There aren’t a lot of words I dislike. “Chillax” is one. “Limpid” is another. But the one I hate above all words is “offend”. You can throw in all its variants too – offence, offensive, offended. It gets used a lot these days, and almost every time I see it, I want to throw things.
The reason I want to throw things is not because I’m one of these people who thinks that too many people are precious little snowflakes and you can’t say anything now without someone crying about it. Quite the opposite. If there really is some nefarious PC Brigade, I’m definitely in it.
No, the reason it makes me want to throw things is that it’s invariably used by the anti-PC brigade to describe how the PC brigade are feeling, when that’s usually not the case at all. It’s used as an insult – “Oh, you’re offended, are you? So what?” – and to shut down discussion of the issue at hand.
Because here’s the thing. When people point out “Hey, maybe you could avoid using this word”, they’re probably not saying “I AM OFFENDED BY THIS”. They are saying “this language you are using hurts people.”
But it’s just words, right? Nobody meant to hurt anyone. It’s tempting to agree, but it’s nonsense. Because there’s no “just” about words. Words are the way we communicate with each other, especially as more and more of our interactions happen online. Words are the way we share our stories, our ideas. They create, reflect and shape our culture. Words are what will be left behind when we are gone.
And words do not just mean what you think they mean. Your own intent matters less than what people understand. If I go to the USA and ask for chips, I’m going to get crisps. It doesn’t matter that I wanted fries; what matters is what the people to whom I was speaking understood by my words.
It’s the same with any word. You can be entirely certain that you don’t mean to hurt anyone with your words, that you only had good intentions. But to people who have a different understanding of those words, because they’ve lived a different life, fought different battles, those words can only ever cause pain.
But so what? So people get upset – does it really matter? Well, yes, it does. Because words matter. Words reflect and reinforce the way we think. So if you’re using language that treats one group of people as if they are less worthy of respect than another, when that group of people has been and still is discriminated against in ways that genuinely harm their lives, don’t say that doesn’t matter. It does.
Think about the words you use, especially those of you who, like me, make your living from them. Think about the lives of people who have had experiences you were lucky enough not to have. Words mean things. Words matter.