A Matter of Words: Words Matter by Brian J. Reece

Over the years, I have developed a unique set of skills that I apply to my every day experiences, whether that’s my professional job, my volunteer work, my personal interactions, or even just reading the news. One of these skills derives from my love of language and its cross-hybridization with my passion for social justice work. Language matters—the words we choose to use, the way we choose to phrase something, and even the order in which we choose to present information or request it can have a significant impact on others’ abilities to process that information in ways that are meaningful for them. One poignant example a colleague of mine frequently points out is the use of acronyms, particularly in the field of student affairs.

Why do we choose to abbreviate or utilize acronyms so much? Innately, we do this for many reasons. Psychology might tell us that we do it in order to store the information in our brains more easily and subsequently to process the information more quickly. It’s much easier to remember LGBT than it is to remember “Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transgender.” The acronym allows our brains to store the information and then serves as a mnemonic to jive our memories. In many ways, however, does this shortening of our language also create a subculture? Is this subculture ultimately an exclusive one? If I don’t know what LGBT stands for (or, better yet, one of the much longer acronyms commonly used), am I not a part of the in-crowd? Will people judge me for my lack of knowledge? Will I assimilate into the culture once I learn what it means and then expect this understanding from others? While I think that acronyms are a useful device, I think it’s important to consider the impact of their use on various subsets of culture. Additionally, we should consider how these acronyms allow for the de-humanization of the concepts and, often, the identities they represent.

Buzz Words
The concept of “buzz words” is also prevalent in student affairs. “Diversity” is one that, over time, has been utilized in so many contexts and in so many ways that it has lost its meaning and has perhaps even developed a negative connotation. I find myself avoiding this word in meetings, in essays, in proposals—even when its use is completely appropriate and perhaps necessary.

Part of this, of course, is that as the discourse of social justice has expanded and evolved, the language utilized to advance the conversation itself has also being more intricate. Diversity used to be the best (and most marketable) word to describe social justice education efforts—now we have words like “multicultural,” “equity,” “inclusion,” “privilege,” etc. that are taking hold in a more mainstream way. This is exciting! But it also makes me wonder often who is using the word diversity to mean all of those concepts above (to which it should not refer) and who is using it to imply that which it actually means. I often can’t tell in a professional setting, let alone a casual setting amongst friends or family (or even colleagues). Become educated on what the words you’re using actually mean. Indeed, I encourage you to look words up in the dictionary, Google them, and read articles with and about them. Further, I encourage you to stop saying words for which you can’t immediately describe a comprehensible definition—this may encourage you to actually look the words up!

I’d like to discuss something a little more advanced than choosing the right words. This involves thinking about and framing something beyond the level of a word or phrase. This gets closer to the structure of a conversation itself. Think about a time when you were a bystander intervener. How did you approach the conversation? My own mother has shared that when she hears homophobic comments at work, she intervenes, “My son is gay, and I don’t appreciate that comment.” I couldn’t be a prouder son! I have, however, suggested a different approach to her that may, in effect, open up the situation for further dialogue. The comment above is not necessarily unhelpful, but I do believe that a reframing of the purpose of intervening can change the approach in a positive and intentional way.

If the purpose is to stop the behavior, then the aforementioned tactic may be enough. If the purpose is to stop the behavior and provide an opportunity for that individual to grow, then another approach may be preferable. Perhaps try a public intervention that doesn’t preclude a private dialogue by turning the person off to talking to you about it: “You know, you’re probably not intending to hurt anyone, so I thought I’d let you know that a comment like that would probably be hurtful to people who identify as gay.” If it offends you personally, say that, but find a way not to completely turn someone off to discussing it again. This is often much harder—emotions are likely less manageable—but I encourage you to do so if you can. Sometimes, I personally have to walk away rather than let my anger get the best of me. I have to remind myself that there is profound socialization at play, despite, in the moment, how “easy” I may think it is to be and think in socially just ways and how terrible that person must be to do otherwise.

Choose Your Words Wisely
While these are just a few example of the power that language can have over our ability to do social justice work and engage in social justice conversations, I hope that they inspire you to think of other ways you can harness language to do good (and perhaps the ways that ignoring language can do harm). While your own experiences may differ from mine and while we may differ on our opinions of how to effectively utilize language, it cannot be denied that it plays a huge role in our work. I have left unaddressed many more language-related issues. The following questions can help you develop your own sense of understanding and propel you even further into this topic. Please feel free to discuss these questions and other ideas in the comments.

Should we even allow language to hold this much power? And do we have a choice?
How can I keep up-to-date on the most “appropriate” language?
What is the difference between being “politically correct” (which I consider in many ways to be harmful) and being intentional with language?

Brian J. Reece is Assistant Residence Life Coordinator at the University of Oregon in Eugene, OR. Brian earned a master’s degree in Higher Education Administration (2010) and an honors bachelor’s degree in English (2008) from the University of Delaware. He is also pursuing a graduate certificate in nonprofit management at the UO in his lack of spare time. He is a Social Media Coordinator for the CSJE and the Northwest Regional Representative for the Consortium of Higher Education LGBT Resource Professionals, and he serves on the board of directors of the HIV Alliance, a local nonprofit, as development and advocacy chair. He is passionate about social justice, LGBT justice in particular, and enjoys reading, writing, and spending time with his sassy cat Chloe, who is also a fierce social justice advocate.


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