I briefly attended the one-day UC Berkeley Institute on Social Justice (ISJ) in December 2012 for a talk on inclusive language. It was sponsored by the UC Berkeley Multicultural Education Program (MEP) and other campus offices whose official scope includes issues of Diversity. The theme for 2012 was “Self-Reflection, Intersection & Activism: Deconstructing the Myth of Single Issue Struggles”. I only could sneak away from the office for one session which was “Intent vs. Impact: Utilizing inclusive Language” facilitated on short notice though successfully by Kelly Lough.
It began with ground rules established based on consensus of those in the room. It was tied to some disclaimers that broke down the presumption of political correctness while maintaining the need for respect. Disclaimers included items such as:
- This is not a G-rated session
- what is discussed is not always our own beliefs
- emotions can lead to growth.
This allowed candor in order to tackle and then deconstruct language. Language is ever-changing. How has language adapted, or failed to adapt, to today’s world? How has it changed when it shouldn’t?
We identified why this topic is important which is because as campus leaders we need to set the example, we need to know our audience, and we need to work together to get things done in life. The facilitator shared a story of an ‘intent versus impact’ mishap. Simple statements like “Did you man the desk” can become politically charged versus saying “Did you staff the desk”. We asked ourselves, at what point is it nitpicking, at what point is it too far? To me it’s too far when people lose sense of reality. Herstory is cute but it’s not called history because it means ‘his story’. No need to confuse the etymology of our language for a political agenda. As long as people realize that, herstory is acceptable.
A second example is the word Easter, derived from a pagan festival and now the word in English for the Resurrection of Christ. It’s not necessary to call this term inappropriate or to change it, because the semantics have changed. It doesn’t mean worship Ishtar any more, just like Thursday doesn’t mean we actually consider it to be the Norse god Thor’s day. Another example are words that were narrow before, like mankind. We now say humanity quite easily. So now let’s challenge humanity, which has the word man in it. I think this is an ‘Easter example’. Though the etymology comes from what centuries ago meant “of or belonging to men”, it no longer means men only. So out with the obvious and gendered mankind and let’s keep humanity. These were my notes during the session. Most of the terms were gendered like guys v. folks, oneself v. himself, and actor v. actress.
Then we delved deeper. One problem with relativism is eventually you can say everything is subjective, and morality is based on an individual’s civil right to live life however s/he wants. (I see this with extreme progressives and unapologetic racists, two normally opposing groups.) But when you participate regularly in deconstructing culture you learn that it doesn’t mean embracing relativism but rather expanding your perspective while maintaining a fundamental objective of “do no harm”.
As we wrapped up this deconstruction of language, we were reminded to not be so sensitive that become offensive. We saw a video that put it all out there with Jay Smooth’s YouTube clip on a slang term called GotNoSensitive.
In summary, these were my take-aways:
- Take time for self-reflection
- Challenge the status quo
- Don’t worship relativism
- And do no harm