Sunday, December 6, 2009

Word Power

Language can be considered one of our most powerful characteristics. It has the ability to brand us as smart or stupid upon first impression, to offend entire nations, and may also have some influence over what career we end up in. Society loves to pass judgment on individual's speaking skills, which is evident in our willingness to throw celebrities, like professional athletes, under the bus after a lousy interview littered with grammatical and logical awkwardness. On the opposite side of the spectrum, when we aren’t laughing at celebrities unfortunate quotes, society also has a healthy appreciation for those who do have strong speaking skills as a result of an even stronger knowledge of language. Writing skills, along with public speaking, has become somewhat of a prerequisite for many occupations both elite and working class, so it is easy to see why proper language use can be a major advantage to its owner.

One of the most significant keys to discovering this advantage is the use, and more importantly the absence, of biased language. This one aspect seems to have the heaviest impact on how persuasive a speaker's or writer's work may be. We live in a time when things are constantly changing, and there is an ever present need to have the most current of everything. Times have changed and so has what is considered politically correct, so to date our language by using racial and sexist terminology seems thoughtless. Biased language is such a large issue ,due to the offense that it can create, that Rosalie Maggio has made it her own personal vendetta to right the many wrongs in biased language. She presents many of the obvious, and not so obvious, biased faux pas made in everyday language in her essay Bias-Free Language: Some Guidelines. She strongly states that the use of biased language is, “…communication gone awry” with such arguments as, “Biased language communicates inaccurately about what it means to be male or female: black or white: young or old; straight, gay or bi …” Maggio makes a very valid point with her essay. Inaccurate communication has become the basis for creating offensive, misunderstanding and unrest in much of the public, and there is no better way to black list ones language skills than creating any of those environments via the use of biased language. One of the most memorable examples Maggio uses in her essay to illustrate this issue is President Bush Senior’s word choice in describing events that had taken place in Iraq during 1990. He had used the word hostage for the first time, and up to that point he had used the word detainee. As Maggio states, “The difference between two very similar words was of possible life-and-death proportions.” A simple word swap such as the President’s can cause public panic, and ultimately even cause mistrust. The public may have been led to believe that the President was purposely misinforming them about the seriousness of the situation by hiding behind a less somber word.

Though the use of bias free language appeals to the masses, there is always the chance that the over-use and improper application of it will also discredit ones skills. Michiko Katutani highlights these shortcomings in his essay The Word Police. Bias free language has the ability to create euphemisms, and when it comes to calling the homeless “the under housed” and the poor the “economically marginalized” Katutani points out that it, “… doesn’t help pay the bills. Rather, by playing down their plight, such language might even make it easier to shrug of the seriousness of their situation”; an argument that can be applied to many bias free terms. Katutani also brings to light the absurdities of adopting this language as the norm. He retorts against Maggio’s essay with arguments such as, “ It’s equally hard to imagine people wanting to flaunt their lack of prejudice by giving up such words and phrases as ‘bull market,’ ‘Kaiser roll,’ ‘lazy susan,’ and ‘charley horse,’ and “The dictionary includes such linguistic mutations as ‘womyn’ and ‘waitron’.” These instances can also be classified as inaccurate communication and the awkwardness of the terminology might lead the audience to question the author's /speaker's validity.

It is apparent that a balance in the use of unbiased writing and speaking must be found in order to create a persuasive argument within one's work. The relationship between Maggio’s and Katutani’s essays is further explored in the collaborative critical reading blog of Shawna and Jennifer . Both Maggio’s and Katutani’s essays create valid arguments, and highlight the reasons why the balance between both worlds is needed to create credible work.

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