While our ways of showing respect and being polite may have changed since the days of the ultra-strict Victorian era, our need for politeness has not. As we try to create and navigate a new world of varying identities vying for recognition as well as growing awareness over what is or is not offensive to someone else, many who feel that this new linguistic climate is silencing or censoring seem to have forgotten that it costs nothing to be a nice person. Avoiding language that demeans others is less about being prohibited from using certain words because of censorship and more about choosing a path of kindness.
Language is always evolving, and with the influx of new ideas in our society, an influx of new vocabulary and new meanings for old words are only to be expected. Oxfordhouse gives examples of new terms and old phrases that have been given new meaning that are becoming part of the common vernacular, such as “stan” and “screen time.” Most use these terms freely, but the same cannot be said for terms such as agender, a term that is relatively new and controversial.
An example of people refusing to show basic decency towards others over a petty reason would be people invalidating the existence of certain genders and sexualities because they simply do not believe they exist. In the case of agender individuals, some would state that there are only two genders, male and female, thus making the term agender invalid.
Not only has that idea been disproved by modern science, as discussed in an article from the World Health Organization, but does it do anyone any harm to respect the wishes of an individual and identify them as what they wish to be identified as? Even if it is not an idea that one agrees with, if it is a harmless action that helps another feel better about themselves, why not do it?
There is the issue of people refusing to use a term because one does not believe it is valid, and then there is the issue of people continuing to use terms because they believe it is their right to be able to use them. This mentality is most often found in those who continuously use slurs, and when called out for it, insist that it is their right to be able to use it.
Sometimes these people will cite the First Amendment’s guarantee of freedom of speech as a means of defending their behavior, but more often than not, the situation they use that claim in makes it untrue. The First Amendment protects citizens’ rights to criticize the government, but it enforces nothing in the world of private businesses, as stated by the ACLU. Thus it is very possible that someone can face repercussions for using language that is deemed offensive by others.
Members of the mindset that people should be able to use offensive language when it suits them have been known to insult those who feel insulted by the aforementioned group’s choice of words. Terms such as “snowflake” and “libtards” are two of the more prominent insults that have gained traction in recent years. As with the previous issue, this one also boils down to respect. To ignore the struggles of others for something so petty as a word that there are likely a multitude of superior options for is arguably unreasonable.
Words at a surface level are simply letters arbitrarily mixed up, yet it cannot be denied that words have weight. The context a word is used in and its history are what make it what it is, and those should not be taken lightly. For some, a word could have no meaning because they have no ties to it, but to others it could be extremely offensive because of their or their culture’s history with it.
An instance of this would be racial slurs that are used primarily with derogatory intent, as explained by University of California, Merced professor Adam M. Croom, so it is no wonder that people of color would prefer not to hear them. To continuously use offensive language despite knowing the history behind it and the modern reception to it is to place one’s own choice of words above the feelings of others, therefore invalidating their struggles, which for lack of better word, is an unkind thing to do.
Somehow the golden rule, treat others the way you want to be treated, seems to have become an afterthought, but this isn’t how it should be. We should always be ready to take into consideration the feelings of others, especially if it is at no cost to ourselves.