The Power of Words
In the last weeks, the Black Lives Matter movement has taken centre-stage throughout media outlets. On 2 June, people across the US and worldwide expressed their support by posting black squares alongside the hashtag #blackouttuesday on Instagram and Facebook to protest racism and police brutality. Many pointed to the ways we can all further the movement’s cause by donating, volunteering, and protesting.
I am admittedly biased, but my first thoughts go to the role language plays in relationships between people, especially in power struggles those on the lower-end of the hegemonic hierarchical structures have fought in societies across the world.
When faced with violence and physical oppression, at first glance, language seems to play only a secondary role in challenging systems that ensure maintaining the existing power structures. The words however that we use to describe the world around us are the most powerful tools we have to make sense of reality. They create categories that help us understand complex processes, like climate change and market crises, but, as with all potent human tools, they are double-edged, and they always serve as the starting point for creating divisions and hierarchies among people, leaving many without equal access to resources that we commonly share as humans.
For the last couple of years I have been teaching introductory courses to non-linguists in which I take everyday examples of language use to show how ideologies permeate all facets of our lives. I am always fascinated by the eye-opening moments in which my students delve deeper and think harder about the reality-shifting power of words.
In a very real sense, words have the power to heal, make people think in a more inclusive way and nudge us to accept that it may be time to change the makeup of the boxes we place people in or rethink those boxes altogether.
Since I started conducting research, I’ve shifted between thinking about how we express ideologies in language and the norms we construct when it comes to language use. Now I think of the two as they are interrelated: how we can agree on new norms in our language use so that they reflect the changes and the emerging progressive ideas.
As an educator and an editor, I’m always conscious about the words that I use, one reason for this is that I know that I will hear them repeated back to me by my students. Although words are integral to my daily work, we are all responsible for the words that we share, which often have real effects. Especially those words that we use to describe other people.
I’ve recently come across the style guide published by SumOfUs, a global non-profit advocacy organisation and online community that, in their words, attempts to ’stop big corporations from behaving badly.’ The document titled A Progressive’s Style Guide (by Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch), invites those who advocate and drive progressive social change to use their voices to represent more authentically through language diverse groups of people and challenge ageism, structural ableism, classism, climate change denial, sexism and gender essentialism, colonialism, racism, and, more broadly, an us-versus-them dichotomy.
Next to asking students to follow CMS and other style guides that provide some but not as extensive guidelines on authentic language use, this document would be a worthy addition to any course list of resources and references.
Although guidelines like these are often described as PC on steroids, they don’t trample on freedom of speech. What they do is acknowledge the power of language. Without language there is no world as we know it. So let’s be wary of the kind of world we create.