By Debnil Sur
“Wow. What an original idea. Why has nobody thought about this before?”
Of late, Daily columns have discussed the importance of politically correct language in daily discourse. The top comment, quoted above, responding to one such article raised an important, albeit sarcastic, point: People have heard those lessons their entire lives. Why would a college newspaper article catalyze a sudden change in opinion?
Unfortunately, it probably won’t, especially if people have no relationship to the author. It’s simply another person on the Internet reiterating messages that many deride as “Tumblr social justice.” However, risking sarcastic replies to my own work, here’s a variation on that theme: If you hear your friends using offensive language, please have the courage to point out its problems. The effects may astound you.
“It takes a great deal of bravery to stand up to our enemies, but just as much to stand up to our friends.” The ever-quotable Albus Dumbledore summarized a long-standing issue young adults have when it comes to forming and sustaining friendships. On one hand, the casual words and actions of your friends can disturb and offend you. On the other, they’re still people you enjoy spending time with, hold desirable social status, or both, and you don’t want to be called “lame” or accused of lacking a sense of humor. This unfortunate bystander effect thereby perpetuates hurtful language when it could have easily been nipped in the bud.
Of course, even though your friends (hopefully) respect your opinions, they’ll try to defend their language. They might say that they don’t mean to be hurtful when using historically homophobic or racist terms. To be honest, they probably aren’t. Many young adults aren’t affected by such language any more. An Associated Press poll found teens are “twice as likely to say biased slurs are used to be funny as they are to think that the user is expressing hateful feelings toward a group of people.” In that same poll, 23 percent of teens said they’d find homophobic language offensive, while 44 percent said the same regarding the “n-word.” Your friends could also retort that within their social circle, it has little to no negative meaning, as a majority of respondents did. Thus, using such language has no immediate negative ramifications on listeners.
Both of those might be true, but they just serve to emphasize how much context matters. For instance, jokingly saying “gay” in a liberal San Francisco high school has an entirely different impact than dropping the “n-word” as a white person in Ferguson, Missouri. In an environment where gay community members are empowered, they have the strength and ability to laugh away adolescents who sling around damaging language for shock value. On the other hand, in the racially charged environment of Ferguson today, such language would only hurt the listeners — and, potentially, the speaker as well.
Of course, not all contexts are seen: Keep in mind that people you don’t even know may be listening as well. What might seem like joking around within your social circle could have far wider ramifications. A group of college-age students in Stanford gear throwing around profanity at a supermarket wouldn’t reflect well on any of them individually and could result in wider judgment about the student body. More importantly, people’s stories are unseen as well. That old lady down the aisle could have a differently-abled son; the cashier could be struggling with his sexuality. That same Associated Press poll found that significantly higher percentages of gays and African-Americans said they’d find homophobic slurs and the “n-word” offensive. While marginalized groups may not care as much about language as they have in past years, words definitely still matter.
Given that uncertainty, there’s no reason to discursively reinscribe decades of oppression.
Sure, you might say, so context matters; we’ve all heard that, so why would my friends suddenly care? Well, they’ll care because you’re telling them. Scientists studying primate behavior have found strong developmental evidence that friends, rather than family, shape behavior and actions in early ages. Studies have found that teens are much more likely to engage in frowned-upon behavior in the presence of their friends rather than their family. By reducing such actions in those spaces, peers can thus influence behavior in the world at large.
Start small: Talk to a couple of other people in your social circle who also seem offended, and figure out how you can approach the problem together. Though you might receive initial blowback, stay calm, stand your ground and be reasonable. If it doesn’t work, at least you’ve tried. The words we use matter, and we should use them to induce positive changes in the behavior of those around us.
Contact Debnil Sur at debnil ‘at’ stanford.edu.