February 17, 2015

That’s So Gay: How To Handle Abusive Language

Allison Yates discusses how language can be problematic and provides suggestions for how to tactfully confront those who are using it.

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WWII Poster 513498 "Free Speech Doesn't Mean Careless Talk"

WWII Poster 513498 "Free Speech Doesn't Mean Careless Talk"

In the high school in Spain where I teach English, a student raised their hand to call me over to tell me joke. He said,

“Allison, ¿Qué es hueso más largo de una mujer? (What is a woman’s longest bone?)
“La escoba” (The broomstick.)

While they laughed, I asked them why they thought it was funny. One student shouted out, “No soy machista, no es mi chiste!” (I’m not chauvinist, it’s not my joke!) To some, it might seem like a “harmless” joke- some high school boys trying to show off to their friends. Regardless, it felt like an appropriate moment to intervene and explain the dangers of perpetuating such stereotypes.

What is Abusive Language and Why Does it Matter

Abusive language includes explicitly harmful words and phrases– such as language that is ableist/sexist/ racist/classist/ homophobic/ trans*phobic and that perpetuates rape culture– and jokes, such as the one my students told me.

As Kaylee Jukubowski delineates,

“Problematic language is the use of any words or phrases that have specific, derogative meaning toward a specific marginalized group of people.”

The most common response to confrontation about abusive language tends to dismiss the affront (e.g., “it’s just a word”) or give benefit of the doubt to the speaker and his/her intentions (e.g, “she didn’t mean it like that”). Even so, words are powerful reflections of historical conflicts, power structures and treatment of those not in power. As Angela Carter famously quoted, “Language is power, life and the instrument of culture, the instrument of domination and liberation.” In other words, we can use language to promote understanding and equality, or to perpetuate injustices and hate.

Ultimately, the problem with such language is that it gives the speaker the ability to determine who is accepted by society and who is not. It challenges the marginalized group’s self-worth and unfairly equates the group with negative connotations. For example, why does one need to say “gay” to refer to someone/something as stupid if there are countless other adjectives easily at hand? Associating “gay” with “stupid” is not only insulting but produces lasting damaging effects.

When telling a “joke” about a group of people, the language is often based on stereotypes and false information. As Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explains in her Ted Talk “The Danger of a Single Story,” the problem is that “it robs people of dignity. It makes our recognition of our equal humanity difficult. It emphasizes how we are different rather than how we are similar.”

Confronting Those Who Use Abusive Language

When you hear such language, how do you address it? It is often uncomfortable to confront someone and may even involve breaking social norms when it involves confronting a stranger. However, silence can be interpreted as acceptance of the speaker’s language and underlying ideas. Thus silence propagates injustices, hate, and misunderstanding.

Fortunately, there are ways to address abusive language tactfully and politely. Doing so is important for several reasons. First, confronting  another person in a violent or hateful manner is not conducive to promoting a welcoming and accepting society as it serves as yet another instance of hate. For example, if you want to encourage a society that accepts all people, it is not productive to cause the person who used the abusive language to feel estranged, alone, and unworthy in order to help him or her understand.

Second, even if the person might be aware that a word or joke s/he is using has another meaning, you might be the first person to ever have called him/her out on it. Often, we have to be confronted head-on to realize the significance of what we say and do. Using a firm but gentle approach is the best way to provide this constructive criticism.

Third, confronting a user of abusive language without tact and respect is likely to end productive dialogue by causing the user to feel defensive, become aggressive, and/or avoid you in the future. The goal of confronting abusive language is to work as a team to clean up our words and indirectly how we see the world, not to alienate and create division.

Although it can be difficult, it is worth it to try to put a stop to the cycle of verbal violence given the power that language has in shaping our thoughts. Here are some tips to help guide you:

  • Pay attention to your own language and try to be deliberate about your word choices.
  • When someone uses problematic language, ask the person why they chose that abusive word or why they believe that joke is funny. Have them explain it to you in their own words.
  • In their conversation or justification, people might reveal their own misconceptions, which is a perfect opportunity to share with them – in a non-threatening way- the history of the language and how it is hurtful. For example, when my students make a joke about women and cleaning supplies, I could explain that because of historical gender roles, millions of girls around the world are forced to stay at home and are not allowed to go to school. Perhaps share an anecdote or personal story of how this language damaged you or someone you know.
  • People may be defensive about their word choice, and you could experience some backlash. To ease the tension, you could share an example of when you didn’t understand the significance of a word or when you made a mistake. Remember that nadie nace sabiendo– no one was born knowing everything. There is likely a time when you offended others without realizing it.
  • Ask them to try to use different words in the future and assist them by suggesting words they could use instead.

It is helpful to have realistic expectations of your activism: people may not respond as graciously as you would like, and people likely will not immediately recognize their error or make immediate efforts to change their verbal habits. Remember that societal change doesn’t happen in a day. It’s a slow process that takes patience and as more of us become aware of and deliberate in our language, a cultural shift will occur. So don’t underestimate the potential of small conversations about language shared in a context of respect.

For a humorous take on addressing racist family members check out Franchesca “Chescaleigh” Ramsey’s video “5 Comebacks For Your Racist Relatives During The Holidays.”

Allison Yates received a B.A. from Indiana University in International Studies. She is currently teaching English in Spain and is interested in researching cross-cultural relationships, sexual education, and violence prevention.