Language is powerful. More powerful than we often realize. The way we use language affects the way we view the world and, like it or not, betrays our innermost thoughts. In the same way the output of a computer shows how the program is working beneath the surface, so too does the way we speak. It reflects our priorities, our methods, and our preferences.
Thus, I can hear people who would denounce sexism, racism, ageism, or whatever-ism you might think of turn around and use language that betrays some deeper mode of thinking. I am not talking about racial slurs or overt condemnation. I am talking about subtle stuff.
“I went to see this lady doctor…” Was she a gynecologist or otherwise specialize in the treatment of women?If not her gender has nothing to do with her being a doctor. Adding “lady” or any other marker suggests that there is something noteworthy about the fact, something that may have been true in a previous era but is not now. The term is an indicator that speaker thinks about a woman in that role differently than they would think of a man.
“This black guy I know…” Unless his race plays into the information you are sharing it is irrelevant. Would you put some other descriptor in its place in causal conversation? Fat, bald, Shriner, Gamecock? If not then do not add racial or gender terms.
You may be asking “What’s the big deal?” This language, even if it is just habit, suggests a subtler form discrimination. It suggests a way of thinking in which the other is somehow strange or abnormal. Strange and abnormal almost always carry with them a connotation of inferior. By speaking this way we communicate to others that we do not see all people as worthy of equal respect. That we do not love all equal as God loves.
What is the big deal? Words hurt people. Sticks and Stones are easy to get over, words cut deep and last long. Just this week I spoke to someone who had been hurt by the subtly racist language of another person to the point that the person hurt hoped to never see the other one again. I know the one who spoke this way would deny being a racist and would be horrified to know that those words hurt someone else but it happened.
If we are to truly love like Christ loves we must respect others. We must speak in a way that conveys our respect for the dignity of all people. Call people what they want to be called. Use whatever pronouns they ask you to use. Think about the way you refer to people. You might not mean to do it, but you probably don’t mean to hit people with your car. If you can be deliberate about avoiding accidents in traffic you can be deliberate about not causing harm in conversation.
Language is powerful. Not only does it reflect the way we think it shapes the way we think as well. If we begin monitoring our speech to eliminate the subtle hurtful discriminatory language we use we will find that the way we think about others changes as well. We will not only sound more respectful but will actually be more respectful.
By the way, if this bothers you, if you feel threatened by being asked to speak differently I have two things to say:
- Wow, I guess language does matter after all. Doesn’t it?
- If you are unwilling to change the way you speak to reflect the love of Christ then I have to wonder what else you are unwilling to change.