On Language, Speaking, & Writing


Ultimately, I am a supporter of inclusive language, but I have my share of reservations every so often, due to not wanting to give up a frequently-used word or descriptor, or due to disagreements I have with the defining of some words or phrases as problematic. For example, I’m not very good at eliminating insults against one’s intelligence when I write. While I’ll rarely – if ever – refer to an individual person that I know as stupid, an idiot, unintelligent, etc., I will often refer to large groups or ideologies in that manner. I’ll often treat well-known bloggers, writers, celebrities, recording artists, etc. in the same manner, as well, without feeling bad about it as a result.

FWD/Forward has a great regular column called the Ableist Word Profile, where the contributors to the blog profile commonly used words or phrases in an effort to educate people about their negative roots and the hurtful consequences of using those words and phrases. Admittedly, I have a love/hate relationship with the whole thing, because even though I check it out regularly and learn a great deal from it, my first reaction is always to disagree or come up with a justification for using the terminology argued as problematic by the author. Obviously, this is an exercise in privilege, because I’m debating whether or not I take someone’s hurt feelings into account when I decide how to communicate as a person unaffected by the language.

Eventually, because I care about not needlessly hurting people’s feelings, I come around and begin to see the value in eliminating the word or phrase form my every day language.

One thing I have a hard time with in general is getting behind the idea that I shouldn’t value “intelligence,” because there’s no such thing, or it’s too difficult to define in an inclusive manner.

I realize, though, that my appreciation for people, conversations, or art that are “intelligent” doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing that it does to other people. What I may see as “intelligent” may be more or less so that what other people deem “intelligent.” If that’s the case, then there’s probably no reason to call something “intelligent” at all, because if the definition of “intelligent” can vary so widely, then it’s rarely understood universally enough to effectively communicate the message you’re trying to get across using only that word. Furthermore, in having differing definitions of “intelligence,” we run the risk of creating intelligence hierarchies, where one feels that their definition of “intelligence” is higher than another’s, and as a result, places oneself higher than others in terms of how they compare themselves to them, and treat them accordingly.

I like to completely simplify this (perhaps out of exhaustion) by being specific in my appreciations– “I really appreciated how well-reasoned your argument was,” or “She is really excellent at critically analyzing concepts and widely-held belief systems,” as opposed to “I appreciated how intelligent your argument was,” or “She is really smart when it comes to politics and religion.” Of course, in using other words, there is suddenly new possibility for those words – “analysis,” “reason” – to simply turn into a new version of “intelligent,” as if they’re used in a complimentary manner, then we set them up for having an “opposite” with which to compare it… which is similar to the reason why “intelligence” was profiled in the AWP in the first place. If one is appreciated for several qualities – inherent or learned – but one of them is not reason, then people who think that reason = good may treat the one without an inherent talent in reason as deficient or otherwise inept in comparison to the ideal.

…Well hell, how do you give a freakin’ compliment around here?

All that aside, please read AWP; it’s enlightening.

See Part Two of this post, which discusses the value of authoritative language.

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15 Responses to On Language, Speaking, & Writing

  1. David K. says:

    I should like to cry out plaintively, and give voice to what I always worry about when this subject comes up:


    (the c-word is gone, the m-word has let us down, the s-word is unusable in respectable society…)
    which is the flip side of your:

    …Well hell, how do you give a freakin’ compliment around here?

    and probably illustrates a difference in personality 😉

    Your question prompted me to look out my copy of “The Rise of the Meritocracy” by Michael Young, a rare example of “speculative sociology,” which describes a dystopian future Britain where your personal worth depends on your place in a rigid class system; controlled by highly refined intelligence testing and the formula IQ + Effort = Merit. An extract from the manifesto of socialist opponents of this society:

    The classless society would be one which possessed and acted upon plural values. Were we to evaluate people, not only according to their intelligence and education, their occupation and their power, but according to their kindliness and their courage, their imagination and sensitivity, their sympathy and generosity, there could be no classes. Who would be able to say that the scientist was superior to the porter with admirable qualities as a father, the civil servant with unusual skill at gaining prizes superior to the lorry-driver with unusual skill at growing roses?

    In short, there are many “good” things to be, and “intelligent” (using a broader definition than mere IQ score) may be one of them, but there are others just as important, and excelling at one can’t outweigh failing at many.

    In the spirit of constructive criticism I say this:

    In the two paragraphs beginning here:

    This is a phenomenon that is frequently discussed in feminist spheres…
    and ending
    …erasing their experiences and identities.

    your reasoning is flawed, the evidence in the first paragraph does not support the conclusions of the second.

    Authoritative tones which prompt constructive and critical responses are desirable in intellectual discussion/debate. In other situations (e.g. customer service) some passivity and due deference shown will often result in a better outcome all round.
    It is important to teach girls and women to have confidence in themselves and speak with authority when the situation requires it. It is important to teach boys and men to have and show respect for women, and not to be afraid of being passive when this is required. (And vice-versa)

    On a lighter note: Conan the Barbarian on the joy of constructive confrontation

    • April says:

      The part that you said didn’t flow logically should have been two paragraphs, or written better. It really should have ended with the second-to-last paragraph:

      Which means that men are more respected and taken more seriously than women, as a whole.

      The intention was to throw in an example of how not only are women devalued, but in addition to that, people who don’t fit into male-female binary are also kinda screwed here.

    • April says:

      Authoritative tones which prompt constructive and critical responses are desirable in intellectual discussion/debate. In other situations (e.g. customer service) some passivity and due deference shown will often result in a better outcome all round.

      Yeah. I think you’re right. The problem I was having was that in order to admit that reason/logic is “better,” I would be saying that masculinity is more desireable than femininity.

      On the other hand, though, it’s easy enough to realize that if it’s the most desirable method of debate or argument, that doesn’t necessarily mean that it is only present in males. Socialization clearly has something to do with communication styles.

    • David K. says:

      Thanks for correcting that tag for me April 🙂 I’m going away so if you don’t get a response, I’m not being rude.

      I think there is a confusion that creeps into this argument between what is actually true as far as we can know from reasoning / evidence, and what is thought of as true in society in general.

      It’s a difficult issue, but at the moment, I wouldn’t say there were any particular qualities like “reason/logic” “creativity” “caring/compassion” “emotion” ect that are innately either male(XY) or female(XX)these are human qualities, and they vary as much between individuals as between the two sexes.

      There maybe aspects of masculinity (as traditionally socially constructed) that are better than femininity (as socially constructed.) I believe there are: but saying one social construct is partly better than another doesn’t trouble me.
      There are also many good traits like caring and “emotional intelligence” (for want of a better phrase) that are associated with femininity – but I don’t think that the construct “femininity” is superior to “masculinity” because of this, or that thinking like this encourages a belief in female superiority. This approach I think is more friendly to those outside the traditional gender binary, as it encourages “human” traits for everyone to develop, being a “good person” rather than a “good woman/man”

      This article covers this position much better than I can, “reason/logic” much in evidence, and written by a woman (obviously)

      I liked your post, and I found it provoked some very interesting thoughts about what good qualities and traits in a person are and why.

      Cheers, David.

  2. N says:

    You can lazily use words like “intelligent” to describe me all day my friend, I don’t mind.

  3. FW says:

    You should read thru various wikipedia discussion pages, like the religion ones where doodly dudes debate stuff – they are SO MEAN and yet SO NICE about it the whole time. I learned a lot from them.

    The feminism pages are good too…

    “”” Your post has no content other than emotion.
    I recommend you withdraw it.
    … Alastair Haines

    The only “emotion” is frustration at your lack of honesty …. Lacking a metaphoric equivalent of a mob with pitchforks and torches, using bold & caps is about all I can do to express my outrage. If I could burn you in effigy, I would.
    … Hrafn “””

    Haines is legend, Hrafn is I’m pretty sure a feminist who tries to edit the wiki feminism pages and gets in all sorts of verbal exchanges… but on wiki you can’t do “personal attacks” so everybody is mean in other ways (most of the time)

    also.. I’ve been mostly good with not using ablist words, but when pressed I will add an “-ic” as in “that’s idiotic”

    • FW says:

      well, not that you need to learn anything from wikidudes, just that it’s really interesting to read that stuff and their tactics…

    • April says:

      That sounds like a really excellent idea, actually. Thanks!

    • April says:

      Lacking a metaphoric equivalent of a mob with pitchforks and torches, using bold & caps is about all I can do to express my outrage. If I could burn you in effigy, I would.

      LOL!!! OMG, I must not have really read this before. That is the most hilarious thing I think I’ve read all day. I’m using it as my Facebook status update.

  4. wclay says:

    Replace the word intelligence with awareness.

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  7. Lyndsay says:

    Intelligence is a difficult issue. I’m studying to be a teacher and I’ve taught high school biology for a month. It is really hard not to think of some students as smarter than others, especially when the teacher supervising you keeps referring to certain students as smarter. It does seem some students will be able to get A’s no matter who is teaching them and will understand concepts the first time you explain them. Other students might get A’s sometimes, if the teacher is effective. I do know thinking of some students as smarter doesn’t seem to have a use. It could be useful to be more specific about what skill levels different students have if you use that information to help them. And above all, it seems logical that students or anyone will be more likely to have success if you believe they are capable of success. So I try not to use words like stupid in reference to people but it is hard to ignore the concept of intelligence.

  8. Lyndsay says:

    Oh, and according to research calling kids smart doesn’t help them either. There are kids who score very high on IQ tests but they are afraid of taking risks lest they fail and people think they aren’t that smart after all. So while some people certainly seem more academically smart than others, the concept of intelligence seems to do more harm than good for people who score both high and low on IQ tests. I’m thankful they don’t give IQ tests to everyone anymore like they did when my mom was young.

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