The other day at a meeting for my internship with World Relief Garden Grove, we had Vice President Dan Kosten in the office to tell us about the history and the vision of World Relief. During the meeting he said something very profound as we were discussing the history of immigration in the United States. We discussed how each time a change occurred in regards to immigration law you could often track it in old writings by looking at the rhetoric used to describe certain people. He said when we are looking or listening to someone and we hear the use of a derogatory or dehumanizing term, it is a sure sign that oppression of some kind is occurring.
I’d like to think this is true. Even in the most innocent of cases, the terms we use for people reflect our ideas about them and, if negative, can help to excuse the way we think about them. It is a lot harder to hate a fully fledged individual than a type of person.
People always have some sort of good in them. We kid ourselves if we don’t believe that our own faults, when magnified or pushed to their limits don’t resemble the “worst of the worst”. But that’s too hard. There are things we like to believe about the world; things that are standard. There is black and there is white. 1+1 =2. The Yankees always wear pinstripes and everyone hates them (sorry you New Yorkers). Nobody likes lukewarm water. Nobody likes to hear ‘maybe’ in response to a direct question. We swim through a sea of gray, different shades surrounding us, dark and light, but nothing clearly defined.
Using general terms to describe people can give us the freedom to look negatively upon others. The words we use can lead us into deeper forms of ethnocentrism. What starts off as thinking that another is weird or different can quickly shift into something far more negative and even hateful.
That quiet kid in the corner who wears glasses and reads too much changes from being named Brian (or whatever) into being a ‘nerd’ or ‘geek’. When this happens they are no longer an individual, but rather someone who must be a certain way because of the term they have now been associated with. This example is an obvious trope, having been used by Hollywood many a times and is the center point to like half of John Hughes’ movies. At best, this becomes a game where the nerds and jocks go into their little corners working separately to navigate through their teenage years. At worst, it turns into violent bullying or suicide. What started as a simple or even fun term to describe somebody turned into something in which the other became oppressed and dehumanized.
The terms we use for others help us to justify the way we think about and subsequently treat other people. Broad terms make us think down on the other person. Words are not the reason why discrimination or hate occurs, but they can help lead to it and can keep it in its place.
When we use the word “illegals” to describe immigrants who reside in America illegally we take away from any the humanity that exists in them and define them by one small part of their existence. It is easy to create laws that do not help these people when you refer to them as “illegals”.
When we use the word “unborn” to describe babies in the womb it makes it far easier to pass laws that allow for abortion to happen (I know there are arguments that say that up to a certain point a fetus might not be a baby yet, but my point here is not to argue the pro-life position, rather, it is to point out the language we using when arguing our points and what this can say about the position we are holding). The same goes for when we use the word “abortionist” for women who have had abortions. We are defining them based on an action, not on who they actually are.
When speaking about someone who is different than us; someone who we have the propensity to think negatively about or to look down upon we have to watch what terms we use. This is particularly true of those who have power. For white Americans, we have been terrible at this over the last few centuries in the words we used (and use) to describe and oppress Native Americans, African Americans, Latinos, Asian Americans, gay and lesbians, etc… Our terms for each of these groups of peoples certainly contributed to being able to do things that discriminated against them and other minorities. Even today when we use certain general terms we can contribute to a rhetoric that does not allow for true equality to occur.
Even defining someone by their ideas can help us to discount that person’s ideas and discount them. The word ‘feminist’ turned from a movement which fought for women’s rights (a thing I think we can all agree on) to a term that was used to make those who were in this movement seem aggressive, ugly, and unwomanly. Outsiders turned the term into a negative stereotype and let’s face it probably helped to slow down the movement itself (hmmm…).
Those who are activists for nature or for preventing global warming are undermined by being called ‘tree huggers’ or ‘hippies’ when all they want to do is maintain a sustainable living environment. Those who have adopted their own independent lifestyle get called ‘rednecks’. Arabs get branded as ‘terrorists’. There are ‘dumb blondes’ (or ‘plastics’ thanks to Mean Girls), ‘cat ladies’, and all sorts with varying levels of seriousness or offensiveness, but all which serve to take away from that person’s individuality and humanity.
This can be a tricky ground to navigate and we will all mistakes (I hope to write a post on this soon) and maybe you’re saying to yourself, ‘he’s just one of those PC types’, but look what you’re doing even with that statement! You are defining me by a term that is used for the purpose of separating me from yourself. The better way to go about it is by saying ‘wow, he really cares about the terms we use when describing one another, I disagree with him about the seriousness of this.’ In this way you have acknowledged that I have my own opinion and view of things and you have also maintained your own self-worth by affirming your own opinion. You also have not thrown the entirety of my person out.
I am not saying that you need to walk on eggshells while talking trying to avoid every single racial or discriminatory term ever (though I do advocate for this, but understand how difficult and confusing it can get). I want us to notice our language and our terms. When we use a generality to describe someone we need to be able to stop and think about the place we are coming from when using it. Are we coming from a negative place? Are we being outright offensive? Is the word we are using being used to build walls between me and the other? Is it being used to make myself seem better than the other? How does the term affect my view on an issue or subject?
We do not all have to agree on everything. That is impossible. We do need to be able to have empathy; to see issues from another’s perspective and to realize when we are allowing oppression and dehumanization to occur.