Sunday, May 1, 2011

Word challenge

As a social justice advocate (which in itself means little in the context of this post), I struggle often with language. Linguistics has been pointed to as one of the major ways we marginalize or oppress individuals and groups in our society. "Hate speech" is a common topic of discussion among student affairs professionals in terms of case studies or how to handle it. I went through a "Behind Closed Doors" activity about two roommates, one who embraced Nazi swastikas, five years ago as a resident assistant and we're still talking about hate speech as I wrap up grad school. In that time, seemingly no one has come up with a better way to respond to hate speech than they did five years ago. All that to say: language matters to people. It matters to those in linguistics, communication studies, semiotics, and other academic disciplines. It particularly matters to student affairs professionals and social justice "advocates" who tend to police language, either their own or others.

I beg the question: to what end? When does the focus on language border on the obsessive and approach uselessness?

The answer is clear: when that language has lost all semblance of meaning.

Example: the word "interesting." I hear this word frequently bandied about in contemporary Western society. Maybe I have only recently become attuned to its frequency as a burgeoning student affairs professional but it is everywhere around politically charged topics. "Interesting" is the most basic step of discarding ownership of an opinion. Calling something "interesting" generally means you have a thought or opinion but don't want to share it - for whatever reason.

Other words that should be tossed out include "inclusion" and "intentionality". Inclusion deserves a longer explication in the future, but "intentionality" conjures up a response best described as "well, duh." Of course, you should be intentional about the acts and behaviors you have. Not to begrudge student affairs a fancy new word - though we should acknowledge that these words have other histories - but couldn't we come up with a better one? I propose "supadvising", when you dictate to a student organization what they can and cannot do. Just an idea.

So, I want to issue a challenge to you, to stop using these words, because they and and their overuse has lost all meaning. This isn't about censorship - it's about saying what you mean. Stop saying "interesting" when you really mean something else. When you find it "interesting" that Republicans still are questioning the veracity of Barack Obama's birth certificate, say what you really mean: you think it's dumb, or ludicrous, or a pathetic waste of time. When you find the results of the student affairs consolidation news "interesting", say what you genuinely mean.

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