The myth of language policing

This post has been sitting in draft for a while, but it’s one of those topics which comes up again and again, and will continue to do so for eternity: the idea that people who are interested in social justice, and point out bigoted or offensive language, are being bullies, or trying to silence everyone who doesn’t agree with them, or have nothing better to do with their time.

First off, I obviously have to link to the canonical xkcd cartoon on the subject of free speech.

The thing is, these incidents are always presented in isolation. One guy gets criticised because he used “chicks” to refer to “women” and suddenly the accusations are flying: you’re overreacting! You’re taking this too seriously! It’s just one word!

That’s the problem right there. It’s never just one word. Women aren’t walking around living practically perfect lives, taking it all for granted, until one poor guy says one bad word, at which point we descend upon him like harpies and rend the flesh from his bones.

It’s one guy saying “chicks” … after another guy called you a “cheerleader“, after another guy referred to you as “the office girl”, after another guy joked that you’re “more than just a pretty face”, after another guy asked if your husband was going to sign off on the kitchen quote, after another guy got praised for repeating something you’d said 5 minutes earlier, after another guy assumed you were the nurse not the surgeon, after another guy assumed you couldn’t do basic math.

And yes, it’s not just men saying those things, because all of us are swimming in patriarchy. We’ve all internalized the language and the attitudes, and yes: sometimes women are even worse. It’s not a surprise. It doesn’t disprove the existence of sexism. It just shows how much we’re forced to act against our own interests in order to survive. (Those on the left may consider the comparison with working people who get offered lump sum bonuses if they leave their union. Yes, it’s anti-solidarity – but your kids have to eat.)

The point is, it’s never just one guy saying just one thing. And if you think it’s terrible having half-a-dozen people on Twitter saying your wording was wrong this one time, imagine what it’s like having an entire society telling you your existence is wrong every day of your life.


Note: everything in this post will apply to other forms of oppression like racism and homophobia, but as I experience neither, I don’t want to speak for those who do.

5 Replies to “The myth of language policing”

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