This is part 2. For part 1, click here: Justice Jargon: You need to stop speaking it.
Note: I am not the best person to talk about sexist language. If you want a thorough in depth well researched blog about feminism and language, I recommend language: a feminist guide by Debbie Cameron, on WordPress who is a linguist and a feminist. Her blog is fantastic and informative and refreshingly insightful.
These are just my thoughts about the value of what I am calling “Justice Jargon”, the much derided vocabulary used popularly in sociology and activism.
The case for Justice Jargon
Last week I said activists need to stop using this language, because it alienates and infuriates people who do not understand it. I explored how the wider public perceive this technical language differently to specialists. Now, I’m defending why it is still important.
First, the elephant in the room. Jargon applies to experts. Whilst it is common to portray SJW’s as pretentious teenagers, much of the terminology is used in Academicia, and comes from Sociology.
Beyond the trivial understandings (such as these semi-accurate, semi-insulting ones in a glossary by a “libertarian”) there are accepted technical definitions of terms such as “privilege”, “oppression” and “sexism”.
This doesn’t give legitimacy, but illustrates that the language is not “made up” to be difficult or exclusionary. It is by nature that technical language is sometimes exclusionary and difficult, but it is not by design.
My experience is with the extreme left wing, however people on the extreme right also develop their own technical language that can be bewildering to outsiders. I would argue this is used more by independent figures than in academic fields.
My point is not about legitimacy but complexity. When you are exploring ideas in depth and with like-minded people you will naturally start to come up with new words to describe concepts and share ideas efficiently. It is a simple case of prescriptive vs descriptive language use. For a clear example, the hated term “mansplaining” exploded into popular usage after it appeared in a comment on author Rebecca Solnit’s article about men explaining things to her. The phrase gave the problem (described as “something every woman knows” by Solnit) a name and hasn’t disappeared since, because it’s needed.
The PC Brigade
Other terms are less about conceptual communication and more about increased accuracy. These are the “politically correct” terms like:
- hearing impaired vs “deaf”
- visually impaired/legally blind vs “blind”
- undocumented migrant vs “illegal immigrant”
- learning difficulties vs “slow”
- LGBT+ vs “gay”
- person of colour vs “coloured” or non-white
- singular they vs “he or she”
- white vs “Caucasian”
This is about terms that have connotations that could be negative or misleading. My favourite and clearest example of this is visually impaired instead of blind. Many people think this is ridiculous and overly euphemistic. In reality, it is far more informative. For casual users, the word “blind” often means what is called “total sight loss” (absolutely no vision or light detection). Visually impaired is a term that includes people with partial sight loss such as blurriness, patchiness, or distortions. I think it is a surprise to many people that a legally blind person may still be able to have some useable vision or light sensitivity (such as this YouTuber, Mollie Burke, who has tonnes of videos about her condition and how she uses light in order to film).
The debate about updating words when they become used as a slur is tricky, and not something I feel comfortable going into here, but it is another reason by words that were once technical and accurate may fall out of fashion in polite or formal usage.
The LGBT+ word salad is often made fun of, and I mentioned it in my previous post. It is also a good example of how a community might not always agree on the “best” or most up to date terminology. Some people prefer the term “queer”, whilst others view that as an unreclaimable slur…although they share a community, opinions clash about what that community *is* and should be called.
Person of colour has been mocked for being clunky and overly serious, but has roots in finding a neutral way to talk about racism systems without defining a whole class of people as the absence of whiteness. Again, this is a process, and I’ve started to notice the phrase “racialised” coming up instead. “Coloured” was a term that was widely used, however became out of fashion over time to the point where some view it as a slur, whilst others still believe it is a technical and correct phrase.
This is often criticised in the press as prescriptivist language. However, the process of new terminology for existing concepts, as I hope I have illustrated, is also a natural process of talking about and improving understanding of sensitive issues such as disabilities, or social groups.
Why It Matters ….How It Feels
The common theme in Justice Jargon is that these concepts and experiences are sensitive, personal, and often stigmatised. If they weren’t, it wouldn’t be Justice Jargon.
I’ve tried to stay away from more controversial definitions so far here, but that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. There are concepts that are not widely accepted yet. Such as polyamory (having more than one partner, not being monogamous), autism and neurodiversity (different types of brains and thinking), asexuality (not having sexual attraction) or being non-binary gender (being neither male nor female, or being a mixture of the two).
For some people, these are accepted concepts and identities. For others, they are inventions or creations. This is where it gets dicey. This is where hate can easily come in.
For people who *are* those identities, having a word to describe their internal reality is often a huge relief. A wordless experience of being “different” becomes named. It becomes a shared experience with other people.
Not everyone embraces new labels. For some people, a label means isolation, being separated from the “norm” and marked out as different. Those people will not find relief in a label, even if it is close to their lived reality.
The dangerous part is when people assign malicious intent to people with new or unusual labels. It is easy to see that a fringe identity can be quickly stigmatised or misbelieved, and that the act of embracing and accepting a label can be harshly criticised as part of that.
Personally, I have travelled the line from “unknown weird” to “autistic”. In between that, I knew, and self diagnosed, but didn’t want to embrace a word I wasn’t sure I had a right to. Now, I’m on a journey of learning to accept it, and hopefully helping other people to as well. I’m aware of the stigma, but to have remained in the dark and continued to mask would have hurt my sense of identity. Understanding myself as part of a wider community of people is different to being alone with myself. Fighting the stigma feels different since I moved to *within* it. It is just a word that describes a deficit based symptoms list that I’ve been professionally deemed to fit, but it is also so much more than that.
Diagnosis stories are common with the theme of finding out “There’s a word for that?!?”. Less popular are the stories of other forms of identity. People with fringe sexualities who are open about it are often open to ridicule. But the stigma doesn’t change the benefits of understanding yourself better, finding a word for what once was entirely nameless.
Jargon isn’t the only problem
People in the wider public can still have disdain for jargon when they hear it. People can mistrust “strange” new identities and feel baffled at the amount of diversity and disability that appears to be springing up. People can even deny that these words are real.
But genies can’t and won’t get put back in their bottles. Once people have words for who they are and what they are experiencing, they don’t let go of them. The words describe something essential, even if it is niche, or misunderstood, or disrespected. When these new strange words are part of *your* reality, they aren’t going anywhere.
Ultimately, the tide is always going to be in favour of new language, and language evolving over time. Language is perception, so using the right words matters in order to have good discussions about these serious, complicated, and emotionally loaded topics.
People are learning new terms and using them at different rates according to their interests and specialisms. There’s going to be some mucky moments where language becomes an obstacle, but only if we let it. Plain language is always an option. The jargon is not the problem if we are happy to translate and educate about it at a sensible pace.
The bigger problem might be what happens when people don’t want to hear about marginalised identities/concepts, or only want to marginalise them further. When that happens, our choice of words can’t overcome others intolerance or hatred. So be careful. Sometimes, a spade is just a spade, and there are no words to be had.
Note: So this was really long! I hope to come back to this topic, because there’s a lot more I want to say about how we use language to protect our identities, but I really enjoyed getting this part 2 out here, I hope it makes sense! Let me know if I got anything wrong in the comments and I will try to correct it.