Sunday, December 6, 2009

Word Power by Shawna Blumenschein

Words are the most powerful tool available to humanity. Anyone can wield words whether they be physically weak or strong, male or female, young or old. Speech levels the playing field between all people because it is available to everyone. As such, it is vital to understand the power of words; they can move a country to war, foster peace, drive someone to suicide, and express even the most personal of human emotions.

Given this, it is little wonder that the political correctness movement has targeted language. The endeavour to use, promote, and spread awareness of bias-free language has its merits. As discussed in “Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines” by Rosalie Maggio, language “reflects and shapes society.” (443) Prejudiced terms such as “nigger” for African-Americans, “gooks” for Asians, and “savages” for Native Americans created a distance between those groups and the dominant, usually white society that killed, enslaved, and brutalized them. Distance made treating other humans in such a disgraceful way easier because it created a firm us versus them mentality; by virtue of such derogatory nicknames these racial groups became something less than human. The same trend can be seen in World War II when Germans were called “Krauts” and the Japanese “Japs.”

Besides eliminating such hurtful words, the bias-free language movement seeks to lessen the impact of labels. The people first rule is incredibly important in this respect. This rule states that people with a disease or disability should be referred to first, for example “a person with diabetes” rather than “a diabetic.” (451) Such phrasing prevents the person from being reduced to “a disease, a label, [or] a statistic.” (451)

Despite the merits of the movement there is the potential for it to be taken too far. As discussed in “The Word Police” by Michiko Kakutani, such a fanatical focus on words and phrases can “distract attention from the real problems of prejudice and injustice.” (455) Indeed, eliminating biased and derogatory words will not eliminate prejudice and discrimination but it is definitely a step in the right direction. Only by making people aware of what they are saying, the meaning in such terminology, and the power of those words will such people start to think about and re-examine their opinions and word choice. As Cassiby discusses, words themselves are not to blame, it is the intent with which they are used that matters. Awareness must come before change can happen and the bias-free language movement is the best way to highlight the stunning power of words.

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