Language Abuse at a “Liberal” Arts School

By Jon Van Treeck

Language is fascinating.  We use it every day, but we hardly reflect on its significance in our daily lives.  As a culture, we give a certain context, worth, and power to a variety of words. Whether you realize it or not, everything matters when speak: your choice of words, the ones you leave behind, the frequency of terminology you repeat or emphasize, eye contact with the subject(s), and even your tone of voice.

Given these implications, I have observed consistent language abuse on campus.  Allow yourself to take a second and reflect on how often you might hear the words “gay” or “retard” on a weekly basis.  Now think about if those words are expressed in a positive manner: probably not so much. I hear people saying “that’s so gay,” or, “that’s f*cking retarded,” or a variation of either one, at least every other day—sometimes more often than that.

I don’t know about you, but I am pretty frustrated with this ignorant behavior.  Especially since Beloit College prides itself as being a progressive and open-minded institution.  Moreover, when “gay” and “retard” and sometimes even the n-word (remember those signs across campus a couple weeks ago?) are vocalized so frequently, I am disappointed with Beloit’s “liberal” community.

I’m sure the counterargument might very well be that “well, those are just words,” or “I/we don’t really mean it in THAT way,” etc.  Either way, the message being conveyed is that “words simply don’t matter.”  Nonsense.  That is exactly why bullying, name-calling specifically, hurts people at such a deep, psychological level. That is also why there is a whole academic discourse dedicated to the study of language (linguistic anthropology), or why swear words or other offensive statements are censored in the media.

Whatever the point may be, words do, in fact, hurt.  And saying “that’s so gay” or “that’s f*cking retarded” is problematic.  This is partially because when one speaks this way, you’re making homosexual or mentally disabled identities appear synonymous with something negative, gross, or unappealing.  This, I should not have to remind you, is utterly and completely false.  Additionally, by exploiting this conduct, one is suppressing an already marginalized group, which is unfair and unjust.

If we managed to develop these connotations into our vernacular, then there are certainly ways to deconstruct their insensitive undertones.  Some of these approaches might include finding alternative words in replacement of offensive ones, consciously erasing the offensive statements during social situations, and ultimately, and empowering the gay and mentally disabled communities via positive reinforcement, rather than socially ostracizing them. I wrote this in an attempt to raise awareness of language abuse so that we can re-evaluate our speech tolerance and be conscious of our word choice on a daily basis.  While this may seem demanding, the underlying objective is to promote universal respect—and I see absolutely no wrong in that.



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