Language may not be everything, but given that human beings are inextricably and intimately intertwined with the words we create and the meaning we assign to them, and given that textual and verbal communication are deeply integral to much of the conversing we do, words matter, and they’re anything but cheap.
While some of us may be more than conscious of the need to put work into mastering the nuances of anti-oppressive language, many of us have no idea what on earth oppressive language might be to begin with. Sometimes it presents as the in-built and normalized linguistic problematics of deeply racist and sexist terminology (a map of history really), while other times it can manifest amid the arguably more complex and challenging maze of gender pronouns and non-binary language more generally—a topic that has seen a lot of (increasing) attention in the media in recent years as horizons broaden and human minds open more and more to the wide expanse that is the universe.
A 2013 report from Intelligence Group found that 60% of people between 14 and 34 think gender lines are blurred and nearly two-thirds say it’s their generation that’s pushing those boundaries. MTV’s Colin Nash tells Variety: “Gender neutral is kind of the new thing…Trans almost feels like a couple years behind for our audience.”
Having personally worked in a gender advocacy center for upwards of 6 years, I was well-positioned to learn how to respect peoples’ chosen pronouns, no matter where on the gender spectrum they happened to land. Sometimes this meant saying “they” instead of “he” or “she,” sometimes it looked like switching “he” for “she” or vice versa, sometimes it took the form of “ze” and “hir,” and other times it involved keeping up with a person’s ever-evolving identity by checking in regularly. But people not steeped in such environments often find it extremely difficult to grasp such linguistic alterations, much less the reasons behind them. In other words, there is a real accessibility problem. Not to mention, the task can become immeasurably more difficult in inherently gendered languages like Spanish, German, and French. Many things to consider.
While using gender neutral/ non binary language in the day-to-day is one thing, from a business perspective, it can be altogether more challenging. Companies that want to reach adolescents and millennials have to show they “get it.” Facebook made it official when they told the world that limiting binary-gendered options is a thing of the past. From a drop-down menu, users can select from 58 different identities, including agender, androgyne, gender fluid, trans female, trans male, trans person, cisgender, and two-spirit. (Each term refers to a subtle variation of gender and sexual identity and expression.) For users who don’t fit into the 58 pre-populated list of gender identities, Facebook offers a 59th option: “fill in the blank.”
A small company selling products to individuals, however, simply must deal with more challenges than a mammoth dealing in social media does when it comes to struggling with the binary-centric language of business and capital. While on the one hand, a business may deeply value inclusivity and the use of language that reflects this properly, and while their target audience may indeed respond better to the use of such language, on the other hand, using language that encompasses status quo word use is often more conducive to being found by would-be customers/clients, especially online. The fact is, in spite of slow and steady change, we still live in a largely capitalist / binary universe, and moving beyond simply surviving to thriving while at the same time staying true to one’s values and worldview can be extremely daunting. While ad/web copy is known to work best when concise, to the point, and snappy, using inclusive language can create long-windedness and confusion, making it a bit scary to follow through on.
Thought of the day: in addition to ramping up discussions on the use of non-binary language, should we also be talking about why snappy and concise is valued so much over detailed and in-depth? Would this perhaps help us to unlock a barrier or two on the road to true, successful, ever-evolving language that everyone can understand and learn from?
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