By Karly Stilling
Photo by Alexandra on Unsplash
I often say I’m ‘just woke enough to know how woke I’m not’—which is why I rely on my friends to call me out, in particular the other members of The Three, Hannah and Jo.
They’re good at calling me out when it’s needed. In fact, I pitched this article to them under the title ‘Learning to be Woke’ and they told me that the term woke is already a bit outdated. It’s become a fad, and people have started to use it without doing any of the self-awareness work that it entails.
Jo also told me that proclaiming myself woke makes me sound a bit like I’m trying too hard to be ‘with it’.
In fact, she sent me this:
As I said, Hannah and Jo are good at calling me out. And while they’re happy to help—we are friends, after all, and we frequently feedback on each other’s work—they also aren’t afraid to point out that it’s not their job to keep me informed.
They’re right—it’s no one’s job but my own to learn how to be more sensitive. And, as I get older and times change, there’s a lot I have to learn. At 37 years old, I often feel like Steve Buscemi in that baseball hat when I hear my younger friends use words I don’t really understand. But I also feel like an uber-PC progressive when I hear more conservative-leaning friends and colleagues use words that make me cringe. It’s not always a comfortable place to be, realising that a word I myself used not too long ago is one that now makes me wince.
But as a proud progressive, comfort isn’t the quality I most value—inclusion is.
A year ago, I wrote a piece about the importance of access to sexual health services to prevent unwanted pregnancies and abortions. Shortly after publishing the piece, Hannah and Jo noticed that some of the language I used wasn’t appropriate. I wrote ‘woman’ and ‘women’ when what I meant was ‘people who can get pregnant’. It was a simple showing of ignorance on my part, and we edited the incorrect words, put a note in the piece to explain that a change had been made, and that was it.
But that experience taught me that I can’t always trust my own instincts when it comes to language—and that it’s important to think about how the words I use might mean something very different to someone else. I write from a feminist perspective a lot, which means I often write about women’s issues and female-presenting bodies, and since publishing that piece I’ve been a lot more aware of the words I choose.
I’m still not perfect, but now I’m at least aware.
A word after a word after a word is power.Margaret Atwood
I’m Canadian, so being politically correct is a culturally instilled value. It’s part of what makes Canadians so polite—we don’t like to offend.
But political correctness gets a bad rap these days—just look at Google’s suggestions for the search term ‘political correctness’:
The contemporary understanding of PC culture seems to be ‘taking things too far to avoid possibly offending or insulting someone else.’ Maybe that’s true, but to me being PC feels like just another way of saying woke, which is just another way of saying inclusive, sensitive, thoughtful. It simply means considering someone else’s lived experience before you open your mouth or put pen to paper.
What’s so hard about that?
“[To be woke] is an encouragement for people to wake up and question dogmatic social norms. It requires an active process of deprogramming social conditionings focusing on consistent efforts to challenge the universal infractions we are all subjected to.”Raven Cras, “What does it mean to be “woke?”
This quote from Raven Cras begins to get at the answer to my question what’s so hard about being inclusive? It’s hard because it takes work. To consider someone else’s experience—especially the experience of someone you’ve never met, or a group of people you’ve never encountered—takes effort. So of course it’s easier not to do it.
With the number of new terms cropping up in just the past few years, staying on top of things can be confusing and overwhelming. I get it, it’s a lot—that’s why I need to ask for help sometimes.
But the big question here to me is, why would we meet these new ways of expressing identities with scorn or defensiveness?
Just because I’m a heterosexual, cisgender person doesn’t mean I can’t empathise with the lived experience of others and respect their right to want to be themselves, and have that be okay with the world. What harm does it do me to accept the new language? Very little, compared to the harm it does to others to deny their agency. I can expend that little bit of extra effort to really consider the words that I use and what they mean if that’s going to contribute to a world where people who are different from me feel their difference is celebrated rather than ignored—or worse, shamed.
I was born in 1983, which makes me part of that weird generation of millennials who grew up without social media. I was 16 when we got the internet at home, 18 when I got my first mobile phone. I signed up for Facebook the year it became available in Canada—when I was a year away from graduating university.
All this means that I am old enough to have grown up without easy exposure to lots of different ways of being in the world, but young enough that I wasn’t too set in my ways when technology began to open the world up. It means that I have no excuse for ignorance, and that I know that no one else does, either—no matter what your age.
I know that words have power. As a writer, I’ve based my career and my passion on that belief, and it’s been proven true to me time and time again.
Think back to the last time you got a negative comment on a social media post, or a piece of critique from someone at school or work. I bet those words have stuck with you far more than any positive feedback you’ve received, am I right? I know they stick with me.
That’s the power of words. When they get inside our heads, they begin to colour the way we see ourselves and the world around us. They can be poisonous, or they can be healing. And unfortunately, the negative words tend stick far more than the positive ones.
The writer Edward Bulwer-Lytton wrote in 1839 that the pen is mightier than the sword. That remains true in our world: #blacklivesmatter, #metoo, #timesup—these are hashtags that have become slogans with enough power to galvanize people, communities, industries, governments.
When we acknowledge just how much our words matter, it becomes clear that changing the way we speak can make a change in the world.
I don’t know about you, but I plan to be on the right side of that change.
If you’re interested in learning more about using inclusive language, here are some links you can go to for more information:
On Trans-Inclusive Language from The Good Men Project
Guide to Inclusive Language in healthcare from the NHS
Guidelines for Inclusive Language from the Linguistic Society of America
70 Inclusive Language Principles That Will Make You A More Successful Recruiter by Nehemiah Green on Medium