Participants at Inclusive Language Panel speak out

Written by Sophie M. Lavoie on April 23, 2015

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An Inclusive Language Panel was held at Fredericton High School on April 22, 2015. Photo by Sophie M. Lavoie.

Held at Fredericton High School’s Theatre on April 22nd, the Inclusive Language Panel brought together 50 people to learn about and discuss the issue. FHS student Megan Hill organized this event as part of a Social Action Project in her English class. Hill introduced the event and said she came to discuss this topic because of our many daily “meaningless interactions” in which “we do not understand the systems of oppression our words contribute to.” Hill clarified that it is important today to have “dos and don’ts” of inclusive language, because we should all have a “desire to respect and include everyone.” Finally, she asked the audience: “What type of impact do you want to make?” Jennifer Andrews, Professor and Chair of the English Department at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, moderated the event.

The first speaker was Lee Thomas, a fourth year student leader from UNB who lives with mental illness. Thomas founded the #mydefinition campaign at UNB to make mental health a part of the conversation when people talk about themselves. The poster campaign’s tag line is “my mental health is a part of me but it does not define me.” One in five Canadians experience a mental health issue every year.

According to Thomas, when we use certain words to describe mental health, we build a “stigma box” which contains everything we think about mental illness. We make up categories for what these people are like, categories that are exclusionary to people who may not fit in, or do fit with, the stereotype. The subjects we talk about, and don’t talk, about are important. Silences are also significant because often we aren’t equipped with the words to discuss some subjects, like mental illness.

Next at the podium was Jenica Atwin, who works at the First Nations Education Initiative at FHS. She identifies as a mom, wife and graduate student in Education at UNB.

Atwin’s considerations were about First Nation stereotyping and education, as well as the relationships and the dynamics of power since she considers language the first step towards emancipation. Only three of the 65 Native languages in Canada will survive into the next century; Mi’kmaq and Maliseet will become extinct.

As for language, terms that generalize has always been preferred to maintain positions of power: “Indian” (accepted in the U.S.) and Aboriginal (enshrined in the Canadian Constitution) are used rather than using what she deems as “nation-building terminology,” like “Wolastoqiyik” as the Maliseet People refer to themselves (“Maliseet” is a Mi’kmaq term meaning “lazy speaker”). Dehumanizing words also exist, such as, for example, “squaw” (promoting patriarchal power) and “savage” (supporting a Eurocentric view of society). It is thanks to words or terms like the “Indian Problem,” used by Canadian Politician Duncan Campbell Scott in the thirties, that Native children were sent to the notorious Residential Schools to be assimilated.

Some inroads have been made “however, [Native Peoples’ Concerns] continue to operate as add-ons” in curriculum and programs in NB. According to Atwin, “racism is alive and powerful” in our society and we must adopt “a human approach” and turn on the critical lens to critique Native content in society since “happy stories of diversity disguise racism.” Finally, for Atwin, “language is the vehicle for revolution.”

The public was then shown a video about disability and language, called “Reclaiming Language,” which amongst other language problems for people with disabilities, emphasized that “suffering is a dehumanizing term.”

The third speaker, a Human Rights graduate from STU, was Tiffany Bowery who currently works at the NB Association For Community Living where she offers support to people with disabilities. Bowery discussed language and its relationship to disabilities: “Language can affect the way we perceive things.” Bowery took the audience back through history to the maltreatment received by people with disabilities, mentioning the eugenics and “freak shows” of the previous centuries. Bowery mentioned problematic terms like “special needs” (accepted until recently) that have been found to breed pity. The infamous “R-Word” has had special focus for elimination since it has erroneously become a synonym for “stupid” and is intentionally harmful, offensive and derogatory. She listed a few words that should be used and talks about “individuals” instead of “clients,” for example. People with disabilities “live with” their disabilities and don’t “suffer from” them. The goal is to use “People First” language that places an emphasis on the person and not their disability.

The next speaker, SJ Thiessen recently finished a BA in Psychology at STU and is a self-defined “queer theory nerd.” Thiessen discussed LGBTQQUIA issues around language, from her own position and influenced by queer theory. Thiessen enjoys the fact that the new acronym is unmanageably long, because it tries to “fit in” many categories that don’t necessary have common characteristics. The acronym LGBTQ+ is about bringing together people for a common cause, in order to end marginalization of people. Some use this term as a homogenization technique, but it also requires a precise identification and delineation of people in order to fit into one of the categories. This creates and perpetuates norms about these categories while, by creating these boxes, the categories become inherently exclusionary. At the micro-level it creates hierarchies both within and amongst the categories. For Thiessen, queer theory helps to understand the dynamics of power and privilege.

Thiessen mentions the importance of the word “queer,” for example, which has recently been reclaimed by the LGBTQ+ community for all its diverse meanings. However, building a new “positive and empowering” meaning for the word destabilizes the categories around people. For people who have been deemed “Queer,” the reclaimed word is only by with what they do with it since “language is evolving and changing.”

The last invited speaker was Reid Lodge, an MA student at UNB writing a thesis on the gender transition narratives. Lodge has been a member of the Fredericton Gender Minorities Group since 2012. Trans people are those who are assigned a gender at birth and identify as another gender and “Trans” has become a common category, talked about a lot in the media. Lodge hoped to provide help for people not sure about how to discuss the situation. The choice of using one’s “birth name and pronouns” (he or she) rather than the chosen name and pronoun is problematic and denies Trans people’s right to define their lives.

Lodge reviewed the literature around Trans identity, biological, sociological, psychological, etc. Certain texts from the past, such as Janice Raymond’s The Transsexual Empire: The Making of the She-Male (1979), bred hostility and violence towards the Trans community. Lodge specifies that using appropriate language is vital to living with the decision made by the Trans person. Denying them their right is invalidating to their identity and participates in the discriminatory narratives that have been built up around Trans people. For example, referring to “biological gender” is not helpful and in the long run, may affect the person’s mental health.

The question and discussion period lasted almost an hour. Megan Hill asked the group about some real-life scenarios. Thomas states that each person should police their own language, no one is expected to be perfect. However, language of violence and micro-aggression should be addressed with people you know. Thomas cautions about becoming “That Person, capital T, capital P” who monitors everyone else’s language.

Hill and Thiessen discussed the fact that people shouldn’t be “called out” for their language because this invariably means shaming people and causing defensiveness. However, people should be “called in” to using the inclusive language. “There is a softness that is much more effective,” mentioned Thiessen; in order to include people, one must be caring and compassionate.

Atwin suggested asking people questions about their beliefs. Bowery agreed that education is the key, realizing the history behind the terms. Thomas said the level of education of the person making the comment should lead the response but, in the long term, “anger can be part of the education.” Andrews warned that people should also respect the right of others not to engage. Lodge clarified that it is not necessary to always be indirect and gentle in responding to non-inclusive language. Thomas has found that her “outspokenness” has transformed her an advocate and some people think of her as a “bull-dog” to sick on those who are not being inclusive. From the audience and citing her own life experience, Marilyn Merritt-Gray affirmed that people should always be respectful but not necessarily “nice” in these situations.

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