As a teenager in New York, I often called things I didn’t like “retarded.” It was a common part of the lexicon of my peer group, and I didn’t think anything of its connotations or history. But as soon as someone explained to me that intellectually disabled people consider that word to be a slur and that they (and their advocates) urge abled people to remove it from their vocabulary entirely – citing the fact that “the R word” has long been used to bully, harass, and discriminate against them – I stopped using it. Once I heard it laid out like that, it felt so clear and obvious that the harm I was doing by casually throwing that word around greatly outweighed the small amount of conscious effort it would take to retrain myself to reach for a different word. It really wasn’t hard. I slipped once in a while at first, out of habit, but would catch myself and say, “oops, I mean ‘that sounds ridiculous,’” or whatever other word more specifically described what I was getting at.
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I continue to make these adjustments all the time in my writing and speech as I see various marginalized groups request them, like replacing the phrases “either gender” and “men and women” with “any gender” to include nonbinary people or not using words like “crazy” or “psycho” pejoratively (which reinforces the stigma against mental illness) when I actually mean “dangerous” or “irrational.”
I make these changes because I believe that if a marginalized group tells you that something is harmful to them, they certainly know that better than you, and you should listen – because I believe it’s the right thing to do. But also because as a writer, I welcome the opportunity to become more precise and thoughtful in my use of language. I find words fascinating – their origins, their implications, the subtle differences between apparent synonyms. Learning new words or finding exactly the right word for an idea I’m trying to convey are the little adrenaline rushes that keep me hooked on this business. So, I follow the current changes happening in our language with interest, curiosity, and a readiness to learn as the chorus calling for inclusivity and respect gets ever louder. Which is why I’m always so surprised to see a fellow writer joining in on the argument against “political correctness.”
There are lots of people out there who believe that the movement toward more inclusive, considerate language has gone too far. There are people who would take being asked to phase the R-word out of their vocabulary as a personal affront, an attempt at censorship, an unbearable oppression. I see this resistance often from creative people – writers, comedians, anyone who makes their living expressing themselves, arguing that any constraint on how they’re “allowed” to do so is tantamount to shackles. As someone who grew up on George Carlin and punk rock, I understand the idea that nothing should be off limits to the creative mind. I agree, in fact.
But there’s a big difference between shutting down whole areas of conversation and prohibiting subversive art – which is how some people seem to interpret the call for more sensitive language – and merely encouraging the reconsideration of certain words in our lexicon that have hateful, violent roots, and whose continued use serves to further stigmatize and marginalize groups of people who are fighting for equality. Not using the word “crazy” to dismiss every person and idea you disagree with doesn’t mean you can’t discuss mental illness, it just means you have to find more nuanced, specific ways to so – and more nuanced, specific ways to explain that you disagree with something.
Creative people, and especially writers, should be leading the charge as our language evolves. As lovers of words, writers should relish the opportunity to become more precise and conscious in which ones we choose. These shifts are growth, not restriction – they’re an opportunity to learn, to sharpen and deepen our mastery of language to get closer to saying exactly what we mean. And isn’t that the heart of this work? Isn’t that what we’re here for.
Once you start noticing patterns, like how many insults commonly directed at men are supposed to be especially insulting because they’re words that are associated with women or femininity (“pussy,” “pansy,” “bitch” (as in “don’t be a…”)), thereby implying that to be feminine is inherently bad, weak, and undesirable, and thinking about the broader implications of continually reinforcing that idea, untangling the unintended subtext of words we use without thinking becomes a fascinating linguistic challenge. And what kind of writer doesn’t like a linguistic challenge?
If a writer can’t adapt as the social implications of certain words change, I have little faith in their ability to keep up with other shifts and developments in society, the subtleties of human interaction of which we’re supposed to be masters. How can a writer expect to speak to and for the present moment if they insist on holding onto language that the rest of us have consciously decided to leave in the past? Writers should be guiding the way as society develops, not straining to hold back progress.
Instances where I don’t immediately agree that a word is harmful are the true test of my convictions: It’s not up to me to “agree,” but to listen.
I will admit that I still struggle sometimes. There are times when someone corrects me on my use of a word that I didn’t realize could be considered offensive, and I balk. Not long ago, I referred to a public figure as an “idiot,” and was told that was ableist and I shouldn’t use that word. “Really?” I thought. I may even have rolled my eyes. It felt like grasping, like that person was looking for anything to jump on. “Idiot,” to me, felt so far divorced from its historical use to describe a specific type or degree of intellectual disability that it’s now innocuous; everyone should understand that I meant it colloquially, I thought.
But then I realized that these instances where I don’t immediately agree that a word is harmful are the true test of my convictions: It’s not up to me to “agree,” but to listen. The fact that I felt resistant to this particular change that was being asked of me meant that I truly had room to learn. So rather than arguing and telling someone that they shouldn’t be offended, I sat with my discomfort and reminded myself that you can’t argue someone out of feeling how they feel, that it’s not anyone’s place to tell someone else they shouldn’t be offended. I now know that there are people who take offense to the pejorative use of the word “idiot,” and I’m trying to phase it out of my vocabulary.
Not being able to use so many short-cut, go-to words like “idiot” or “dumb” or “psycho” can be challenging as you first start adjusting, but that just proves how much they’re overused. Trying to be aware and filter out certain words has made me realize just how often I used to reach for them, that I was using them as catch-all shorthand rather than spending a few extra seconds thinking about specifically what I was trying to say and finding the right word. And that’s the very definition of lazy writing – falling back on the same tired words and phrases so often that they cease to have any impact on the reader. I, for one, welcome the challenge to think a little more carefully about what I’m trying to express and stretch my vocabulary to find a new, better, more specific way to do so – one that doesn’t hurt anyone else in the process.
—Lilly Dancyger is the Memoir Editor at Narratively, a Contributing Editor and writing instructor at Catapult, and Assistant Books Editor at Barrelhouse. Her writing has appeared in Rolling Stone, Psychology Today, The Rumpus, the Washington Post, and more. She’s also the editor of Burn It Down, an anthology of essays on women’s anger, forthcoming from Seal Press in October. Follow her on Twitter at @lillydancyger.