At the start of this month, I had my second session of a year long Leadership Programme I’m participating in. The weekend topic was about society – “what’s really going on here?”
One of our speakers spoke about the importance of words, and how they can be used to perpetuate mentalities about marginalised communities. Coming from the LGBTIQ community, they spoke specifically about the word ‘hermaphrodite’, which according to them is still sometimes used in the medical world. It broke my heart to learn that these words are still used by people who are supposed to be in touch with reality. I’ve been thinking about the power of language ever since.
Every marginalised community has a word or two that was used to degrade and separate them from the dominant group of that time and place. Words like ‘retard’ and ‘crippled’ were used to make sure people with disabilities are kept isolated and institutionalised. And I still hear people use them today, oblivious to the trauma they brought to the people who were on the receiving end of it – people who had no power or ability to fight back.
Words may seem harmless, but words have deep meaning and language is a form of expression. These words were used to justify the ill treatment of us in the psyche of the establishment. If someone uses a word towards you that has bad connotations behind it – even if it was as a joke – that joking intent no longer matters. The minute we ‘other’ people who may look or behave slightly different to us and see them as weird, you’re allowing yourself to treat them how ever you want.
Such is the power of words. There was a time when I would have been locked up somewhere because I was physically different. No education, no mental stimulation, nothing. A certain n-word was used to keep African-Americans ‘in their place’.
People still use these words today, and that tells me that these mentalities still exist. I’m not getting locked up in a home anytime soon, but I still get talked at like a 5 year old. I still have people ask my friends and family about me while I’m sitting right there. I was still told to leave school at 16 because I wouldn’t be able to handle it – never mind what I actually wanted for my future.
I feel we have no idea how much power words hold. If you hear or say these words enough times, it enters your heart and becomes part of your worldview. It’s no longer wrong to ‘other’ minorities, and that gives us free reign to treat people however we want just because they don’t fit into our ridiculously narrow box of what is acceptable.
If you don’t believe me, look at our world right now. The rise of the far right in Europe and the emergence of the KKK from the American underground – just to name a couple. This happens because those in power simply use language to blame the innocent for our problems. The world blindly buys it.
I really truly believe that world change starts from the self. We need to own up to our uncomfortable past, start using language that heals rather than destroys, and move forward into a world where no one has to fear for their lives just because of who they are.