How Language Policing And Hyper-Sensitivity Are Ruining Social Dialogue


There’s really no refuting the need for people to be conscientious when discussing things. We should be as respectful and considerate as possible, especially when it comes to talking or writing about topics and issues that are emotionally charged for some people. Sensitivity and kindness are immensely important, and frequently underused components to a healthy dialogue. That said (you knew that was coming), the internet has become such a hotbed of calling each other out that it’s painfully difficult to talk about anything of importance at all. Has the policing of how we talk about issues replaced actually talking about them?

Criticizing what people publicly offer up – writing, speaking, social media, etc. – has always been a thing. Criticism and discussion are the desired, necessary results of someone putting forth an idea in the first place, or offering their commentary. It’s how a dialogue starts, and under that best circumstances, it’s the means by which greater understanding is reached and possibly new ideas are born. As civilized humans, this is some shit we like to do, and it’s theoretically awesome.

Here’s the problem: Circumstances lately are not the best. In fact, the overall environment for our collective social and cultural dialogue has become toxic almost to the point of paralysis. It’s getting to the point where everything – a new book, article, TV show, song, magazine pictorial, and on and on – is immediately examined, picked apart, and violently criticized for its many failures to be perfectly adherent to every shade of political correctness (which are innumerable and rapidly multiplying.) Our filters for seeing things as sexist, victim-blaming, racist, homophobic, transphobic, slut-shaming, rape culture (to name a paltry few) have become so finely tuned that, at this point, it’s possible to see these offensive qualities in just about anything. And, naturally, whichever filter corresponds to our personal identity or experience tends to be the one we see more readily, although that’s not exclusively the case.

Before I continue, I want to clarify: I think it is invaluable that we are calling attention to how these super important issues manifest themselves. The myriad ways in which damaging precedents pop up in every day life are the details where oppression actually happens. Bringing attention to them isn’t being over-analytical about insignificant details – it’s being appropriately analytical because the details are the foot soldiers of bullshit. I think it’s amazing that we are seeing these things more, and talking about them, and de-normalizing things that have heretofore been heinously interwoven into the common fabric of society. I see through these filters. I have these discussions. I feel outrage. I hope for better. I am in no way calling for a mitigation of these efforts. I am not telling us to “calm down” about this stuff. Don’t ever calm down about it.

Here’s what I’m calling for: For us to calm down with each other on a personal level when talking about sensitive issues. Because that’s where all of our potential for real progress is falling apart. We are policing each other to death, and forgetting that we are not (most of the time) each other’s enemies. And when we let someone’s flawed handling of an issue make them an enemy, we might be costing ourselves a potential ally.

Rampant online language policing happens in two waves: First, those who identify with the thing that has been improperly handled get pissed off at how the speaker/writer used words. They get angry about how ignorance informed an article (or whatever) about something that means something personally to them. And then when the offending party says, “Well, don’t yell at me – tell me what I should do better! Teach me better!”, the request (or order) is met with, “That’s not my job! I don’t have to teach you just because I know! Your ignorance is not my responsibility!” This happens all the time. And I think it’s where we all need the most work.

The important thing, I think, is to keep in mind people’s intentions, which are not typically so difficult to discern. There’s a building trend lately where the intention is passed over amid scrutiny of the exact words someone uses to convey it. There will always be flaws with language or tone, especially when someone is writing or talking about an issue that isn’t a part of their personal experience. Too often now, we tell them that if something isn’t a thing they can personally claim ownership of, maybe they shouldn’t be talking about it in the first place. Here’s the thing: I get that. I really do. And if the person in question is claiming ownership or speaking with authority they don’t have, and especially if, in doing so, is wildly misrepresenting a topic, then they should be shut down. But if we harshly refuse to engage someone on a topic that they maybe don’t know perfectly, and maybe aren’t thinking/talking about perfectly, where is the room for education? Where is the opportunity for growth and a constructive, positive end to an instance of ignorance?

Because ignorance, in reality, is not always an aggressive thing. There are a hell of a lot of people who are ignorant about certain things because they literally can’t not be. The lives we are born into and the paths we take can only expose us to so much. There are only so many identities we can own, and so many experiences we can have. Everyone has a window of ignorance, and it lives in between where the range of their life ends, and the extent of their desire to understand more. And talking about these things is how you learn. Dialogue is how ignorance is eroded. That shit can get messy. Yes, if you don’t fully understand an issue, you should listen more than you speak. But you should still be allowed to speak, and you shouldn’t be hated for your ignorance if your intention is to humbly gain understanding. And – this is crucial – so long as you don’t act entitled to other people’s experiences to feed your personal growth.

Perhaps instead of nit-picking how an uninformed person handles certain subjects, we should focus on making sure that everyone has a healthy, respectful view of what is and is not required of the people who are informed on those topics per their life experiences.

Here’s what: No person is obligated to offer up their personal experiences as learning opportunities for others. I’m not in favor of objectifying humans and their lives in any capacity, which is effectively what you’re doing when you tell someone that it is their obligation to be a tool of education for someone else. If you don’t want to offer yourself up like that – which is understandable – then you aren’t a bad person for it. If you have experiences that are personal and sensitive and often carelessly handled in the mouths and minds of people who don’t understand them – being gay, having an abortion, being raped, being trans, or a million other things – that doesn’t make you automatically required to teach the uninformed masses. You’re a person who gets to decide what to share and what to keep private, not a lab rat for examination.

Even still, there are people who are comfortable opening up their private lives so that other people might gain a more thorough understanding of things that are foreign to them. It’s a generous thing. If you don’t want to be one of those people, that’s cool. But let those conversations happen. Because there are people who are not only willing to offer up parts of themselves to foster a more complete understanding of the human experience in someone else, there are people who find purpose in that, and love it, and gain from it. The point is, conversations can happen and you don’t have to be a part of them. Someone having a less than flawless knowledge of the most politically correct and respectful way to articulate an issue doesn’t mean they deserve to be attacked. Attack their argument. Attack their intention. Attack their lack of self-awareness and their bias and a hundred other things that can be wrong with what they are saying. Why are we wasting so much time tearing into each other over details that are removed from the point when we could be dealing with the point itself?

To answer my own question, there is a reason why. There is a reason why the people who identify with things that are most commonly spoken and written about in accidentally disrespectful ways are not clamoring to educate the ignorant: It’s because that ignorance is symptomatic of the marginalization of those experiences. It’s because usually we’re talking about people who are not part of a privileged majority – if they were, then the reality of their lives would be well-known enough that people wouldn’t be fucking up when writing about it all the time. Mainstream ignorance of minority issues is an extension of the Otherness that they fight against all the time. When someone writes something that is in some way disrespectful or ignorant, the backlash might seems disproportionately severe but that’s because it’s about a lot more than just that one person and just that thing they wrote or said. There’s too often a lifetime worth of totally justified hurt beneath someone’s disinterest in being another person’s teacher.

As much as it’s easy to trace the origins of getting angry when someone without authority speaks incorrectly about something that is fundamental and personal to us, the fact remains that our policing of each other’s words has reached fever pitch. Everyone is so quick and ferocious with their criticism that not only are fewer productive conversations happening, but even people with an honest desire to understand are increasingly timid about saying anything at all. More divisions and walls are being thrown up. We’re insulating ourselves against people who don’t share our experiences, the negative version of amassing and nurturing a community, which is undoubtedly a positive thing until it closes you off from the rest of the world. More and more, that’s what the internet is starting to feel like.

So what do we do from here? Maybe it’s a matter of looking at our interactions from both sides: When we’re in a position of ignorance, let’s try to conduct ourselves with open awareness of what we don’t know and not be ashamed of it or try to assume authority we don’t have. Let’s not assume entitlement to leveraging someone else’s life or experience for the sake of fulfilling our curiosity or understanding, and let’s be appreciative like crazy when someone is generous enough to offer it. And when we find ourselves on the opposite end of the divide, let’s first try to figure out the core of where someone is coming from. Let’s debate ideas. And if you’re going to put the energy into calling someone out for using incorrect language or a misunderstanding of a topic, then you should also be ready to offer up a better alternative. If you’re going to criticize, you should also be ready to teach, because otherwise you’re only contributing destructive, negative energy to the conversation and that’s not getting anyone anywhere. It’s just putting up for walls and greater distances between us, and I would still like to believe that that is not the ultimate goal. I would still like to believe that the internet’s ability to put so many different people’s thoughts in close proximity to so many other people can act as a catalyst for more whole connection and understanding all around. But that only works if that’s everyone’s goal.

Clearly, there will still be arrogant people who speak out of school and let their ego wield their ignorance and aspire to offend, and there will still be angry people who really only want to fight. Those people can have each other. I hope the rest of us can take a breath – maybe if we go forward with a little less sensitivity about our own tender spots, and a little more sensitivity for the lives of others, we can meet in some forgiving, open, productive middle ground where we realize that being human is limiting and weird and ungraceful but if we’re earnest, honest, and generous, maybe we can figure out how to be less shitty to each other. TC Mark

Producer at Thought Catalog. Follow me on Twitter.

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