Why language matters even if nobody is offended
- June 5, 2019
Jess Gates is a game designer with a huge passion for accessibility. They have supported people with disabilities in accommodation and community settings, and run camps and activity programs for young people and families experiencing disadvantage. Jess enjoys creating games about ethical and social issues, and enabling creators of games, things and spaces to actively and intentionally include all kinds of people.
“Nobody here was offended, so why does it matter what we say?”
This sort of rhetoric is a problem.
First of all, it is an incredibly bold move to assume nobody is offended. If you are spouting off slurs of any kind, or allowing them to exist in a place you have influence over, do you really think a person who’s hurt, offended, or triggered by that language is going to come forward and tell you that?
It would take a heck of a lot of guts, emotional labour, and metaphorical spoons. For every person who calls out language, there’s several others that suffer quietly because they’re unable to speak up. Even if you ask them directly, they may feel such pressure from the group – or from the power difference between them and you – that they will stick to the status quo and keep their hurt to themselves.
Secondly, the language we use shapes the spaces we create. The use of slurs and other such language cultivates a space where marginalised groups – whether they be queer folks, people of colour, disabled and neurodivergent people, or folks of marginalised genders – are equated with being lesser.
Yes, we all know you’re not talking about an actual disabled person, but rather your keyboard with a jammed spacebar key. But by calling your keyboard some form of ableist slur like ‘retarded’, ‘spastic’, or ‘dumb’ for its lack of functionality or usefulness, you’re equating being disabled or neurodivergent with lacking functionality and usefulness.
And yes, we all know you’re not talking about an actual queer person, but rather the unfortunate and disappointing results of your latest online match. But by calling those results ‘gay’ or ‘faggy’, you’re equating being queer with being unfortunate and disappointing.
You’re perpetuating a culture where marginalised folks are perceived as lesser. Those in your space are unintentionally receiving these messages from the space, and from those who inhabit it. They’re allowing the status quo of the cis, straight, abled, white, male human to perpetuate what is or isn’t acceptable in our world.
So, the next time someone tells you something you’ve said is considered ableist, or racist, or sexist, or queerphobic: stop.
Take a moment to realise that you’re probably not the first person they’ve had that conversation with. Take a moment to recognise the emotional labour they’re doing. Take a moment to understand that by calling you out, or asking you to consider your word usage, they’re believing in your ability to be a decent human, listen, and change your actions.
Take a moment to remember that when someone tells you they are hurt, your role is not to decide whether that hurt is valid or not. Your role is not to make excuses, get defensive, or give reasons why the hurting happened. Your role is to listen, acknowledge, apologise for your actions – or inaction – and do better.