As I was walking down State Street the other day, contemplating what I was going to write for my final column this semester, I happened to stumble across a phrase I hadn’t seen or heard in a long time. Posted in front of the Union was a sign that had “that’s so gay” printed on it.

When I say a “long time,” I’m probably exaggerating. I’m sure it’s only been a few months or so — especially when you take into account the fact that I live in a residence hall. Nevertheless, I’m sure many of you would agree with me when I say that going even just a few months without hearing the phrase “that’s so gay” is no small feat. In fact, it was only after gawking at the poster for several minutes that I realized who was responsible for it. And I should have seen it coming.

In an effort to promote diversity, multiculturalism and intercultural competence, it seems that the Expect Respect Committee has launched a campus-wide campaign aimed at disrupting the use of harmful language here at the University. According to the committee’s official website, “Expect Respect is a unique partnership among students, faculty and staff hoping to unite our community.” Members work around the clock to ensure that there is a welcoming environment for all University students regardless of race, gender, sexual orientation, religious affiliation or country of origin. Though this list is by no means exhaustive, it reflects the committee’s dedication to social justice. To me, the campaign seems especially fitting given the attention that has been paid to bias incidents on campus lately.

I’m sure that much of this sounds like stuff you’ve heard time and time again. I know that since coming to the University, I haven’t gone a day without hearing about social justice and progressive politics. And as you can probably guess from my latest string of columns, this is an effort that I support whole-heartedly.

I recognize that there will be students (and rather meddlesome alumni) who feel the need to protest the Expect Respect Committee’s new campaign out of an irrational fear of communism and excessive political correctness. Usually, I’m quick to dismiss any individual who claims that asking people to be mindful of their words is synonymous with encroaching on First Amendment rights. But this campaign is a perfect example of when people should be genuinely concerned over the words others use and when it might be crossing the line.

While discussing the implications of my now infamous penis-on-a-whiteboard example (Unintentionally offensive, 11/10/2010), a friend of mine once wrote to me that “the biggest challenge that groups have when battling for their civil rights is not overcoming blatant prejudice, but the subtle biases in our society that even the most open-minded individual can perpetuate if he is careless.”

I think this provides a helpful guide for determining when language crosses the line from innocuous to potentially detrimental. Language can be a powerful weapon in creating, maintaining and dismantling systems of oppression and inequality. If you don’t believe me, try to think of a reason why people don’t say, “that’s so straight,” when insinuating that something is disappointing or disheartening.

Another one of the Expect Respect Committee’s posters had to do with the phrase, “that’s retarded.” While I’m sure most of us rarely mean to implicate the mentally or physically disabled while talking to our friends about football, we do so every time the words leave our lips. Though harmless to us, this sort of language makes it much more difficult to chip away at the stigma and prejudices associated with people who have certain social identities. But we don’t even have to narrow our focus to persons or individuals. Our use of language has trivialized the meaning of rape and has turned it into a word that can be mentioned at the drop of a hat. But as one poster so succinctly put it, “I was raped, and it was nothing like your Econ 101 exam.”

I’ll admit that sometimes society can go too far in trying to curb intolerance. For instance, I don’t think the Expect Respect Committee had any business going after the phrase “fuck my life.” To me, this phrase doesn’t really demean anyone, nor does it implicate a particular social identity or situation. As far as I know, it expresses exactly what it is supposed to. The important thing to remember in all this is that language is always changing and constantly evolving. But it’s for that reason that we should remain cognizant of when it marginalizes a group, even in the most discreet of ways.

Noel Gordon can be reached at noelaug@umich.edu.

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