Isolation by Accident: Addressing How We Use Language





It's easy to say that we don't need to understand the way a person identifies, that it's better just to accept it. Abiding by that sentiment is an ongoing learning process by which we experience, converse, reflect, and learn.


A quote from John Dewey states that, "We do not learn from experience...we learn from reflecting on our experiences."


I completely agree with the idea that experience coupled with reflection can have greater significance, and this is an incredibly insightful idea that builds off of the value of experience. I would, however, question whether this language subtly presupposes the method by which both experience and reflection take place.


For example, do we suppose that everyone reflects with intention?


Do we suppose that there are specific ways of reflecting "correctly"?


Do we suppose that "experience" and "reflection" look the same for everyone in all circumstances?


This does not mean that Dewey's quote is defunct or that it should not be used at all, just that the language that we use can easily and unintentionally lead people to drawing conclusions that can complicate the way we live and communicate with one another. Language, by all means, should be open to interpretation.


Writers can mitigate the harm that presupposing language can do to someone.


Ali Almossawi's chapter, Language that Presupposes, is a fascinating dive into the display of unconscious biases reflected in our language. It reminds me of the caution that post-process theorists take against absolute language.


Language that can be considered as absolute is language that I usually caution in any manuscript. I would define this as one that equates a given "all" with a specific characteristic or quality. Here's an example of some absolute language.


Those who have the flu must take Medicine T to improve their condition.


The person making that statement might not take into account that the person with the flu might have other conditions that Medicine T could exacerbate. What makes this language absolute is their use of the word, "must." Though, for someone who might not possess the same kinds of sensitivities to medicine might not consider this possibility and establish that the need for Medicine T is a given.


One way to be more mindful about how we are expressing to others is to be more mindful about the kinds of language we are reading, not that we would be censoring what we're reading, just that we're more aware of the kinds of language we are consuming.


Almossawi gives the example of use of irrelevant adjectives in writing that might encourage false associations between a characteristic and an outcome.


In order to determine whether certain descriptors are relevant, it's important to note the purpose of what is being read. This would be a deeper than a surface level, "to inform" analysis. An article might be trying to inform people about an event that took place at a festival or a pile-up on a highway.


Consider, then, the types of descriptors that are being used about all parties involved. Are these descriptors relevant to the given topic? Any descriptor that is given can create an association between that descriptor and a given conclusion.


An example that Almossawi (2021) gives is, "On one episode of a clinical psychologist's CBS talk show, the host repeatedly and gratuitously refers to one of his guests as a brown-haired rabbit, to no objectively useful end."


Two descriptors that are given are that the talk show is run by a clinical psychologist and that it airs on CBS. The context of each of these descriptors allows people to set expectations as to what might be on a program like this.


Statements coming from clinical psychologists are usually those that should make others feel safe. However, this clinical psychologist, has used an irrelevant descriptor and, as Almossawi continues, he states that the guest was not framed in a positive light.


Not only has brown hair been associated with something negative, but the credibility of a clinical psychologist can validate the repetition of this association by the viewing public.


Additionally, the language can increase in intensity to the point where certain traits and characteristics might be considered innate to a group. Then, these traits might even be considered as some kind of "proof" of "guilt, inferiority, or intent -- no actual evidence required" (Almossawi, 2021).


We do face consequences as a result of both the language we use and the language that we presuppose to a greater degree than we possibly realize. To illustrate some of the consequences that have been made based on these associations, I will draw an excerpt from an article titled, "A Texas teacher faces losing her job after fighting for gay pride symbols in schools". I will include the full paragraph for further context.


"Nationwide, educators have raised concerns that new measures, such as a Florida Law that prevents teachers from discussing sexual orientation in third grade or lower, could lead to a purge of LGBTQ teachers. And advocates for LGBTQ students are alarmed by some parents' recent demands that schools prohibit students from organizing Gay-Straight Alliances, calling them 'pornographic' and suggesting they would turn children gay" (Kingkade, 2022).


Some people associate any discussion of sexual orientation with sexual interactions. Here, I would like to point out how this author repeatedly affirms an extent to which this kind of association does little more than to isolate. People who might make associations like this might not consider that having an attraction to another person doesn't necessarily have to be sexual. They might not believe that people who identify as LGBTQIA+ can be capable of healthy relationships.


Any of these isolating reasonings can contribute to a larger illustrations of the consequences that LGBTQIA+ people face because of the associations that people who are not them make. Some people within the community can even make those harmful associations about one another.


So, where do we go from here? While unconscious bias in itself cannot be avoided, being aware of its existence can help us to be aware of certain associations that we subconsciously make. We can also be more aware of presupposing language present in what we watch, listen to, or read.


We can ask questions and learn more about how to better communicate with people around us, taking into account that if we've met one person, we don't immediately attain the culmination of knowledge about how they identify and what that identity means to them.


 

Thank you so much to everyone who has contributed feedback to Purposeful Prose thus far.


This chapter of An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language was particularly insightful and interesting even as its own piece. It's timely and necessary, directly addressing how the way we interpret the language we read relates to our unconscious bias. While the other chapters have done that, I've found that the insight, the way that examples are addressed and analyzed, and the takeaways are especially accessible and memorable.


If you would like to follow along with my discussion on this book, I highly recommend purchasing from your local independent bookstore or helping independent bookstores through bookshop.org. If you are interested in reading more from me or participating in discussions, you can become a member of Purposeful Prose and/or follow my LinkedIn page where I will be posting additional content.


As always, I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


Sources:


Almossawi, A., & Giraldo, A. (2021). An Illustrated Book of Loaded Language: Learn to Hear What’s Left Unsaid (Bad Arguments). The Experiment.


Kingkade, T. (2022, April 7). A Texas teacher faces losing her job after fighting for gay pride symbols in school. NBC News. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/lgbtq-students-texas-school-rainbow-stickers-rcna23208




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