Opinion: The Power Of Language

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Apr 282021

Lauren M. Perrone, B.A, M.A, Human Rights Consultant

Can society hold each individual accountable for the progression of human rights and social justice? The short answer is yes. There are meaningful ways each person within a community can play an essential role in advancing human rights and social justice. It boils down to a straightforward action: making a conscious effort in reimagining the language we use that pushes individuals into a preconceived notion on the role they should fulfill within society.

It is human nature to categorize as a way of organizing information and making sense of the world around us; however, it becomes detrimental to society when people are assigned labels that they may internalize or believe they cannot be anything outside of the title they have been given. 

Someone’s situation does not equal their worth and value to society. The language we choose to use either reinforces this idea or negates it. For example, people have a very set picture of homelessness. People who are “homeless” are quickly labeled to be addicts, criminals, mentally ill, or less favorable members of society.

Suddenly when people say “a homeless person,” their identity becomes one with their situation. Simply discarding the phrase “a homeless person” and using instead “a person experiencing homelessness” puts their humanity before their situation. This is putting the individual’s value and dignity at the forefront of the conversation. Doesn’t this bring a more profound burden to the societal issue that is homelessness?

Are we indeed okay knowing other human beings are spending nights on the streets? Because of flaws in our society’s structure? I do not know about you, but personally, it does not sit well with me. The language we make a conscious effort to change might drastically impact another individual’s life.

Often you hear someone throw around the idea of a “self-fulfilling prophecy,” but this a proven, psychological fact. This refers to the idea that someone may fulfill another person’s false expectations of them. Don’t you think that if someone is referred to as a “homeless person” instead of just a “person” over and over again, they will externalize the negative stereotypes associated with homelessness? 

It becomes a slippery slope when society begins to value some lives over others because of the language that is being used to categorize an individual. It has been increasingly clear that society values some people over others solely based on the words being used to describe them.

For example, look at the outcry in media attention after a “Yale student” was shot and killed. I am not saying this was not tragic; it was, but so did the other multitude of homicides in New Haven before this incident. So, what was the difference? Did the language being used, precisely the phrase “Yale student,” suddenly give this individual more value than other members of the New Haven community? I challenged this idea with New Haven’s Mayor, Justin Elicker, and his response included reassuring the Asian community that they were not being targeted. My response was two parts. Other communities within New Haven feel targeted each day, yet where is their press conference? Is it because they are not Yale students? This demonstrates the power of labels.

When the greater society labels people, whether it’s considered a “desirable label” or a “less-desirable label,” the concept remains the same. Culture plays a dangerous game in associating these labels with their intrinsic, unmeasurable value as human beings. 

So why preach on the importance of the language? Because the language we use is impacting the trajectory of human rights and social justice. Taking steps towards using language that does not use a person’s situation to define them will go a long way in fighting for social justice, racial equality, human rights advocacy, and addressing society’s significant flaws.

Everyone can take small steps, in the beginning, to be more aware of how we organize people. Everyone can take action and change the thought patterns around categorizing and ranking members of the community. At the end of the day, everyone has the same inherited value as being a member of the human race. Someone’s situation in life, their racial or ethnic makeup, the language they speak, differing abilities, physical or mental health challenges, being someone who has been involved in the criminal justice system, or a combination of all of the above does not define their worth or value to society. The only phrase that we should use to describe a person’s worth within society is “they are human”. 


Editor’s Note: Guest Columnist Lauren Perrone is an Orange resident and a 2015 Amity graduate. She is pursuing her MSW at UCONN.