Saturday, December 26, 2009

On Language, Speaking, & Writing


Ultimately, I am a supporter of inclusive language, but I have my share of reservations every so often, due to not wanting to give up a frequently-used word or descriptor, or due to disagreements I have with the defining of some words or phrases as problematic. For example, I'm not very good at eliminating insults against one's intelligence when I write. While I'll rarely - if ever - refer to an individual person that I know as stupid, an idiot, unintelligent, etc., I will often refer to large groups or ideologies in that manner. I'll often treat well-known bloggers, writers, celebrities, recording artists, etc. in the same manner, as well, without feeling bad about it as a result.

FWD/Forward has a great regular column called the Ableist Word Profile, where the contributors to the blog profile commonly used words or phrases in an effort to educate people about their negative roots and the hurtful consequences of using those words and phrases. Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship with the whole thing, because even though I check it out regularly and learn a great deal from it, my first reaction is always to disagree or come up with a justification for using the terminology argued as problematic by the author. Obviously, this is an exercise in privilege, because I'm debating whether or not I take someone's hurt feelings into account when I decide how to communicate as a person unaffected by the language.

Eventually, because I care about not needlessly hurting people's feelings, I come around and begin to see the value in eliminating the word or phrase form my every day language.

One thing I have a hard time with in general is getting behind the idea that I shouldn't value "intelligence," because there's no such thing, or it's too difficult to define in an inclusive manner.

I realize, though, that my appreciation for people, conversations, or art that are "intelligent" doesn't necessarily mean the same thing that it does to other people. What I may see as "intelligent" may be more or less so that what other people deem "intelligent." If that's the case, then there's probably no reason to call something "intelligent" at all, because if the definition of "intelligent" can vary so widely, then it's rarely understood universally enough to effectively communicate the message you're trying to get across using only that word. Furthermore, in having differing definitions of "intelligence," we run the risk of creating intelligence hierarchies, where one feels that their definition of "intelligence" is higher than another's, and as a result, places oneself higher than others in terms of how they compare themselves to them, and treat them accordingly.

I like to completely simplify this (perhaps out of exhaustion) by being specific in my appreciations-- "I really appreciated how well-reasoned your argument was," or "She is really excellent at critically analyzing concepts and widely-held belief systems," as opposed to "I appreciated how intelligent your argument was," or "She is really smart when it comes to politics and religion." Of course, in using other words, there is suddenly new possibility for those words - "analysis," "reason" - to simply turn into a new version of "intelligent," as if they're used in a complimentary manner, then we set them up for having an "opposite" with which to compare it... which is similar to the reason why "intelligence" was profiled in the AWP in the first place. If one is appreciated for several qualities - inherent or learned - but one of them is not reason, then people who think that reason = good may treat the one without an inherent talent in reason as deficient or otherwise inept in comparison to the ideal.

...Well hell, how do you give a freakin' compliment around here?

All that aside, please read AWP; it's enlightening.

See Part Two of this post, which discusses the value of authoritative language.