What if All Language is Oppressive?
I’ve been reading a lot lately about Brandeis’s Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center, PARC, and its well-meaning effort to make language less oppressive. The “oppressive language list” they’ve come up with mostly includes labels like “slave” to describe an enslaved person, “prisoner” for someone who is incarcerated, or “victim” for someone who has been victimized.
The idea here is that turning someone’s oppression or situation into a label is forcing an identity onto them. It’s especially destructive when such labels become derogatory, such as “imbecile” for people within a certain IQ range, or “dumb” for people who are incapable of speech. So a lot of the effort behind reforming language amounts to replacing one euphemism for another, less offensive or limiting one. At least temporarily. Crippled becomes handicapped becomes disabled becomes differently abled. Learning problems become special needs, which in turn become learning differences. But these iterations never seem to last.
That’s because even when these words don’t take on negative connotations, simply using a word to classify a human being has a tendency to reduce them to just that thing. It doesn’t matter which expression we use. The harm invoked may be less a symptom of prejudice, oppression or even white supremacy than the affordances of our language system. English and similar languages break things up into subjects and objects, nouns and verbs. In most of our sentences, a subject is acting upon an object, as in “I pick the flower.” The power relationship, the subject and object pairing, is built into the very construction of the sentence.
The Western tendency to label things and people may be an embedded property of our language, which in turn informs how we look at one another and the world.
Nouns are even more troublesome. Not all languages label objects so distinctly. Once children in an English-speaking environment realize that they have names for things — usually by about two or three years old–they become fascinated with knowing the names for everything, pointing their…