Do you ever get that thing, maybe when you’re drifting off to sleep and your mind starts to feel quite loose and free, where suddenly the meaning of a word or phrase will hit you and suddenly become crystal-clear? (Of course, sometimes you wake up the next morning and think WTF?) I had one of those moments the other night about the phrase “conscious language”.
I’ve been thinking a lot about conscious language this week, for messy and complicated reasons I know some in the online editing community understand. But I think I had been a little guilty of treating the phrase as a buzzword, just another catch-all phrase to describe words and phrases that don’t offend marginalized people. That lightbulb moment made me stop and think about what that little word “conscious” really meant.
A few hours prior to that, someone had, quite graciously, called me out online for using a metaphor they considered problematic. I apologized, changed the word in question, and said that “I didn’t think.” And there’s the rub, isn’t it? I did not think.
We don’t, really, always think that hard about the words that fall out of us when we speak or communicate casually. We use the idioms and figures of speech that we’ve grown up with, safe in the knowledge that the people around us are likely to know what we mean.
But what happens if we do stop and think about those words and phrases? Well, when we do that, we can often find that many of them are rooted in assumptions and associations about people, about places, about human bodies. And some of those associations reflect and reinforce real prejudices that harm real people in the world today.
Perhaps this, then, is what conscious language really is – stopping and thinking, examining and unpacking all of those assumptions behind our words, and considering the harm they might do.
Sounds fucking exhausting, right? You’re not wrong. It is exhausting. It’s hard and it’s confusing and it’s really, really, bloody uncomfortable, especially for people who have never had to think about this kind of thing before. But we need to do it, and we the people who claim to be language professionals need to do it perhaps more than most, because of that real-world harm I mentioned. Language is powerful, and editors have a role in shaping that language and therefore that power.
So maybe you decide that you’re going to start being more conscious with the language you use. That’s brilliant. But I’ll tell you something right now – you’re going to fuck up. We all do, all the time, because we’re human. I’ve probably fucked up somewhere in this post. It would be lovely if, when we fucked up, there would be people there to kindly and gently point out to us that we’ve fucked up. Often there are. But often, the only people who notice that we’ve fucked up are the people who are being hurt by our words and the ideas that they reinforce. And those people might be really bloody tired of pointing out when other people fuck up. They really wish people would just stop fucking up. So those people might be angry and frustrated, for very good reasons, and that doesn’t always breed kindness.
We could bristle at that. It’s easy to do. After all, you’re a good person. You would never want to hurt anyone. Can’t they see that? Why are they attacking you like this? It’s a horrible feeling, when you feel as though someone is having a go at you over something you believed was innocent. But I think it’s really important that we try to separate that feeling from the point being made. Did the person questioning you actually say that you, personally, were a bad person? Or were they pointing something out about the words that you used? If we would like people to be more charitable in their interpretations of our words, perhaps we need to make sure we are extending the same courtesy to them.
Perhaps you do consider what the other person is telling you, but you disagree. It happens. People disagree on all kinds of things all the time. Perhaps you don’t believe that the words you used were problematic in any way. I think it’s important to consider why you think that. If this word could hurt people, would it be you that it hurt? Privilege is like a suit of armour, keeping you safe from the sword that language can become. What business has the person in armour to tell the naked person that the sword isn’t sharp?
Or perhaps you do agree with what you’re being told, and you add that particular word to your “Offensive – do not use” list. That’s a good start, but to me that’s not what “conscious” language is about. Even if we were in the Matrix and could download the knowledge of which words were ok to use and which weren’t straight into our brains, it would become out of date almost immediately as the conversation moves on. And then we’d have to keep plugging ourselves back in and that would increase our exposure to Agents and I think this analogy might have got away from me a bit.
Far better, then, to remind ourselves to think more carefully and deeply about the words we’re using. This is easier in some contexts that others. When I speak, there is not much time between the thought emerging in my head and the words coming out of my mouth. When I am writing something like this, I’m doing it over several days, and the words are mine and mine alone. When I’m editing fiction, I’m being paid to respect the author’s creativity and expression, while also serving the reader, which includes protecting them from harm. There are choices to be made. They’re not always simple, and we won’t always make the least harmful ones. But I believe that if we all try, in whatever tiny ways we can, we can make the world a kinder, more respectful, safer place for people who have not always been able to take that for granted.