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Disciplining delinquent words

  • 28 October 2021
  Sins have often been divided into those of thought, word and deed, with deed regarded as the worst. Today we pay more attention to sinful words, realising the harm that they can do. Bad words can bring social exclusion. Yet complex questions surrounding the use of words remain. 

One set of questions asks who has the right to speak or write about particular experiences and about particular groups. Are only people who have had a particular experience or who are members of the same gender, race or social class entitled to speak or tell stories about people in those groups?

A second area of discussion concerns the kinds of words that are unacceptable when used to describe groups of people. These include pejorative words used to refer to people of particular race, nationality, religion, social background, appearance or physical traits. There is general agreement that such words should not be used to or of people.

Behind this question, however, lies a more general discussion about the use of generic language to describe persons who belong to a group. We have become more aware of how generic language can conceal the unique humanity of people whom we place in the group. It has made refugee advocates to switch from speaking of asylum seekers to speak of people who seek protection, of people who are imprisoned, and so on.

Even that change, however, still tends to identify persons with their lack of home and freedom, and to neglect their agency . Similarly, it may be better to speak of people whose hearing is impaired than about the deaf, but we are still identifying persons with a defect that accentuates difference and so might evoke pity or fear rather than a desire for closer acquaintance. 

A final range of questions concerns how to curb the improper use of words. There has been a move to make offensive language liable to civil penalties. People with a public profile have been shamed and forced to resign for using inappropriate words, and offending books are at risk of removal from libraries and curricula. 

'Outlawing words can distract from the deeper truth that words draw their power to build and destroy from the relationships that shape us.'

Each of these sets of questions demands to be considered separately, but they all also need to be set with a wider reflection about the place that words have in human life and relationships. Such reflection suggests