|Image courtesy battu_7.|
Words are powerful. Words have changed me. Words have changed others. People have written books about how words have changed others. Speeches have been immortalized because the words in them have changed others. Hoards of people write and speak in the hope that their words will change others. And words can also cause enormous harm.
At IHE we love explorations of language and words; we’ve written about words and language before (such as here, here, here, here, and here), and recently we came across an important post by the blogger at Vegina, who writes about the power of language to reflect and promote social inequalities (such as racism, sexism, and speciesism). It’s a great example of the destructive and oppressive power of words, and of how interconnected issues of social justice are.
“Through slang terms, idioms, insults, and standardized grammatical constructs, language reflects current social inequalities. It is packed with the vestiges of a culture’s history of domination, exploitation, and discrimination. In this way, language not only reflects inequality but also has the potential to oppress. In using problematic language, we reinscribe abuses and inequalities. However, by simply not using such language, we can free our own words of exploitation, forcing others to confront these issues when they hear us speak.”
In the post, she focuses on oppressive and exploitative language as it relates to nonhuman animals, but she notes that “… it is impossible to discuss speciesist language without also discussing racist and sexist language, as they are all interlinked by a prevailing structure of inequality that operates within most institutions, belief systems, governments, and cultures globally.”
The author highlights several of the ways that language can be used to oppress and exploit nonhumans, including:
- pronouns (e.g., it or that instead of she or who, used to classify beings as objects);
- mass terms (lumping individual animals together into one category, so that we can erase their individuality and act as if they’re all the same) — this is a technique often used in human genocide;
- insults (which establish the devaluation of others);
- idioms (e.g., “kill two birds with one stone,” to help reinforce others as inferior);
- inaccurate language (e.g., hamburger or meat instead of cow, so that we can normalize & justify the abuse and oppression)
Such language is so ingrained in our culture that we often don’t even notice it. But by making an effort to be mindful of our own language use, by speaking out when we notice exploitative uses around us, and by modeling a new, inclusive, compassionate way of speaking and thinking, we can help catalyze a change in the way that we think of, and treat, other beings.
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