My Pain = My Words: Word Policing and Privilege

Don’t tell me what to feel, think, say, do. This isn’t just a pet peeve, this is a deal-breaker with me. The only time this is okay is if I’m doing something that directly affects you negatively.

I’m all for policing language that’s inherently disrespectful to underprivileged groups. Especially self-policing, and edumacting oneself what language is ableist, fat-shaming, xenophobic, etc. I’m all for being more sensitive and respectful. I’m also all for being able to set verbal boundaries, and to communicate to each other when certain words or subjects are personally triggering to us. This is something I struggle to do with other people.

But I’ve noticed that, particularly among the more privileged, there’s a fragility and a sense of self-righteousness that lends itself to policing my words with the air that it’s for my own good and this person knows more than me, rather than owning their discomfort and setting a boundary. In other words, I’ve experienced lots of white middle-class people condescendingly correcting my words as an almost compulsive, mindless habit.

This isn’t just annoying, it’s invalidating and disrespectful.

I had this friend who did this so constantly that eventually there was really nothing I could say to him. After a while I noticed whenever I had a thought I wanted to share I was second-guessing every word with fear and most of the time staying silent. When there’s fear to communicate in a friendship, it’s not a friendship to me.

This ‘friend’ also said he ‘didn’t believe’ in The Spoon Theory. I have a problem about the word ‘theory’ in its title, because it’s not a theory, it’s a metaphor for discussing one’s limits and internal resources with someone else. Basically he was saying he didn’t believe in other people’s authority in being the judge of their own limits and needs, because his were different—and this is the whole reason the original metaphor was made to begin with, to point out that we don’t all have the same limits and needs, and we can’t judge others’ based on our own.

But that’s another story and shall be told at another time.

Where Privilege Rears its Ugly Invisible Head

Word-policing can shut down conversations with people who are not like us and create elitist rules about what we will and will not listen to. Which is a choice. It’s a choice that limits our potential for learning and our comfort zones. And if, say, I’m more privileged than the person I’m word-policing, it’s oppression. It may be denial due to my discomfort with the differences between us. But it’s projecting my discomfort onto them and then trying to control their language when what I need to control is what I choose to do in response to my discomfort, and how I go about dealing with it with regards to my relations with this other person.

When it comes to policing a person’s language about their own feelings, experiences, and thoughts about what happened to them, it’s more about the discomfort of the person policing, and unwillingness to listen, than the person whose words are being pulled over to the curb and asked if they know how fast they were speechifying.

Condescendingly trying to ‘save’ someone from the consequences of their feelings, thoughts, and words is also idiotic. Thoughts, feelings, and how we describe our experiences do not create reality, nor does our awareness. That’s magical thinking. It’s surprising how hard it is for people to let go of that superstition, and even make a killing writing inherently classist books, teaching and taking classes using that as a fundamental truth and basing our whole approach to life on it.

Also underlying this is an unconscious judgment about these things and their consequences which don’t necessarily reflect the reality of the speaker. Remember that I am the best judge about what is true and what is good for me, and you are only the best judge of what is best for you. This is a remind of where we each end and others begin. While you, dear reader, may personally believe that words and thoughts and feelings have these consequences in and of themselves and need to be policed—you’re not the expert on anyone but you and your pets. And your desk. You are definitely the expert on your desk.

You don’t live with the results of how I feel and think and speak about what I experience, any more than I live with the results of your feelings and thoughts. It’s what we choose to do in response to our feelings and thoughts that matter.

Word choice does matter, it really does, when it comes to words that disrespect and shut down people who are less privileged to us in some ways. But word policing also does this—and I notice it’s super-pervasive the more privileged and in denial people are.

There are people out there who have lived through and are living through realities we don’t understand, that challenge your comfort zone and what you want to believe about the world. It can be hard to hear.

But remember that no matter how hard it is to hear, it’s harder still to live with in silence.

But Wait! There’s Hope! …or: Four Super-Easy Steps and Two Fucking Hard Ones to Change Any Behavior

If you have this habit, the way to change it is the same way to change any habit.

  1. Notice, without shame or self-blame, when you’re doing it.
  2. Ask yourself what’s going on with you, what’s underneath that. Notice if there are some times or some people you’re more prone to doing it with. Gather information like a researcher.
  3. Figure out what this behavior is meeting for you. Yes, it has some kind of desirable effect for you, otherwise you wouldn’t have picked up this habit. Again, no shame, just figure it out.
  4. Find a better choice to meet that need. You need something to replace it with, to redirect the impulse rather than trying to stop it. In learning self defense I learned it’s way less effort and risk to redirect a strike than to try to fully stop it, so blocks are about nudging the strike a little out of the way. For me it’s a great metaphor for the momentum that habits have.
  5. Make any positive change toward that better choice—including shifts in your circumstances. Maybe there are certain times and places where it’s more likely to happen, and you can be more aware or be there less. Keep making small shifts consistently.
  6. When you do the thing you’re trying to change, skip the shame. Remember there’s always a chance you’ll do it without thinking, especially if you’re stressed or tired or running on automatic. Learn from it if you can, re-commit to change, and repeat steps 5-6 as necessary.

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