More Than Words Campaign
Karla Benson Rutten
Have you ever witnessed someone being put down with language that made fun of their own or someone else’s identity? Has anyone ever called you out for something oppressive that you said? Have you ever struggled with trying to interrupt or be aware of when oppressive language is being used around you? Have you ever wondered what makes some words oppressive, and what would more inclusive language even look like?
The More Than Words: Inclusive Language Campaign was created to raise awareness about the importance of using inclusive language by empowering individuals to take ownership of the words they choose to use and to encourage people to examine their use of words that they know are problematic as well as words that they feel may be just fine.
Why does this matter?
The words we use possess meaning and symbols, invoking and reinforcing messages. Language does not exist in a vacuum; instead, language is spoken, written, and heard in a social context that adds additional meaning to the language. This campaign was started to help people to think about how their seemingly meaningless daily interactions, behavioral patterns, and language are tied into pervasive sociocultural beliefs, histories, and systems.
Take, for example, when using the word “girl” or “girls” to refer to women. Viewed within the context of heteropatriarchy and sexism, the problem with using “girls” to refer to women becomes visible as an implicit suggestion that women are not yet adults and are incapable of making their own decisions. Used in the phrase “don’t be a girl,” which is used to describe someone as weak or deficient, we can see how “girl” is being used to reinforce stereotypical beliefs that women are powerless, inept, and inferior to men.
What can we do?
Everyone participating in our society is socialized by media, schools, family, and other sociocultural institutions about the acceptability of the words that we use. Our cultural norms and assumptions are displayed through the language that we use every day. The language that we use can unconsciously reinforce negative messages. Over time, these negative messages are internalized by individuals and by groups, a feature of oppression. Phrases such as “that’s so gay/ghetto/retarded” sustain stereotypical notions that marginalized populations are inferior by symbolically linking negative connotations to their frame of reference.
Without understanding the oppressive impact of our words and actions, we can unwittingly perpetuate the very injustices that we may seek to unravel. Since we are socialized to perpetuate current cultural practices, challenging them and constructing new ones require challenging our perspectives of what is inclusive. This potential for constructing a more socially just reality is possible and incumbent upon our ability to develop and share a critical consciousness that allows us to dynamically imagine and recreate social relations while simultaneously operating within our current social environments. This process starts with the language that we use every day.
Your Voice. Your Choice.
This campaign strives not to box people into false binaries where use of oppressive language = you’re a bad person, but rather reveal how all of our interactions, both conscious and unconscious, have meaning and impact. By choosing this focus, we are attempting to empower people to use our daily conversations as opportunities to be mindful of the social realities that we would like to create and not just what is familiar or comfortable. If we are not conscious of the impact that our words carry, we may inadvertently use the power of our voice to oppress and degrade others.
These materials were not created to be an absolute authority on what is permissible and what is oppressive language, but rather as a tool to begin and sustain conversations about what creating inclusive environments through language could look like. We hope you will use and share the materials on this website to open up dialogue with people about how we can use our words to transform how we understand and relate to each other.
The main message that the MTW Campaign seeks to convey is whether or not we understand the power of our words, we still use them.… so what kind of impact do you want to make?