Spreading Compassion, Empathy and Love: The Evolution of our Language

The words we use have great power.  With the mere inscription of symbols, one can build up or tear down ideas, manipulate the minds of the masses, and include or exclude whole groups of people.  Freedom of speech is a fundamental right that allows us to express unpopular opinions without fear of punishment, and is a necessary liberty in a free and open democracy.  Notwithstanding, it is crucial to be mindful of the words one uses, in order to show respect and compassion to our fellow humans.  Recently, Dr. Jordan B. Peterson, a psychology professor at the University of Toronto, has been thrust into the media limelight by posting a series of videos on political correctness. In these videos, he defends his right to call students by whichever pronoun he feels is suitable, without the school or the state taking punitive measures, as would be allowable after the passing of Bill C-16, which would add gender identity and gender expression to the current list of prohibited grounds of discrimination.  Despite the good intentions of this bill, censoring people through punitive measures does not tackle the real roots of this issue: ignorance and misinformation.  By teaching people about the diverse spectrum of gender expressions. identities and their importance, we can spread respect, dignity, compassion and empathy, and provoke a greater social shift that will make inclusive language the norm.

Using a pronoun that honours a person’s identity is a simple way to show that person that you respect them.  It can help curb dysphoria, make people feel included, and show support and solidarity for a group that is so often misunderstood, abused and ignored. Unfortunately, many people are uncomfortable with the unfamiliar, and may dig their heels in, clinging on to outdated language and refusing to empathize with the plights of oppressed and marginalized groups, sequestering themselves in boxes of privilege. We need to break people free of these comfortable enclosures of binary language, and allow them to see how their words can impact others.

It is not always the dictionary definition of language that is important; semantics, context, and intentionality play a huge role in how a particular word may make us feel.  Sometimes, someone may slip up and use an incorrect pronoun.  However, there is a huge difference between someone maliciously branding a trans-identifying individual with an invalidating pronoun, and someone making a genuine effort and occasionally reverting back to old ways, out of habit rather than hate.  These two groups: one purposefully hateful, the other trying to break free of the bonds of years of cis-normative indoctrination in a language where binary gender is often so salient, should not receive the same punishment for using incorrect pronouns.

Yes, words have power, and yes, we should be able to use them to express our ideas, elicit social change, and debate the popular opinions of the time.  However, by purposely using the wrong pronouns, a person is prioritizing their own comfort, over someone’s feelings, wellbeing, and their very sense of self.

If someone introduces themselves as Thomas, you wouldn’t intentionally call them James when addressing them, just because you don’t feel like the name Thomas suits them.  Likewise, if someone informs you of their preferred pronouns, you should not implement your own based on what is convenient to you.  Freedom of speech should never be an excuse to spew hate, spread ignorance, and further divide people. Calling someone by the right pronoun should not make a trans-identifying person sigh with relief – it should be quintessential and commonplace to communication.  We, as a society, need to make using incorrect pronouns as taboo and socially unacceptable as using a racial slur.

We fear what we do not know.  This age-old adage is one way of explaining the hesitancy that people like Dr. Peterson have in using unfamiliar pronouns, but with all the tools our language has to offer, why not strive to build each other up, instead of knocking each other down?  We are at a turning point in history, one where we can choose to progress a society or remain mired in social conventions of the past.  By teaching children to use “Hello everyone” instead of “Ladies and gentlemen”, we are abandoning outdated embedded phrases and choosing to move forward, acknowledging the vast array of gender identities and making it less black-and-white.  By not assuming someone’s gender, we are giving them the right to express their own true self.  When it is so easy to use inclusive language, why do people still insist on using gendered expressions and incorrect pronouns?  Perhaps they don’t realize the pain that this may cause people, or maybe they simply don’t care, separated from the difficulties of this minority group by veiling them with “otherness”, making it a case of us vs. them.   Maybe they want to prove their freedom of speech, like Dr. Peterson, using the preferred pronouns of trans-identifying individuals as scapegoats for “politically correct” ideologies.  Yes, we can use whatever pronouns we want when addressing someone, and yes, we should be able to express ourselves freely.  Similarly, we can also cut people off in traffic, chew with our mouths open, and sneer at people who pass us by, and yes, we should be allowed to do this.  But these are simply not respectful ways to behave, and people need to understand the colossal impact words and attitudes can have on someone’s psyche.

Ideally, we shouldn’t have to have “politically correct” language, or “language police”, we should have a world of humans that are mindful of the experiences of others and strive to honour their feelings and desires.  Unfortunately, we live in the real world, where people are constantly seeking out conflicts, always pitting causes against each other, creating strawman arguments to facilitate their antiquated use of our evolving language.  Regardless, by educating people, and by implementing new choices in how to address others, instead of censoring people, we might be able to see a true shift in the zeitgeist of how we treat people.  We are all humans, and we are all deserving of dignity and esteem, regardless of what’s between our legs, the clothes we put on our bodies, and the gender we feel on the inside.  Language has power, and we, as a society, must use that power for good, to teach respect, compassion and love, so that future generations will communicate with xir heads held high.

Kyla Mayne, BAH Psychology, Queen's University, Class of 2018