flexibeast.space - gemlog - 2020-10-30

The limits of modifying language

Recent discussions have made me think about ongoing efforts to change language affecting people in marginalised communities. Although i feel such changes can be important and necessary, i'm also increasingly feeling there needs to be more focus on trying to directly encourage changes in underlying conceptualisations and perspectives.

The euphemism treadmill is well-known. B gets used as a euphemism for A, and over time gains the original negative associations as A. But then the same thing happens to B, so C is used as a euphemism instead. Then D. At this point, A might no longer have any particular associations, and so when D becomes problematic, A can again become the ‘new’ euphemism of choice.

It seems to me that this dynamic is a result of unresolved issues around the underlying notions signified by all these euphemisms. As long as these issues aren't addressed, people will have to keep running on the euphemism treadmill. And i feel there might well be a similar dynamic involved in the language affecting people in marginalised communities.

As an example, take the language used around people with a disability. (i consider myself ‘disabled’ due to long-term chronic physical and mental health issues, and am ‘officially’ recognised as such.) As i understand it, the intent of changes in this area is to attempt to re-frame ideas around ‘disability’, to both people with a disability[a] and people more generally. However, my experience has been that a number of people regard such changes as Euphemistic Political Correctness Gone Mad. The problem is that if the attempted re-framing hasn't caused such people to actually make any changes to their perspectives around disability, the new terminology and language will come to be associated with the old unsupportive perspectives, and a new re-framing will end up being required.

Similarly, i increasingly feel that until people fundamentally change their underlying conceptualisations and perspectives around gender and sexuality, such that they're no longer so thoroughly steeped in binarism / dualism / polarism (e.g. around ‘femininity’ and ‘masculinity’[b]), language in these areas will continually run into problems.

It might be that working for change in this area is a quixotic quest. i recently read a review of the book “Autumn Leaves”:

“Autumn Leaves” review

In a comment elsewhere, i wrote:

Interesting review in general, but i was particularly struck by the phrase “Pagan magical paths can address our deepest psychological need for contrast and polarity”. Is this indeed a fundamental human psychological need? To what extent is that need derived from biology and/or culture? Does meeting people's need to pigeonhole existence into a collection of dichotomies justify imposing those dichotomies on the world, regardless of the cost?

i'm not yet convinced that this psychological need is deeply biological and not sociocultural, any more than i feel people necessarily have a deep psychological need for the universe to be geocentric or heliocentric. So i'm going to continue to hope that significant changes in underlying conceptualisations and perspectives are possible.

🏷 language,politics,sociology


Gemlog Home

[a] i have Opinions on some of the problematic ways health-and-allied professionals go about this, but that would be another post.

[b] Cf. my post:

“Dualism, polarities and cishetnormativity”