The Exclusivity of Inclusive Language

In middle school, when other children discovered that I was Russian, they’d call me a commie. This was during the Reagan presidency and the Cold War era so tension was high. Children mimicked their parent’s hatred toward Russia by extending that bitterness toward me. Sure it was difficult, and often embarrassing, but it also gave me a thick skin and the ability to welcome harsh feedback and critique as a designer today. It gave me character.

I learned quickly that the world is rough. Yes, the school yard bullying is quite minor in relation to the horrors of the world today, but it’s only one aspect of my childhood in which I felt separated and excluded due to my immutable traits or my religious practice. But ultimately, I wouldn’t have changed any of it. I am who I am because of my experiences, my trials, and well… because of life.

I’ve been learning a lot about language and culture. I’m working on my third language, Hebrew, and grasping the cultural nuances that come with it. Language is so intricately intertwined with culture and self-expression that it becomes a sensitive topic. When we begin to police people’s language, what may have started as good intentions quickly becomes muddied with political correctness and censorship leaving more confusion than clarity. I understand that words are important and it’s an uphill battle to defend the dignity of others by using words that don’t offend their current situation, but how far does this trend continue?

Blindsided by language

A couple years ago I was introduced to the word, lacuna as a more inclusive replacement to blind spot. This was among my first experiences into inclusive language. It was argued that blind spot refers to “something missed or can’t be seen” in a negative way which can be quite offensive to blind people. This was being shared by a sighted man with good intentions, but without any evidence that blind people were actually offended by this word. I had done a bit of digging and asked some blind friends and elderly if that term caused them offense. It didn’t. Not one blind or visually impaired person that I had asked was offended. In fact, I offered to use the word lacuna instead in future conversations. Most of them laughed and had no clue what that even meant. In fact, using that word made them feel excluded from the conversation because it wasn’t part of their vocabulary.

I love learning new words. But I’m among a minority of people who are fascinated by linguistics and vocabulary unlike the majority who use language as a simple and effective means to communicate. The majority use the words they do to transmit an idea – that’s it. These words are rooted deeply in their culture, their upbringing, and worldviews. To enforce their adoption of a more inclusive word becomes even more daunting, often times limiting their communication further. I’ve experienced this myself.

When words get crazy

Recently, I commented about a UI’s consistency and as a result of this consistency, the experience, I said, shouldn’t be crazy. A concerned reader reached out and suggested I refrain from using this sort of language to imply ‘bad’ or otherwise negative implications. This is known as ableist language. I’ve read up on this a bit and with respect to this other person’s concerns, I’ll make every effort to refrain from saying crazy in that space. But how far does this go? That’s probably where I have the most difficulty. I don’t know which words are “safe.”

Of course, I went straight to the dictionary with this. The first definition of the word crazy does refer to a person’s mental state. My usage referred more toward the second definition: “senseless; impractical; totally unsound.” Immediately I start working through a logical process to develop the rules around other forms of ableist language. It’s quite difficult.

I came up with this: If a word is used to describe a person’s mental or physical state, that word should not be used to describe something negative metaphorically or realistically. I’m trying to wrap my head around this but keep coming up short. <- That sentence is problematic because I’m alluding that being short is a negative. My language is stifled. The effort to make language more inclusive has made me feel excluded. Communication becomes a chore.

I fear that this trend has no real end. My own self-expression and cultural context to language is being policed, often times by a preconceived possible offense that may not exist. It’s evident that there will be no clear set of terms that everyone can agree upon. I’ll do my best to discern and respect the type of communication that is excepted in the circles wherein I interact. I try very hard with words, but sometimes I might make a mistake within a particular circle.

When language gets too technical

Last year I observed a conversation regarding noninclusive technical words. It opened around the words slave and master in reference to a database connection. Some other instances included terms that involve death (ie. headless, kill, die), the word disabled, and even zombie. It was a great opportunity to witness concerns for which I never knew existed. It opened my eyes (wait… can I say that?).

People saw this as a time for which this group could lead in a positive way and help shift culture – an honorable goal. But one point was raised that stood out to me. Let’s say we changed these terms within our own circle, this change doesn’t immediately impact the larger known world history on the subjects. These words describe very technical things that are often researched on indexing sites such as Google. If we switched to new terminology, this new terminology wouldn’t be discoverable for providing help through internet searches for a long time. Our usage of these more inclusive words would exclude us from the majority of how the world uses them and the documentation and knowledge that currently exists.

In our efforts to be more inclusive, we’ve just increased exclusivity of the terminology. It’s a technical detail, but one that requires thinking. Again, this stuff is hard and isn’t solvable with a swift edit of vocabulary. These things are so interconnected with culture and context that maybe we can recognize their benefits before replacing them.

Inclusivity?

I want to be straight here (can I say that?). We all have sensitivities, and a great many of us really do desire to defend the dignity of others. Examining the words we use and making necessary changes is a noble effort when taking into account data that supports this needed change as a way to preserve the integrity and dignity of others who may not be able to do it themselves. But feelings should only be one of many points in the discussion. As noted above, one form of inclusion can easily open up another form of exclusion. There is a system of context, culture, and language that relies and builds upon itself. If I choose to make one word extinct, how will it affect the overall ecology of this system?

Discussions are good, and I love corrections that help me grow. Let us be weary that we aren’t putting the cart before horse as they once said in a time when horses and carts were frequent and knowledge of this action made any sense. Language can be fun, it can be thoughtful and interactive, but it shouldn’t deter people from communicating. If language begins to limit communication, then we’re doing it wrong.

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