How Much Does Language Matter?

I have been thinking about what Dr. McCoy said on Monday about using ‘slave’ vs. ‘enslaved person’. This issue of language is something that has bothered me a lot in the past.

I absolutely agree with Dr. McCoy in that we should use ‘enslaved person’ over slave. Language is just a set of noises we make to indicate an idea or object, but hardly anyone actively thinks about that when they speak. Why are there words that we don’t say in certain settings? Why can verbal insults hurt people so much? It’s because words have power, even though they are just noises (or a bunch of lines and curves on a page). When words are used repeatedly, over time, to evoke injury and pain, and when a word can bring to mind a history of injury and pain, it is no wonder that people don’t want to use it. But more than that, words can be used to indicate things about people. What I mean by pointing out something so obvious is that the way an adjective is turned into a noun (i.e. enslaved to slave) can impact the identity we give this person.

Some may disagree, but for me, calling someone a ‘slave’ is the same as calling someone ‘a transgender’ or ‘an anorexic’. It should be an enslaved person, a transgender person, or a person with anorexia. It strips their identity to just one thing, and it erases all the other things that person is (and the omission of the word ‘person’ is very troubling to me). It defines them solely by one thing; it forces their identity to encompass one thing. It’s similar to how overweight characters on TV shows, books, movies, etc., often have their plotlines reduced to losing weight, or are unable to exist in a scene without references to their weight. No one in the entire world is just one thing, and frankly, it’s degrading and annoying to hear someone refer to you as, for example, “just a girl” or “just a college student.” I have personal experience with this, with other college students treating me like garbage because I’m wearing a CAS uniform working behind the grill at Letch. People don’t know anything about me and make snap judgments about me because of the environment I’m in. Mary mentioned on Monday something similar in A Mercy, where Jacob judges Mrs. D’Ortega because of her extravagant clothing. It’s the same thing with words. Think about being defined solely with something as powerfully negative and profoundly impactful as anorexia. Think about Michael Lewis casually using “How to Harvest a Migrant Worker” as a chapter title! These are people who have a job that is called migrant working, and referring to them as only that and with the word ‘harvest’ brings them closer to being tools than being humans, and obviously that is not okay! It doesn’t make you sound clever, Michael Lewis; it makes you sound like a huge tool.

Back to the use of the word ‘slave’, it inevitably reminds us of a painful, horrible, and inhumane history with effects that still reverberate in our country today. It is too sanguine to say a few nice words can heal the whole world! But using these loaded words as adjectives instead of nouns can help bring back humanity to people who are often denied it. To me, language matters a lot.

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