The Tender Activist: The problem with inclusive language

By : Scottie Campbell
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If we’ve only recently met, it isn’t likely I will call you by name. It isn’t that I don’t want to extend that courtesy, it’s that I don’t want to get it wrong.

I might not ask about your significant other, unless I’m absolutely certain you’re still together. It’s not that I don’t care; I’m afraid I’ll put you in an awkward position if something has changed. When I say I’m afraid of these things, I mean that sincerely. The potential embarrassment is debilitating for me.

Having made a social faux pas, my body will flush with awkwardness and my speech impediment, with all its decades-old ostracizing baggage, will turn my tongue into a drugged sea cucumber. I’ll usually spend far more time than I should in a store locating an item, rather than ask for help. And if it weren’t for the advent of online chats, I probably would never have met my partner of 10 years.

I know I’m not alone in having a challenge with talking to people and this was my pervading thought when I attended two separate inclusive language workshops for my job. The first focused on the LGBT community. I enjoyed a certain amount of insider’s glee watching heteronormative worlds get rocked learning about pronoun sensitivity. Then I joined them as I got lost in the various labels and the seemingly myriad possibilities of offending someone. (I could be wrong, but I think it’s derogatory to use “drag queen” now.)

It occurs to me, only three paragraphs in, that I might be assuming a bit. You might not be aware that it is becoming expected practice to ask a person which pronouns they prefer, and not just assume. So you don’t have to go to the trouble, mine are he/him/his. You might be able to assume that from my photo, but you wouldn’t be able to tell from my name since “Scottie” can be a female name. If you visit you’ll find an equine property specialist. Yes, I know, you’re learning all sort of things, aren’t you? I’m all but certain that Scottie Campbell prefers the pronouns she/her/her.

The business of pronouns gets even more interesting when non-binary gender is a consideration. The individual might choose they/them/their as their pronouns, or even invented pronouns like ze/hir/hir. The recommendation with preferred pronouns and labels is to simply ask the person. I hope this is true and I hope this is the accepted approach on both sides. When many in our country are still trying to wrap their minds around two dudes getting married, if your chosen pronouns are xe/xem/xyr, it might be helpful to cut people some slack. Compassion is a two-way street.

A young woman flew in from Rhode Island to conduct the second workshop which focused on family-inclusive language. We should not assume an adult with a child is their parent. We should be mindful that not everyone has the same definition of “extended family.” Interestingly, our facilitator’s research showed a cultural difference with Caucasian people considering aunts, uncles, grandma and grandpa extended family, while others simply view them as family. In approaching family-inclusive language, there appears to be concern that a child will be traumatized or embarrassed if, for example, they encounter a situation where their uncle is mistaken for their father. I tend to think kids are more apt to roll with the punches than that.

That is not to say there are not other instances. One person in the workshop related her experience growing up as an adopted child. She and her sister have Asian heritage and they were adopted into a Caucasian family. More than once they experienced assumptions and attributions, even restaurants trying to seat them as separate parties. Ouch.

It is recommended to avoid the age-old habit of commenting on a family member’s resemblance to another. The child may be adopted, you might be referring to their step-mother, or the person might not be related at all. My mom was adopted and people often commented that she looked like her dad. They never corrected anyone and just said “thank you” with a smile. The man I consider my dad (he of the pro-gun opinions mentioned in my last column) is actually my step-father—I’m more inclined to phrase that “technically” my step-father. We routinely have people comment that we look alike. It might be because he’s a handsome man that I actually like it when this happens. On some level, there is a cosmic feeling the compliment adds legitimacy to our family connection.

On another level, I suspect such compliments also reveal a certain amount of bullshit. Commenting on someone’s family resemblance is often one of those fall back conversation drivers, only a tad more personal than analyzing the weather.

In this social media age we all seem to recognize there is a dearth in meaningful communication, and America seems to be hell-bent on demonstrating to the world the dark path this disconnect sends us down. We’re in desperate need of reclaiming our humanity. I worry that expecting people to be en pointe with political correctness will only lead to even less face-to-face interaction, which will only lead to less and less understanding.

In both workshops, the use of “ma’am” and “sir” was brought up as something to be avoided. I guess this is where the old school, get-off-my-lawn part of me comes out because I mourn the fact that more people do not recognize each other with this common courtesy. One person suggested substituting “my friend” and acted out a demonstration, blithely unaware how patronizing she sounded. As I listened, I said a prayer for the world. I didn’t tell anyone I was doing that, of course, I don’t want to offend.


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