“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.” This is a phrase we’ve all heard growing up, but it doesn’t play out when applied to real life. The reality is that words do hurt and have lasting effects on us.
According to Dr. Roy F. Baumeister in the New York Times, we tend to internalize and ruminate over negative words more than positive ones. His research shows that we have to be careful of the words we use and the impact they have on people.
Recently, the physically-challenged community criticized Beyoncé and Lizzo for using the word “spaz” in their lyrics. This criticism sparked an online debate about the meaning of the word. It was asserted that the word was an ableist slur used against people with cerebral palsy, but many Black people grew up knowing the term as “going crazy” or to denote annoyance. Despite the online debate, both artists quickly removed the word from their lyrics, but many able-bodied Black people felt that the artists shouldn’t have removed the word due to context. They also felt that people were being sensitive.
While I think context matters in word usage, it’s also important to acknowledge when a word is harmful to a specific community and not to dismiss their feelings as being sensitive.
Because our society is mostly built for able-bodied people, the needs of disabled people are often neglected or inadequately addressed. For us to move towards a more inclusive society, our language also needs to change.
The Linguistic Society of America defines inclusive language as language that “acknowledges diversity, conveys respect to all people, is sensitive to differences, and promotes equal opportunities.” We know that words have power and have been used to demean and stigmatize groups of people. For example, the term “retarded” was commonly used in the past to call someone stupid, but it also perpetuated negative stereotypes about people with disabilities. Nowadays, people are encouraged to use other words to replace it because of its harmful effects.
The point is that our language is ever-changing, so when a word we’ve been using is brought to our attention as being offensive to a specific community, we shouldn’t be defending our right to use the word. Instead, we should acknowledge the impact it has and work to remove the word from our vocabulary.
The same could also be said about adding new words to our vocabulary to be more inclusive. There has been more push to include person-centered and gender-neutral words in our vocabulary as our understanding of gender and inclusive language increases. Doing so helps us to create an environment that welcomes the perspectives and identities of all people.
It’s worth mentioning that the two women criticized were Black women because our society tends to hold Black people to a much higher standard than white people. Ola Ojewumni, a disability rights advocate, notes that the white disabled community gets angry when Black artists unintentionally use ableist terms but are quiet when it comes to white artists who use ableist terms. We should seek to hold everyone accountable for being inclusive, yet it is the words of two Black women that made national news. If there is a “claim” for inclusivity, then there shouldn’t be a specific target for one community to be more inclusive, while other communities are not held accountable.
There are still major structural and systematic changes that need to happen for us to live in an equitable society. While that can seem daunting, one thing we can all do as individuals is to remove or add language from our vocabulary that promotes inclusion. I understand how difficult this can be as I have often struggled to remove harmful language in my speech, but the results of doing so are worth it as they reduce marginalization and stereotypes.