Responding to Jeff Garcia on the “More Than Words” campaign

In an opinion editorial published last week, Jeff Garcia ’14 criticized Macalester’s “More Than Words” campaign. Garcia asserts that the campaign is a form of censorship, failing to realize that the intent is not to prevent any idea from being discussed, but instead to encourage us to choose less offensive alternatives to harmful language in order that we may discuss without hurting our peers. He also argues that these words are only powerful based on the intent behind them, assuming that bigoted language is incapable of causing pain unless explicitly intended by the speaker. His thesis seems to be that the freedom of feeling uncensored is more important than the ability of discriminated groups to feel safe.

To begin with, I believe his idea of censorship rather than discussion is a drastic misinterpretation of the campaign. The entire idea of “More Than Words” revolves around realizing that what you say has an influence, encouraging you to think about its impact rather than treating it as only a word. “More Than Words” alerts us of the negative repercussions of language and fosters thought regarding how various terms can reflect mindsets that are deleterious to encourage. By informing students of the meaning behind harmful words, spelling out the effects of certain terms, most of us can agree this campaign has tried to—and has very much succeeded in—encouraging thought and dialogue.

The description on the campaign’s site claims its goal is “to raise awareness about the importance of using inclusive language by empowering individuals to take ownership of the words they choose to use and to encourage people to examine their use of words that they know are problematic as well as words that they feel may be just fine.” “Encouraging people to examine their use of words” sounds a lot more like fostering thought than enacting censorship. Also, the encouragement of students to choose which terms they find problematic disproves Garcia’s point regarding how “More Than Words” forces us out of using terms that we find to be less offensive than others.

This campaign is not about censorship in that it is not looking to prevent any idea from being discussed, but rather to encourage slight alterations in speech that prevent someone from being hurt by our language. We have all seen how this campaign has, contrary to what Garcia says, caused much “in-person dialogue” surrounding how we should respond to the use of these words. This is exactly what the campaign set out to do. This differs from censorship fundamentally in that no topics are banned from conversation whatsoever—these topics are rather encouraged—but instead we are informed of the meaning and repercussions of our words so that we may converse without offense being derived from this thoughtless diction.

For the parts of the student body less educated in the political correctness that Garcia discusses, this campaign does the job of informing them of issues of which they may not have been previously aware. It tells them various effects of language that they do not intend to communicate in order to protect them from the backlash that they may get from other students. Every poster is incredibly self-explanatory, spelling out the effects of certain terms so that such a group may become acquainted with why political correctness is important.

This campaign is not about limiting us in any way, but rather encouraging discussions that don’t result in offense. Thus, this begs the question: if someone is truly offended by colloquial phrases you use, who are you to tell them that you aren’t willing to change your behavior solely on the grounds of feeling “censored”? This campaign would not exist if these words were not offensive, and, while our positions of privilege may not allow us to see the ways in which each of these words has the power to hurt, it is our job as students and citizens to trust the voices that tell us they do.

Thus, it is frankly quite offensive to dare call any of these words “innocuous.” This overlooks the historically and politically-loaded background to these words as well as the insult of their current usage. It says that a homosexual has no reason to take offense at something or someone being derogatorily called “gay.” It says that people who have experienced the pain of a social stigma regarding mental health should sit silently while people use “retarded” to denigrate others, that there is no psychological repercussion of growing up in a world where femininity is equated with weakness. It says that we should all simply smile while people’s identities become synonymous with insults, degrading their worth as people—that we should delight in looking at the progress this country has made in terms of civil rights while our vocabulary makes it look like nothing has changed. These words perpetuate standards of extreme bigotry and are loaded with centuries of discrimination, and yet they are being called innocuous. Not only does this outlook overlook the struggles of many people, it reeks of blind privilege.

It only takes a second for anyone to find an easy alternative to a word like “crazy” or “ghetto” whilst succeeding in conveying the exact same meaning, and if this simple process yields the power to stop someone from being hurt, it is well worth it. There is a large difference between full-fledged censorship and encouraging minor colloquial changes for the well-being of society. So the debate regarding censorship comes down to yet another question: which is worse, engaging in a societal vocabulary informed by, and thus encouraging, discrimination or a slight impediment to the ease with which you craft your sentences?

Garcia’s other argument revolves around intent versus content. He argues that a word does not have a negative impact if the intent behind the speaker’s use of it is not to cause harm. The counterargument to this is simple: our vocabularies are made up of nothing if not what we hear from others. Everything you say can be overheard and influence other people. Since this is unavoidable, it is essential that we change our speech. The words we hear influence how we see the world, and words can spread independent from the context in which they are heard.

In terms of intent, I would beg Mr. Garcia to tell me of a time when homophobic, sexist, racist, classist words and phrases are used in an innocent context with no potential to cause harm. If used to mean something different, the word is equated with whatever meaning you intend behind it, which almost always has a negative connotation. If used in a joking context that claims to be harmless, the issue is trivialized and real, harmful bigotries are treated as if they are dead or do not exist in a serious context. If used in a serious dialogue so as to critique this language, this is 100 percent in accordance with what the “More Than Words” campaign seeks to accomplish.

Sure, at every time, and in every context, these words may not be offending someone. But as long as a thin line exists between when we mean the words we say and when we don’t, and as long as vocabulary reproduces itself and informs how we perceive our peers, the encouragement of thoughtful, politically correct language will never be moving in the wrong direction. If this campaign seeks to stop individuals from hearing derogatory comments that reflect on their race, gender, class, sexual orientation, mental capacity or anything else, I would never dare to try and stop it. And neither should you.