Why Words Matter

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         I spent most of my education in single-sex private schools. At their best these environments were competitive and exciting, and at their worst they were intensely toxic. The most pressing example of this was casually racist language, used frequently and with a nauseating irreverence. Why this culture developed and continues to develop is a question I’ve given a lot of thought to since I arrived at Oxford last October. I’ve re-evaluated my own views on racial discourse during my first year, in part due to my studies (I’m an English student) but mostly because I’ve met, interacted with and learnt from so many diverse and intelligent people

It is always difficult to define casual racism. Most often it’s described in opposition to ‘active’ forms, but I don’t believe there’s a meaningful, binary distinction. One can’t exist without the other. If a society rejects racism in every degree then the state-endorsed prejudice we see today in some parts of the world would never be allowed to germinate. Instead casual racism is, if not actually encouraged, tolerated and so more malevolent and dangerous forms are allowed to grow. An environment like /pol/ on 8chan is an excellent example. You couldn’t spend five seconds on the forum without spotting a swastika or a racial slur. It was one of the most toxic sites on the mainstream Internet, although most people disregarded it as a gaggle of harmless teenagers and conspiracy theorists. And yet the perpetrator of the Christchurch shooting in 2019 posted his alt-right manifesto on this board in which he openly admits that he was radicalised (or ‘redpilled’ in /pol/ lingo) on the site. The manifesto is one of the appalling documents you can read, and yet the most disturbing aspect about it is its childishness. It’s full of 8chan memes and inside jokes. When casual racism of any kind isn’t met with resistance it allows hateful ideologies to coagulate without opposition, obscured by a smokescreen of ‘it’s just a joke’. No-one took /pol/ seriously until it was far too late. It was eventually taken down, but only after its toxicity had allowed viciously racist murderers to escape scrutiny.

Racism invariably dies when it is exposed to the object of its hate, like a virus in the sun. If an anti-Semite sat down with a Jewish neighbour and conversed over lunch they would quickly realise that they are no different to himself, thus exploding the basic assumption of racism. The best TED talk I’ve ever seen is given by Daryl Davis, who captures this idea perfectly. Ignorance breeds fear, which breeds hatred, which breeds destruction. With this in mind, Daryl, a person of colour, started attending KKK rallies. He befriended a Klan leader who, after getting to know him, quit the Klan. Simply by being himself, Daryl collapses the racist worldview. Infiltrating the KKK is, obviously, an extreme example of this kind of activism, but it demonstrates its efficacy. If one of the most violently racist people in America can be convinced to renounce his ideology through conversation, then there is real hope in this fight.

The problem, therefore, is exposing racism to its own logical inconsistencies, a task made infinitely trickier if such ideologies are surrounded by a protective shroud of tolerance and passivity. I believe this, as with almost everything, comes down to a discussion about language. There is a deep-rooted and fundamentally misguided philosophy of words within our culture, created and perpetuated by the discourse around them, that trivializes the danger of casual racism. Students in British schools will have a brief but formative brush with critical language theory in their English classes, which in most cases end abruptly with GCSE exams. The way texts are discussed at this level shifts the emphasis away from the words themselves and towards the vague, intangible paraphernalia of writing: plot, characters, and ‘themes’ (whatever they are). Words become auxiliary components of a text. They’re considered slightly irritating, occasionally noteworthy additions to a story that one has to work through in order to reach the essential stuff. 

This approach has dangerous ramifications for the way we conceptualise language. There is the text, and there is the reader, and nothing else besides. Plot, character and the like are hallucinations conjured by this psycho-active substance called poetry. They exist, but because of the words, not in spite of them. It is only until one reaches A-Level study in this subject that words are suddenly considered valuable in and of themselves. I remember my Year 12 English teacher desperately imploring us to pay attention to not just what is being said but how, and being more than a bit baffled by this new and difficult approach. I was used to writing what amounted to a philosophical study of character every time, and the curriculum seemed to reward this method. Most of A-Level English is spent forgetting everything you’d been taught up until that point, and finally beginning to appreciate a text as a text.

How does this relate to casual racism? It creates a philosophy of words as being meaningless up until someone chooses to apply meaning, the logical conclusion being that one can say anything. If someone takes offence it is because they have consciously decided to give meaning to a word that doesn’t carry any in and of itself. This reasoning is so attractive because it permits everything and absolves the speaker of blame. The ‘just joking’ defense becomes irrefutable, because they’re only words – why are you taking them so seriously? I claimed in an early Michaelmas tutorial essay that ‘words are not intrinsically meaningful, but are containers for meaning’. George Lakoff calls this conceptualisation the ‘conduit metaphor’. In a chapter that I entirely misunderstood in first term he explained this misconception as ‘ideas […] are objects. Linguistic expressions are containers. Communication is sending’. This common metaphorization of words is elegant, but misleading.

A word means all its history, its context, and the user’s intention, all the time. When a white person casually uses a racial pejorative they are summoning all the hatred, suffering and prejudice attached to it in an entirely juxtaposed context. It can never mean the same thing as when a person of colour uses it because the circumstances are insurmountably different. A person of colour using such a word is an act of cultural healing. It is a transformation of a linguistic weapon into a symbol of brotherhood – the beating of a sword into a ploughshare. If its meaning can change, it can only be changed by those who were once dehumanised by it. Claiming that a white person can use it in the same manner as their black neighbour is the same logic as ‘I don’t see race’. It denies the existence of racial difference in culture, which in turn denies racism, both in action today and as a historical phenomenon. 

Another common strain of thought that stems from this understanding of words is that white Britain can do the same linguistic work on racial pejoratives as black Britain; that, by trivialising and deracialising these terms, they might in time become something harmless, like a defanged viper, and their historical taint might be removed forever. This argument, very popular at my old schools, has many flaws, the first being the assumption that such a taint could (let alone should) be removed. It has become an inextricable part of both global history and the identity of many people of colour across the world. Such an argument is an especially reductive and condescending act of white saviourism, an extraordinary display of entitlement, a particularly cruel theft of something that black culture can uniquely claim as its own, and a form of linguistic gentrification. It reduces these words to a fetish, to be appropriated and paraded about by whites like a Native American headdress in a kindergarten play.

The critique of reclamation (‘if Kendrick Lamar can say it why can’t I!’) both ignores the long precedent of linguistic reclaiming that includes ‘queer’ and ‘Tory’ and also assumes that words are ‘just words’. They’re harmless – they only cause offence when one chooses to be offended. This is not how words work, and if we want to change our understanding of language then the curriculum is an excellent place to start. If, from the earliest days of schooling, children are taught to treat words as the weighted, historical artefacts that they are then we might see a society that refuses to accept racism, because it understands the potency of language.