One day in seventh grade I was sitting in Sunday school laughing and joking with friends about various middle school things, when someone suddenly brought up a topic that displeased us.
“That’s retarded!” I said in disbelief. Just then, our teacher stopped our conversation and looked at us with pain in his eyes. He then proceeded to tell us that his sister had an intellectual disability, and that every time someone said that word he felt like they were putting down and making fun his sister. Every time someone used that word it hurt him. To use terminology for a group of people as a derogatory term was to insult that group of people.
In that moment I could not feel lower. Not only did I insult my teacher, someone who I very much admired, I also realized that I had never thought about the consequences of using that word, or how anyone else felt when I used that word. The word had become synonymous with stupid, dumb, and odd, and it never occurred to me that these were the same synonyms my teacher heard when I used that word in that context. When my teacher saw that we had spent enough time wallowing in our shame and guilt, he kindly informed us that he had made the story up to teach us a lesson and get his point across.
The message was clear and it still resonates in my mind. Our words have power. Sometimes our words may seem meaningless to us, but that doesn’t mean they are meaningless to others or that they’re not offensive. If you have ever been frustrated or upset that you can’t say certain words because someone might get offended, you probably don’t know what it feels like to have someone use your condition, people group, race, gender, or your something essential to your identity as a derogatory term.
As mentioned before, when conditions, people groups, race, gender, or aspects of our identity become synonymous with words like stupid, lame, dumb, awful, terrible, ridiculous, or other words with negative connotations, what does that say about them? When you’re angry that your computer isn’t working and you call it bi-polar what are you saying about people with mental health disorders? If something doesn’t go your way and you say, “that’s gay” are you inferring that there is something wrong with gay people? Or if you are upset that a race of people can use a word that you can’t, why do you feel the necessity and authority to be able to say that word?
The discussion over proper language often leads to comments like “Well, it doesn’t bother my one friend who identifies that way,” or “It doesn’t bother me!” The obvious fallacy here is assuming that everyone feels and thinks the same way, which is of course false. We are different people with different stories, experiences, and baggage; we don’t all perceive things the same way. What may be nothing for someone may mean everything to someone else.
I don’t believe we live in an “overly sensitive culture” but I also don’t believe that we should be so careful with our language that we can never have genuine, true, and meaningful dialogue. All of us, however, need to learn to practice political correctness and an awareness of the power of our words. Political correctness is not vague, blanket statements that never reach the heart of the matter. It’s honesty with sensitivity to those listening. Being politically correct is speaking your truth, but speaking in such a way that others want to listen.
The reality is, too, that no matter how hard you try, you will probably still say something, at some point, that will offend someone. But own up to it. Say you’re sorry and learn from your mistakes. Take it as an opportunity to hear someone’s story or to grow as a more considerate person. In the end, you’ll be glad did. The more effectively and positively we can communicate the more effective and positive people we can be.