A short guide to using language thoughtfully

I have a lot of friends who regularly use terms like “that’s so gay” or “that’s retarded.” These friends are generally intelligent, compassionate people, who do not at all think of themselves as homophobic, ableist, or otherwise prejudiced. Many of them even think of themselves as allies. Their general line of reasoning is that language evolves and these terms have taken on a new meaning, independent of the group of people they used to/also refer to. They mean it as a joke. Their friends know they’re not prejudiced. Even some gay people say “that’s gay.” It’s not hurting anyone.

These reasons, among others, are so often used to defend the use of these phrases. While I—as well as many others—have elected to not use these phrases at all, I also recognize that there are many intelligent and caring people who choose to use them anyway, on the belief that they aren’t harmful.

I’m not going to try to talk anyone out of saying “that’s so gay.” I think some of the reasons/situations that someone might have for saying these phrases are legitimate.

What I want to outline is a short list of things to keep in mind if you do choose to use these phrases. This list isn’t for those who don’t care who they offend. This list is for the thoughtful and considerate. For the friends of mine who see no problem with playfully calling a friend a “retard” when they both know it’s just a joke. For those who have thought it through and come to the conclusion that in certain circumstances, there’s nothing wrong with using this language in ways that some may deem offensive.

And I’m not saying you’re necessarily wrong. I just want you to keep some things in mind:

1) Know your audience.
If you want to joke around with your friends, make sure that you’re all on the same page. You don’t always know everyone’s circumstances. There may be topics or slurs that make people incredibly uncomfortable, even if they don’t bring it up. Be especially wary of using these phrases in public, or around people you don’t know very well. You never know what someone’s been through, what their family situation is, and what’s caused or is causing them pain.

2) Language does matter.
A lot of people feel that when you say “that’s gay,” you’re not actually referring to gay people; it’s an entirely different word, in an entirely different context. Language evolves, after all. But the reality is, the words that we use affect the way we think. When we use a term like “gay” or “retarded” to refer to something negative, we’re building implicit associations between “gay” and “retarded” and negative things. Even if we don’t use the terms to refer to the groups of people, we’re still subconsciously reinforcing the idea that being “gay” or “retarded” is a bad thing to be. These associations are forming in both the people who use the terms and the people who hear them, whether we’re aware of it or not.

3) People may assume that you have the prejudices that are implied by your language.
Whether or not they’re right in this belief, anyone who overhears you using a potentially offensive phrase may assume that you are, in fact, homophobic, ableist, sexist, racist, or otherwise prejudiced. A friend of mine who often uses racist slurs “as a joke” was recently shocked to find out that many of his friends believed he was actually racist. Even if people aren’t speaking up, they may be interpreting your use of these phrases to indicate that you actually do have negative beliefs about the referenced groups.

So there you have it. If you choose to use these phrases, make sure that you’ve thought it through and understand the possible ramifications. Be aware of the context, and recognize that you are participating in reinforcing negative associations, even if you don’t mean to.

I’m not going to say that you’re a terrible person if you keep saying these phrases; I’m not even going to tell you to never use them. Make your own decisions. But be aware that your words really do matter. Be careful how you use yours.

1 Comment on "A short guide to using language thoughtfully"

  1. Wonderful clear writing. I approve of this message.

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