Communication is a crucial element of the human experience. Language intimately affects the way we engage with culture. Words and phrases come in and out of style, and many of us, in hopes of staying up-to-date with popular language, work to be in-the-know and on the cusp of these changes in language.
Many words don’t hold much social weight. You wouldn’t scorn someone for calling something “wicked,” even though the word has since been largely substituted by “dope,” “sick,” or “rad.” But, how should we react when someone uses language that has not only expired, but also developed an insensitive or offensive connotation regarding the idea or group it describes?
In a world constantly in flux, it’s undoubtedly difficult to constantly be in-the-know regarding every minute cultural change going on in the world. In the past year alone, major political shifts have occurred, previously underrepresented social groups have stepped into the global limelight and entire economic systems have been reformed. Alongside these shifts, language has also changed.
“Hispanic” has been largely replaced by “Latinx.” “Retarded persons” was replaced by “disabled persons,” and later shifted to embrace the language that separates the individual from their handicap like the term “persons with disabilities.” The term “coming out” is growing obsolete as many have found the phrase to be heteronormative. Phrases like “man-up” are losing social ground as many have found such gender lines to be unfounded, divisive and developmentally toxic. These are just a few of the countless shifts in language that hold significant social power, and, frankly, it can be hard to keep up.
So what is the best reaction we should have when someone uses expired language? There is even a spectrum of offensiveness that language falls within. Obviously, certain terms we’ve outgrown hold more weight than others, and some language that we might call “expired” was never politically correct to begin with. It was intentionally offensive or blatantly racist from the start. This can drastically shift the way we react when someone uses a term that is no longer or never was politically correct.
Though it can be tempting to react in an outraged manner when such language is used, a hyper-emotional and angry reaction will probably stifle any opportunity for positive discourse once the emotions have subsided. Without such discourse, the unintentional offender is left feeling confused as to why their language warranted such a reaction, and the intentional offender might be left feeling defensive or self-righteous. This will only perpetuate the prominent social and political divisions in our culture today.
Instead, we should all work to react in a level-headed way that opens the exchange to conversations that might help the offender to understand why such language should be avoided and what language can be used. Reprimanding someone without educating them does no good in the long run.
There are certainly people who intentionally avoid politically correct language either out of frustration with a culture that might often seem too sensitive or out of sheer prejudice and bigotry. In such instances, it can be especially challenging to keep a level head. However, these instances often demand even greater patience.
Although certain language, like blatantly racist, sexist or ableist language, undoubtedly requires more intense response, positive change is unlikely without a level of understanding, even on the most basic level. Reprimanding someone for their politically incorrect use of language must be followed by an attempt to educate.