Johnson ’19: Words and their weight

Staff Columnist
Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Words carry weight and have impact. Our generation’s vocabulary is a significant part of our culture, and everyone contributes. Words have history and baggage that are too often ignored. Meanings of words change, often incredibly slowly, so using a word now can mean that you are implicitly using all of its past meanings. Using that word can take you back to its origin and render you a contributor to the degradation it was meant to cause.

To some, Brown and many other campuses appear to represent a generation overly concerned with political correctness. To me, Brown is a refreshing environment where people value language. I realized how different that environment was over winter break when I heard people use the word “rape” as a verb in various contexts and criticize women’s interactions with men in using the word “slut.” The majority of people I have heard use that kind of language don’t comprehend that it fuels misogyny and rape culture, both very abstract concepts with harmful mental and physical effects. Continuing to use those words in any context holds women’s sexuality to a double standard. Most of the women I hear using that language don’t understand that they limit the progress of gender equality and encourage others to use the same language unthinkingly. At Brown, I find peers that not only care about the effects of our small actions and daily choices on culture, but want to voluntarily change that culture for the better.

But we also use words to stand up for ourselves because they can be a powerful force for good. We legalize changes on paper and rebuild our vernacular. We write down our history so we can evolve. We create art with poetry and stories. Imagine if we conveyed the most powerful expressions with as much precision as poets.

The reclaiming of certain words has had varying outcomes. The word “queer,” for example, was once used as a derogatory term to label those who fell outside society’s heteronormative expectations. Those who were targeted have reclaimed that word to have a positive meaning, strengthening their community. The word’s past meaning — once meant to expose difference — is now used to embrace difference. The unifying force of reclaiming “queer” has not been present in other communities’ attempts to reclaim labels. Attempts to reclaim “slut” and “bitch” as words of empowerment for women have not succeeded in building a community or diminishing the negative use of the words in the mainstream.

A recent Guardian article explained that the meanings of words don’t come from their definitions but rather from their usage. The Oxford English Dictionary’s example for the word “rabid” is “rabid feminist.” The article argued that because the meanings of words are found in the context we use them, the dictionary was literally defining sexist stereotypes. In the same way, we must be aware that how we use a word defines its meaning. If words alone are meaningless without context or cultural history, then we are responsible for constantly defining what they mean.

Campuses are criticized for oversensitivity, but I prefer that to overcomplacency. It is entirely possible to state a well-informed opinion without using unnecessary, hurtful language, just as it is entirely possible to be exposed to and learn from contrary arguments. The continuous free speech argument is not always appropriate to focus on, especially when considering speech that may be misinformed and slanderous. There are undeniable benefits from exposure to differing viewpoints and challenging ideas, but there is a difference between civil discourse and using the concept of free speech to justify oppression. Cries to “face reality” seem to deny the truth that there is no universal reality and that we have a responsibility in how we define others’ realities. As students at an elite institution, we should represent all perspectives but should choose the right words to represent them all justly.

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