I can remember rolling my eyes (internally of course) at the ‘overly sensitive people’ that find it offensive when a group of men and women are addressed with a ‘Hey guys!’ Replacing ‘guys’ with a more inclusive ‘friends’ or ‘y’all’ was straight hippie shit, I told myself.
I also remember when it occurred to me that the words we throw around lay a foundation for what we accept to be true about our selves and our world. The realization that maybe my not feeling bothered when women in the room aren’t acknowledged (because women aren’t really notable, right?) highlights this point exactly. The language we use shapes our perception in powerful ways that even the most astute ears sometimes don’t even notice. Sometimes the subtle violence that flies under the radar of what would otherwise disgust or shock us into putting our foot down is especially insidious.
It is not only women that can be disempowered by the hasty use of language. In the same way that our language still reflects residual outdated attitudes about gender, Marshall Rosenberg, the author of Non-violent Communication, points out that we have inherited a language that served kings and powerful elites in domination societies. Yikes! Here’s what he has to say:
“The masses, discouraged from developing awareness of their own needs, have instead been educated to be docile and subservient to authority. The language of ‘wrongness’, ‘should’ or ‘have to’ is perfectly suited for this purpose: the more people are trained to think in terms of moralistic judgments that imply wrongness and badness, the more they are being trained to look outside of themselves—to outside authorities—for the definition of what constitutes right, wrong, good and bad.”
It is therefore a radical act to get in touch with our feelings and needs, and decide ourselves what is ‘good’ and ‘right’ for our lives rather than seeking this information from a symbol of power that is superior to ourselves—whether it is a priest, scientist, professor, doctor, (or herbalist!). When we do this, we are positioning ourselves as subordinate and less capable of ‘knowing’ than whomever we regard as symbols of authority, and giving our power away with great consequences. Namely, it is impossible to connect compassionately with our own feelings and needs when stuck in ideas of ‘should’ or ‘wrongness’—let alone connecting compassionately with others!
We can start with eliminating disempowering speech! Statements like ‘I should,’ which position the speaker as inferior to some outside authority that they are getting ideas about the right and wrong ways (should’s and shouldn’t’s) to be and act can be replaced with ‘I will…,’ or ‘I feel inspired to…’
We can also eliminate ‘I have to…’ and ‘I can’t…” because these statements position us as a victim of others, of circumstance, or of self-imposed barriers. They also allow us to skirt responsibility for their actions. For example, if you are following orders from a leader to commit violent acts, it’s ok because you ‘have to’…right? We can replace ‘I have to…’ with ‘I choose to…’, and we can replace ‘I can’t…’ with ‘I’m choosing not to…’.
It may feel unnatural or cheesy as we make these transitions in speech, but I encourage you to embrace it! These statements lay that subtle foundation shaping our realities, serving as our reminder that we are powerful agents, choosing to act of our own volition!
“I have thought for a long time now that if, some day, the increasing efficiency for the technique of destruction finally causes our species to disappear from the earth, it will not be cruelty that will be responsible for our extinction and still less, of course, the indignation that cruelty awakens and the reprisals and vengeance that it brings upon itself…but the docility, the lack of responsibility of the modern man, his base subservient acceptance of any common decree. The horrors that we have seen, the still greater horrors we shall presently see, are not signs that rebels, insubordinate, untamable men are increasing in number throughout the world, but rather that there is a constant increase in the number of obedient, docile men.”
–French novelist and journalist George Bernanos
“Depression is the reward for being ‘good.”’ –-Marshall Rosenberg, author of Non-violent Communication
“Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing,
There is a field. I’ll meet you there.” –Rumi