OPINION: It takes more than word policing to fight prejudice

A drawing of a cop with their arms crossed, behind him the word 'Words' is handcuffed.
(Jadyn Lee • The Student Life)

During move-in at Pitzer College, first-years watched a video of Resident Assistants describing COVID-19 expectations and resources. A significant part of that video discussed appropriate language and suggested students not use “offensive” expressions like “crazy” and “you guys.”

Unfortunately, Pitzer seemingly succumbed to the slacktivist advocacy that much of social media has become famous for. 

Popular Instagram posts rally against “ableist” words like “dumb” or “stupid.” Twitter threads denounce the usage of “you guys” because of “non-inclusive” undertones. There are problematic slurs, epithets and microaggressions that should be actively campaigned against. However, focusing all our energies on “word policing,” or ousting certain words and phrases that are deemed offensive from our vernacular, detracts from rather than adds to efforts to fight discrimination. 

Ultimately, the distinction between words that do have a place in our lexicon versus words that don’t rests on intent and result. When “crazy” is used as an insult, it is obviously offensive against the mentally ill. However, “crazy” has multiple meanings: It has been used to mean “cool or exciting” since the 1920s, and most people, including people struggling with mental health issues, use the term in a non-problematic or joking manner. 

The same logic applies to the phrase “you guys.” Women started using it as a gender-neutral plural alternative to “you” in the mid-20th century, with the gender-neutral definition now included in dictionaries. Of course, don’t use “you guys” when speaking with someone who expresses that they are genuinely uncomfortable being referred to by that term. However, proactive censorship — either self-administered or enforced against others — has real consequences. 

Word policing trivializes complex issues. Simply not saying phrases like “man the table” or “hysterical” as a casual statement doesn’t contribute to eradicating sexism, mental health stigma, homophobia or racism. Pretending it does makes deep-rooted hatred seem easy to reverse. 

Sexists who refrain from using derogatory words toward women are still sexist. Parents who feel ashamed that their children have mental illnesses will still feel that shame even if their children’s friends stop saying “crazy.” A prejudiced person is likely to retain the same beliefs and attitudes regardless of what words they use.

Furthermore, no consensus exists on the appropriate usage of words, a nuanced fact that many seem to forget. For example, not all feminists take issue with “you guys,” or feel it reflects a “fear of being feminine.” The fact that “guys” has become gender-neutralized (again, by women, historically) is in line with contemporary arguments against needless gendering of everything from clothes and colors to jobs. Meanings change, and removal of a gender-specific connotation from the word “guys” is ultimately a step forward toward removing illogical gender lines. 

Even words like “BIPOC” or “Latinx” are not completely accepted by the communities they seek to help. BIPOC (an acronym for Black, Indigenous and People of Color) denies the political unity that the broad-based grouping “people of color” originally sought to create. It linguistically sets up racial “Oppression Olympics” and inaccurately equates Black and Indigenous struggles. 

The controversy around Latinx stems from arguments that it is an anglicization of Spanish. Many LGBTQ+ Spanish speakers prefer the term Latine, because phonetically, the suffix -e sounds better as an alternative to -o or -a rather than -x. The incongruence between college campuses’ embrace of the term versus the real world is especially apparent when considering that only 4 percent of American Hispanics prefer the term Latinx. 

Word policing distracts activists from pursuing effective ways to tackle issues on a policy-wide basis. A good example of this phenomenon is Canada’s Opening Minds program. Initially, government public service announcements focused on condemning taboo words but quickly pivoted to a more successful program that funded local re-education and contact efforts led by people with mental health issues, in order to reduce mental health stigma. Researchers from the University of Queensland have synthesized research demonstrating the high effectiveness of changing attitudes through shared identity, normalization of tolerance, positive interactions and breaking prejudiced norms. 

Language is powerful, and activists trying to improve our everyday word choice are not entirely without merit. However, we must have more nuanced conversations surrounding our word choice, or we will pursue a form of activism that is self-indulgent at best and entirely performative at worst. 

Kenny Le PZ ’25 is from Anaheim, California. He is a stressed freshman seeking to work in public policy.

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