How often have you considered the words that you use? Words are powerful and they contribute to bullying. Here is something I wrote a while back regarding the impact of language.
The other day I initiated a discussion with a group of young people based on an expression I overheard one of them use. The expression used is quite popular with today’s youth and I have often heard it uttered by adults. The focus word in the phrase, originally a medical term, has acquired a pejorative connotation since it has become a preferred term used as an insult. The word I am referring to is “retarded.” The term mental retardation, once used to describe a person with an IQ below 70, has recently been replaced, in Canada and the USA, with “Intellectual disability.” The amendment was made in the hope that the common use of a less derogatory term to describe persons with sever cognitive disabilities would result in the better treatment of such individuals. However, the debate produced from such a change, and my recent discussion with a group of college students, calls into question the power of language. Do words have power? Many people believe that political correctness has made our society oversensitive but I question if we are, in certain respects, as a society, not sensitive enough.
I believe words are powerful but some may say, “Let’s worry about how people are treated and leave the words alone – anyways, they are just words, aren’t they? Besides, words only have the power that we give them, right?” This is my point. Words have power because we, as a society, give them meaning and, unfortunately, as previously stated, the meaning of certain words can extend far beyond what was initially intended. The evolution of words is not new; in fact, many words have been altered over time, some changes have improved certain words while others have been degraded. For example, the word silly, according to its Old English roots, originally meant blessed and is now used, in some instances, to describe someone who is weak-minded or lacking good sense. The term gay is rarely used to refer to a merry mood and is¬¬ predominantly used to describe a person’s sexuality. However, the term is also used to threaten that which some would say most men value above all else, their masculinity. Threatening a boy’s masculinity, which is often done by referring to him as “gay,” is the ultimate insult used in grade schools. Since most young men are still determining who they are, they possess a fragile sense of masculinity, as do many men, and will do almost anything in a desperate attempt to prove their manhood (as it is a popular belief that being a homosexual automatically disqualifies one from being considered a “guy”). A threat on a boy’s sexual orientation is a powerful and effective means of peer pressure.
The term gay is not only used as a threat to masculinity, it is also spoken in a derogatory manner that reflects negatively on an entire community. “That’s so gay” is a phrase used to describe anything that is believed to be “stupid” and as a result the two terms have become synonymous. With the acceptance and use of the new derogatory definition teens create and contribute to an atmosphere of disrespect, negativity, and even hatred. To see the impact this has had on young gay teens one need only refer to the story of Jamie Hubley, a 15-year-old Ottawa boy, who was the only open gay teen at his high school. Jamie was relentlessly teased until the day he took his own life. If Jamie’s parents were asked if words have power, they would undoubtedly answer a resounding YES!
At a time when teens are struggling to find their place in life – being gay can seem like one more insurmountable obstacle to add to a long list of growing pains – couple that with the taunting and tormenting of those who create an accusatory and exclusionary atmosphere one can understand why teens like Jamie battle depression. When homosexual teens repeatedly hear the phrase, “That’s so gay,” or “Don’t be so gay,” they are shamed. Over time they begin to view themselves as bad. The encouragement that ‘it will get better’ is met with skepticism because teens live in the moment. To suggest that a teen stand their ground amidst the onslaught of verbal violence is believed futile, especially when they feel, as the poet Shayne Koyczan put it, that “everyone wants to bury them beneath it”. This is not okay. This needs to change.
We have all heard the proverb, “Sticks and stones will break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” Tell that to the man who uttered the “N-Word” to a group of African American males after a sporting event in Montreal in 2008. The words the man used lead to a vicious assault causing serious bodily harm. Randall Kennedy stated that the N-Word, “to colored people is like a red rag to a bull.” The meaning contained in this word is venomously powerful due to its contemptuous nature. The word, which may have originally distinguished one group from another, has been used throughout history with malicious intent, creating wounds so deep that they have yet to heal. And, for the most part, even today’s youth are aware of the power of this word.
A common response should someone be reprimanded for using a derogatory term about a group is, “Well, they use it!” My concern with this response is two-fold. Firstly, the use of the term “they” can result in othering, which is when one group defines themselves as superior and the “other” group as inferior. The second concern is that the blacks usage of the N-Word is permissible, as a means of disempowering and reclaiming the word, while the whites usage is unacceptable. This creates a presumption that the black usage is justified, which naturally causes other groups to automatically grant themselves permission. I for one do not agree that such language should be used, at all. There is no compelling argument that can justify one group using a word over another, even if such words are about ones own group.
I have facilitated many workshops in local schools to teach life skills to young men. The use of language is usually the first topic discussed. The reason for this is that I believe creating a safe and nurturing environment for learning is paramount. As I explain that there is to be no ableist, sexist, racist, or homophobic language, which usually involves providing examples, it is common for participants to exchange grins. My next statement is, “You never know who is in the room.” I then proceed to share that I have ties to both the gay and disabled communities and that I find the phrases, “That’s retarded” and “That’s so gay” hurtful and offensive. The point usually hits home as I explain that I work with people who are differently abled and that both of my siblings are gay. I usually end by informing the group that since 2004 it has been an offense, under the Criminal Code of Canada, to encourage, or publicly instigate hatred towards any identifiable group, and this includes blacks, people with intellectual disabilities, and homosexuals.
If derogatory terms remain part of your vernacular, even though they may not impact you, they can elicit a strong emotional reaction from those in your company and passing it off as a “joke” will not make you any less accountable. Often, individuals who are impacted by such language hold their tongue for fear of self-identification and/or rejection. Many times friends smile and laugh along even though the words or phrase used affect them and others, deeply. Silence condones the actions of others, yet out of fear many of us remain silent. To answer the question if words have power I suggest reflecting on how the words of others have impacted you. I still remember the words of my childhood bullies, do you?
The founder of Verbal Judo, the late Doc Thompson once said, “If you use the wrong words you can lose your job, instigate violence, lose credibility, alienate people, or devastate someone.” However, using the right words can get you the job, defuse violence, produce credibility, empower people, or include someone. Rick Mercer recently said that “we need to make it better now” (referring to the harassment many young people are subjected to on a daily basis) and making it better begins with acknowledging that words have great power and with that power comes an even greater responsibility to think before we speak. Ultimately, the degree to which this value has been internalized will be evident when derogatory words and phrases cease to be a consideration.