The Inclusive Language Campaign was launched by Student Life with the stated goal of wanting “to encourage the campus community to consider the impact of their word choices on others.” The premise is noble. More so in a town like Ann Arbor, where in any given classroom or restaurant booth, a multitude of characters and identities are likely present.

Tyler Scott

Words are a powerful thing, and taking the initiative to help reduce the frequency with which certain labels or remarks may affect the general happiness of a person is a worthy cause. Especially when considering that all the ILC is asking of its participants is to give a second thought to language and the way we employ it.

Yet, any time the capacity for human expression is diminished I’m wary about jumping on board. More than likely, it’s an indication of my own privilege that I don’t necessarily believe that anyone should be kept from expressing themselves using whichever words they please — yes, even the worst ones.

That sort of behavior should be regulated not by an institutional campaign, but by daily social justice, and the ILC is only a substitute for exactly this.

The most lauded line from supporters of movements like the Inclusive Language Campaign always draws a firm but unclear line, stating that we should all steer clear of using any term that someone may find offensive … because you never know who’s listening.

Practically, there is one major problem with this. Spoken language — and not just the bad parts — is inherently shaped and molded by popular use. As we continue to grow and chase ignorance out of the corners of social awareness, both society and individuals learn more about how terms that used to be common exchange are now taboo, offensive.

It’s a good thing we keep an ear out for our fellow man, but with a close enough microscope, everything starts to look dirty. For example, in this column it has been exactly one-and-a-half sentences since I linguistically marginalized over half of the world’s population.

I could vouch to use fellow men, women, transgenders, non-indentifiers and others for the purpose of inclusion. But does it do any good if I spend less time writing — less time trying to spark conversation — and more time worrying about how someone could see this and might get offended?

Of course, anyone in the same camp as I am who uses the timeless “sticks and stones” proverb as justification for being an ignorant ass is a liar. Words contain all the hatred and menace in the world, along with all the beauty, and they’re as effective a tool for ruining someone’s day as anything else.

However the ILC puts the burden on the speakers of these words, and as only a social movement itself, it is a far cry from anything resembling censorship, but I would rather make a mistake and be corrected than clamp my tongue for fear of my own ignorance and insensitivity.

I was telling this to a friend. And in between breaths when I was extolling the profound worth of unrestricted human expression, communication and creativity, she said something that I glossed over at the time — she probably thought I didn’t hear her — but I did, and it resonates with me now.

“Sometimes words can really bother people.”

She said it, and with the expression of someone who knew personally what that was like. She wasn’t talking about being offended; she spoke of being truly hurt.

I’m not sure that it changed my mind any, but it completely transformed my perspective, and suddenly I saw the ILC in new light.

On a societal level, I still believe that withholding remark for fear of offense is detrimental to social discourse and progress. However, on an individual basis, the ILC becomes less about expression and more about how personal thoughts and beliefs take shape.

Inclusion becomes less of a term used to mean including the possibility for others to disagree, and more about listening to more than a singular internal voice — more about considering the position, experiences and value of other human beings.

Even using the worst ethnic slur in the books is not as crushing to the soul as when someone doesn’t care, considering in my own life the number of times I have failed at listening. Times when, both intentionally and as a result of my own arrogance, I concluded that besides agreeing with me, there wasn’t a whole hell of a lot else to add to a discussion.

It means more than hurting someone’s feelings. The saddest and most meaningful consideration the ILC should raise is a consideration for the sheer multitudes of others who at this point are probably pretty well convinced that I don’t truly care about anything they have to say.

Unfortunately, they may have been right. The very existence of the ILC speaks to the magnitude of this phenomenon. So many of us say so many things, hardly without pause for breath or thought.

The Inclusive Language Campaign isn’t about how we should speak. What it’s really about is how we listen.

Tyler Scott can be reached at tylscott@umich.edu.

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