I have been thinking a lot this week about the impact of words after listening to a podcast on This American Life. The podcast, “Words you Cannot Say”, covers individuals who were ostracized from what they once considered their tribe for saying the wrong thing. This got me thinking about the power of our words: the power to unite and connect but also the power to enrage and alienate. Words can impact those you consider your team or your allies, but they can also influence those who you consider outside of your group. The problem with these charged words is that the audience has predefined the terms, but we do not all define in the same way. Let’s take for example the word feminist. (See this post here where I discuss my own definition of feminism in depth)
- A person who supports feminism
- A person who believes that all people regardless of gender, race, sexual preference, socioeconomic status and ability should be treated fairly, which will require the dismantling of a patriarchal society that puts white, rich men on top.
- White women who only think about their own struggle and turn a blind eye to the plight of everyone else.
- Someone who believes that women should have all of the same rights as men and should be able to do everything men can.
- Man hater
- Someone who believes women in the developed world are still oppressed even though they are not. (Why can’t they focus on helping women in places they are actually oppressed?)
- Someone who defines womanhood as having a uterus and vagina, and who seeks to empower “women” by holding exclusive events.
If I walk into a room and label myself a feminist, every person, whether intentionally or not, has already made an assumption about who I am and what I stand for. My ability to now have a substantive conversation with these people is clouded by their preconceived notion about who I am and what I am going to say. The same can be said for those who use the label anti-feminist or simply “not a feminist”.
When my husband and I were starting to date, I got very upset when he told me he wasn’t a feminist. I had always considered myself someone who would only date feminists. This argument over feminism resurfaced several times, and my prejudgement over what “not being a feminist” meant, prevented me from seeing what he was trying to tell me. He did not consider himself a feminist, but rather an “equalist”, which he defined as someone who thinks everyone should be treated fairly, with dignity and true equal opportunity. Well once, I understood this, I realized we were actually on the same page. This was my basic view of feminism. To him, feminism was exclusionary and focused on a certain group of women at the expense of everyone else; this was not how I had defined the term, and thus we thought we were at odds, when in fact our views were pretty similar.
When we start with the label, we often times start by alienating those who may in fact be on our team. Further, we make it more difficult to know why others disagree with our views, which gets us no further in sharing our views with others. This is not to say that everyone should stop using group labels or charged words. They have their place and can help to unify groups, but we should all think more about our goals in communication and the potential impact of words we will use. When someone else labels themselves or uses a word that makes your blood boil, take a step back and ask them what they mean– sometimes your gut reaction will have been right and other times you might just be surprised.
Would love to hear your thoughts on how labels and charged words can either promote your cause or hinder it. Share below!