August 22, 2021

Social justice language widgetry

Posted in Uncategorized tagged , at 4:48 pm by chavisory

I don’t know how many people feel this way.

But there is a way in which people who are very involved at all in social justice culture, who are, ironically, trying so hard to do the right thing, almost immediately change the way they talk to me when they find out I have “multiple marginalizations.” Or “multiple intersections.” Or something like that.

I can hear it coming by now. It’s like a switch flipping.

And I hate it.

And whatever it’s intended to do, or if they even realize they’re doing it, when they switch into heavily SJ-inflected codespeak, it doesn’t make me feel like more of a person, or more “seen,” or respected, when they do it. It makes me feel far, far less so.

Like they decided they know the right language widgets for talking to someone like me.

It’s like they stop talking to me like they would just talk to another person, like they see me as just a person, and started talking to me like a collection of marginalizations. Like an equation. Like a program with a cheat code.

I know how I’m meant to respond, but I can’t.

When people I considered friends start doing it, it feels like a betrayal.

Wait, I’m still the same person, I want to say. Is this how you really think of me? That you have to talk to me this way?

Stop it. I thought I was just your friend.

“You don’t have to talk to me like that,” I want to say even to well-intentioned strangers on the internet.

I know you mean well, but I’m not actually from that world. I don’t function well in that language. Most of my values don’t translate well into it. Truth be told, it makes me want to scream and hide. I tune it out and shut down. Or I attempt to keep conversing with someone as if they hadn’t just… started treating me like a different person halfway through a conversation for some incomprehensible reason.

I think it flattens experience, steals empathy, makes people sound like automatons, and me feel expected to behave as one, and I resent it.

It feels somewhat akin to what Mel Baggs was describing when sie wrote about political ideologies and mental widgets. That there are these language shortcuts, which aren’t wrong in and of themselves, but that have come to be accepted as the correct language for encapsulating certain experiences.

I think it’s gradually short-circuiting our collective ability to comprehend experiences, both our own and others’, if they can’t be easily framed in the narrow vocabulary of this dialect. I think it’s making us all less legible to each other as people, not more.

I think it’s undoing our ability to listen to each other. To really listen. To actually have to parse language for what someone is trying to communicate, and not just internalize dogmas.

I’m just a person. You can just talk.

A couple of years ago I was at a cocktail party held by a pair of friends, and there was a little pocket copy of On Tyranny, on the coffee table. A print version of Timothy Snyder’s collection of twenty short essays on resisting the encroachment of fascism that went viral around the internet shortly after the 2016 election.

The seventeenth was one I hadn’t remembered. “Be kind to our language.” Resist buzzwords and catchphrases. Don’t just talk the way other people talk. Think of your own way of saying things.

I wonder whether Snyder was thinking of groupthink, of newspeak, that might come from within our own movement, and not only from the tyrants who happen to be in power. Whether he was also warning us about the ways our own communities inadvertently use language to do injustice to the complexity of our experiences as humans.

I’m not sure how much this is just an eventuality in any activist movement, or how much anyone else notices or is bothered if they do.

But lately sometimes it feels like there’s hardly anyone I can just talk to anymore. Who I can trust to just…talk to me.