Words are deceptively powerful. Stringing letters together in just the right order can inspire, entertain, educate, and even wound. There’s truth in many an old adage, and I do believe that the pen (or in this case, the keyboard) is mightier than the sword.
(Wondering where I’m going with this one and why I’m posting it here? I promise that it ties back into puppies at the end. Stick with me.)
I was talking to a friend about language last month (as you do). We were discussing the ways in which language reflects and subtly reinforces beliefs and prejudices. These ideas have become so ingrained that we don’t even realize the real meaning behind the words we choose.
An example: when someone makes a bold move, they’re often described as ballsy. When someone is vulnerable, they might get called a… well, a slang term for a cat. Let’s unpack that for a second. Bravely taking the initiative (a positive) is characterized as masculine. Showing vulnerability (which some might consider a negative) is painted as feminine.
Facing something tough? Man up, Nancy! Done something stupid? Some might call you a boob. Not living up to traditional male stereotypes? Last I checked, that makes you a girly man. Don’t get your panties in a bunch – they’re just words, right? Not so fast. These words, that many of us use without a second thought, are sending a pretty unfortunate message: masculine is good, while feminine is bad.
Not long after that conversation, I came across this video. (The relevant portion starts around the 3:05 mark, but you wouldn’t be wasting five minutes of your life if you decided to watch the whole thing instead. It’s definitely thought-provoking.) In the video, the speaker talks about microaggressions, which he describes as things that people say that aren’t necessarily intended to hurt someone, but that nonetheless foster a culture of discrimination. (The concept is generally broader, but it works here.) As you can imagine, the video really resonated with me given the fact that I’d just had a conversation covering many of the same points.
There are countless examples of words that seem harmless but reinforce inequality. Have you ever bought a bra or pair of pantyhose labeled as Nude? Obviously, that pale peach color is not “Nude” for everyone. Even something as simple as that reinforces the idea that pale skin is the norm, and casts everyone else as The Other. (You’d think that lingerie companies would get their acts together by now – even Crayola did away with that not-so-inclusive Flesh crayon.)
I could write paragraphs about these issues, but I’ll stop here. Instead, let me explain why I decided to talk about this issue today. Yesterday, I published a post (Six silly reasons to adopt a dog) and thoughtlessly committed a microaggression of my own.
In animal rescue, we often talk about adopting dogs. So, one of my reasons played off of this terminology: “An adopted pup will never ask you who his or her real parents are. No angst, no awkward adoption conversations!”
I’m not the first to make this type of joke – it’s not all that original. It was, however, hurtful. Did you notice the problematic word?
One commenter noted that my joke wasn’t very funny to her – as she said, those who adopt kids consider them their real children. I read her comment and immediately smacked myself in the forehead. Obviously, I didn’t mean to devalue the relationship between a parent and her adopted child.
Here, dear reader, is where each of us has the chance to make a choice… and a change. When confronted with this comment, I could have gotten offended and said that she needed to lighten up. After all, it was just a joke, right?I didn’t mean to offend. However, just because something is a joke doesn’t mean we shouldn’t think about it more critically.
What did I really mean to say? I meant to make a joke about how a dog isn’t going to ask you about its biological parents. Was it necessary for me to say “real” instead of “biological”? No. Not one bit. So, I changed the post. I think it’s even better now.
I’d like to note that the commenter who inspired this post is a real class act, who has adopted a child and a rescue dog. She pointed out the issue in a straightforward way, without attacking me. When I changed the post, she acknowledged my edit and we had a nice exchange over email. She even encouraged me to remove her original comment now that I’d chosen a different word.
So, the purpose of today’s post is twofold. First, when you’re talking about pet adoption, don’t be careless like me. Second, I thought this story was a nice example of how to approach someone who uses words that you may find hurtful.
Sure, there are people out there who believe the negative things underlying the words that they choose. However, there are also people who simply don’t think. We don’t always choose our words carefully. Wouldn’t it be nice if we could all be as civil as that awesome commenter when faced with a situation like this one? She educated me without attacking me. It’s a lesson I hope to remember the next time someone makes a comment about “vicious Pit Bulls” or says something else that gets my blood boiling. After all, they do say you catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.
If you made it to the end of this very long post, thanks for indulging me today. Tomorrow, I’ll post a cute photo to make it up to you.