Words That Hurt

The other day someone around me used the term “retarded” to describe their email – I have a light-hearted relationship with this person and so I pulled out the phrase “words that hurt”. This phrase is something that I discovered in my first year at the University of Western Ontario. During O-Week my Sophs shared with our group that this is something they pull out whenever someone says something that could hurt someone else. It’s enough to make someone pause and consider what they said – but not so aggressive that it causes any sort of rift between people.

I’m sure you can imagine what a lot of people’s response is to getting called out this way – I didn’t mean it like that or I wouldn’t use it in that context – usually, however, people often respond by agreeing that they shouldn’t use that word or that kind of language.

However, this time I got a different response, but from someone else in the room that was listening in on the conversation. This person looked more offended by my phrase than by the word that was used and they told me that language should not be policed. They even went on to insinuate that my “policing” of language was something that some very vicious dictators would do in pursuit of control.

This whole conversation was had in a friendly way and I always appreciate and enjoy people who think critically about the world around them. And although I didn’t react in the moment, this took me by surprise. Some people dissect life as it happens – I, on the other hand, like to stew in my thoughts and explore them over time. This struck me as one of those things I should explore.

The term “policing language” sounds intense – and maybe I’m splitting hairs but I really don’t agree that encouraging people to use positive language and avoid hurtful words is “policing”, for me it’s about creating a culture of compassion and love. But I wondered – was I wrong to think that we should have parameters around the language that we use? There are certain people in my life that have suggested at various times that I should “lighten up” when it comes to certain “jokes” or “words” that I believe should not be said – those people see these things as no big deal, whereas I see them as the very pieces that perpetuate hate in our society – even if in a subtle way.

During University, I took an introductory class in linguistics and my professor said to us that language is completely arbitrary. It has meaning simply because we say it does. For example, the letter B only makes the sound that it does, because we say that it should. A chair is only a chair because we say that it is. Slut is only an offensive term because we say that it is.

A few years after my first linguistics course, I took another course around a similar subject. I sat around a table with a mix of undergraduate and post-graduate students and that same professor said something I hadn’t really heard before. She said to us that Language has power.

I whole-heartedly agree that language is a very powerful thing and to assume that it has no impact is simply naïve. Language is nothing, and everything, at the same time.

And no matter how arbitrary language is – despite the fact that a word only means something because we decided that it does – once we make that decision, that word holds power. Slut is only offensive because we decided that it is – but the reality is that it still hurts people when it is uttered. The term still perpetuates a particular negative perspective around female sexuality. Words are uttered to communicate something, and therefore, a word is never simply just a word.

I truly believe that it does not matter in what context you are using a word. You may use the term Slut in a light-hearted way – and even if the person you are speaking to or directing that term at knows that you “don’t mean it that way” you are still putting that language out into the world. By using that language, you are saying that it is okay to use that language and you are playing a part in perpetuating the beliefs that create the foundation of that type of language.

One thing that I don’t think a lot of people consider when they use certain types of language is that you may not be saying it “that way” but others might receive it “that way”.

When you use words like retarded, stupid, bitch, slut, crazy, gimp, gay, fag and/or the many homo/trans-phobic and racial slurs we hear on a regular basis, you are saying that it’s okay to use those words. Just because those words don’t hurt you or those close to you, does not mean that they don’t hurt others. And shouldn’t we do our best to make sure that we aren’t hurting those around us, no matter who they are?

Nobody is perfect. We all use hateful or hurtful words sometimes, either out of habit or ignorance. Sometimes we don’t consider how our words might impact someone until it actually does. But the way I see it, if we all attempt to be a little more cognizant of the language that we use we will begin to see a change in the way people in our society think, act and treat one another.

I want to put a challenge out to you wonderful people. Think of a word that you use that you know could potentially be hurtful to someone else and challenge yourself to kick the habit. And if you’re really up for a challenge – why not incorporate ‘words that hurt’ into your daily life. Encourage others to speak with love and compassion.

Every time you speak you have the opportunity to spread positivity – so why wouldn’t you?