

Remember, knowledge is privilege

It is a privilege to know correct, cutting-edge terminology, and to be familiar with complex social justice theories. Knowing about these topics requires some combination of access to an elite education, sufficient free time, access to educated friends and mentors, and enough mental energy and focus to consume dry, lengthy texts.

None of this is to say that social justice is only for the rich and highly educated, or that such concepts are “too complex” for marginalized people to understand. Quite the opposite, in fact. Many wealthy and well-educated people only understand things like white supremacy or queer theory as theoretical concepts; people with fewer privileges live those realities every single day. But not everyone who experiences systemic racism, wealth inequality, and other injustices has the chance to learn about it academically or intellectually. Their firsthand expertise of these problems may not come wrapped in academic terms.

If you happen to know the “correct” language about an issue, you are privileged. Even if you were “self-taught” and did not learn about these concepts in an expensive university. If you’ve had the time and mental energy to read a ton of socialist theory or feminist texts, you have advantages over those who have not.

If you have that kind of privilege, you should use it to help people who lack those advantages — the people who work 60-hour weeks with two-hour-long commutes, who are too busy raising kids or caring for dying relatives to pore through humanities books or attend regular activist meetings. Instead of feeling smugly superior to these people, extend a patient, friendly hand to them.

Identify shared values

Recently an internet friend, Olli, surprised me by describing another person as “obese.” I had shared a meme about how much more difficult it is for fat people to purchase clothing from sustainable brands, and Olli reacted by sending this message:

“We don’t have a lot of obese people here in Sweden, so I’m not sure how much it’s a problem here… but I think many clothing makers don’t see any reason for making larger sizes.”

Many fat people are quite vocal about viewing ob*se as a slur. Your Fat Friend has written beautifully about how Body Mass Index categories are unscientific, fatphobic, and racist. Many others have explained how the word ob*se pathologizes fatness, and objectifies fat people and their bodies. I knew Olli’s heart was in the right place, but that they were clearly a bit ignorant about this subject. Rather than admonishing them for their use of the o-word, I tried to figure out their thinking.

“Here in the United States, fat liberation activists prefer “fat” and view ob*se as a slur,” I said. “I don’t know, is it like that over there?”

“Honestly I’m not sure,” Olli said. “It feels so rude to use the word fat though. It seems so much more respectful to talk about people scientifically.”

As we continued to talk, it became clear to me that while Olli didn’t know much about fat liberation, they generally supported it and wanted to treat fat people well. Their lack of knowledge was also why they believed fat people were especially rare in Sweden — and as we talked more, they looked up the accounts of fat models and fat positive activists in their country, so they could learn a bit more.

“Maybe fatphobia is even the reason we act like America is where all of the fat people are,” Olli reflected. “That stereotype that fat people are ignorant, or less cultured, and therefore don’t belong here.”

Since I’m not fat, it was easy for me to walk Olli through this conversation. Their words did not hurt or offend me on a personal level. I believe that, on the whole, those of us who are not directly targeted or hurt by offensive language have a much greater obligation to be patient when people misuse terms. White people like me should generally be gentle when we educate our co-workers and friends about racial justice. Thin people should not get a rush out of pillorying someone online who has said one unintentionally fatphobic thing.

I’m glad, then, that I took the time to ask Olli about their views, rather than dismiss them for using an admittedly very fatphobic term. Another layer to this of course is that English is not Olli’s first language — in those situations, it’s even more important to be patient when a person says something that might strike us as problematic.

Recognize common goals

Some people are very resistant to having their language critiqued. It can be really frustrating to try and connect with someone who is unapologetic about using heavily appropriated language, offensive speech, and outdated terms. My friend Marco is a bartender, and he’s always lived and worked in environments where people throw insulting, derogatory language back and forth at one another. When someone tells him that he can’t or shouldn’t use a word, he tends to bristle at first.

“The people I work with and grew up with, we are not neurotic about how we talk,” he says. “We are aggressive about how we talk. I’ve been called every piece of hate speech in the book since kindergarten, so when someone tells me oh, don’t call a woman crazy, even if she abused you and treated you like shit, you know, I get cranky at that.”

Though Marco can be prickly and resistant to criticism, he has learned to be more careful about his language — because he recognizes that he shares common interests and struggles with the folks he might otherwise offend.

“I’ve gone through things that could get me called crazy too,” he says. “Did get me called crazy, and treated crazy, a lot. And instead of that giving me a right to say whatever I want… I can think about who I’m hurting.”

Marco has always cared about racial justice, economic justice, feminism, and the rights of people with mental illness. Over time, his language has come to reflect those values more fully. But he’s only gotten to that place because he had friends who were willing to engage with him, flaws and all.

“Sometimes people need to bust my nuts a little,” he says. “My buddy Kevin will always tell me when I’m screwing up and my heart and what I’m doing don’t line up. I hate it… but he’s usually right.”

Take disagreements to DMs

Some of the most toxic infighting about language happens online. There are just too many people, all spouting off their opinions way too quickly, performing their outrage, social justice bona fides, and snarking abilities all at once for the benefit of a massive audience. It is so, so tempting in such settings to correct a person’s ignorance in a shallow, smug way that will earn you lots of likes. This kind of hostility does not change hearts and minds. If anything, it drives curious people away, or teaches them to never ask questions.

In order to have more productive and heartfelt conversation online, you’ve got to shrink the scale of the disagreement. You can’t fight with every single person who disagrees with you about language; you can’t correct every single person who uses the wrong term. Not in a meaningful way. Instead, limit yourself to engaging with only a few people per week, and take your conversations to DMs (or if you know the person, a phone or video call).

Notice how a person responds when presented with new information — are they defensive? Do they ask irrelevant questions to try to derail you? Are they on the attack? Or do they share how they are feeling and thinking in a bid to genuinely connect? If it’s the latter, that’s a good sign you should continue to engage. People who are vulnerable with you are usually people worth reaching. Even if their vulnerability looks a little messy or isn’t packaged in the “right” terms.

Recently, I had a long, meaningful conversation in my DMs with a nurse who was a little outraged by a post I made about medical racism. In her hospital, she said, everyone was treated equally. She made sure of that! Rather than roast her in the comments, I messaged her privately. It became clear she was upset at the thought of her hospital being racist. It pained her to think that there were all manner of problems in her field that she was not aware of. This pain was a sign she cared and was concerned, even though she was also pretty ignorant.

We continued the conversation over the course of a few days. She learned about the concept of misogynoir and how Black patients are under-treated for pain. I learned from her about what being a nurse looks like, which helped contextualize my own very disconnected, academic understanding of medical racism. It was an enriching, worthwhile exchange.

I don’t have the time or energy to engage with every ignorant person on this level — nor should I try to. Rather than playing verbal whack-a-mole against every ignorant comment on my post, I identified one person who wanted to have a genuine conversation. Then I took our dialogue to a private medium that allowed us to really get honest and open with one another. The nurse and I both benefited from choosing to engage slowly, and patiently, in a spirit of good faith.

In the early 20th century, many academics believed in something called the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, which theorized that the words we use have a direct influence on how we think. Though this hypothesis has been repeatedly debunked, many people still behave as if it’s true. Particularly in left-leaning circles, people tend to equate how a person speaks with who they are and what they believe.

Instead of exploring how people behave, or what they value, we default to policing their language, because that’s much easier to observe and address. And so we get things like TedX London billing itself as an event for “womxn” rather than taking concrete steps to include trans people in their speaker list.

There are times when language is bad enough that patience is not warranted. Repeatedly and venomously insisting a trans woman is a man is unacceptable behavior. Yelling racial slurs is absolutely beyond the pale. Verbal abuse should not be tolerated. But in most cases, we can and should approach differences in language with a spirit of curiosity and trust.

We have all said things that rankled others. We all have holes in our understanding of complex topics. Language is a dynamic, flexible tool that can help us broach these gaps. All we have to do is stop silencing others, stop projecting meanings and intentions when they are not there, and open up our ears.

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