Loyola University Maryland

Center for Community Service and Justice (CCSJ)

Just Language Presentation

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Based on the book "Creating Just Language," the below information explores the role of language in setting societal norms and attitudes. The words that we use on a daily basis influence others' perceptions of social groups and phenomena, even if we don't realize it. Choosing our language more intentionally can be the first step toward creating a more just culture. Instead of becoming preoccupied with using "politically correct" terminology, learn how just language facilitates meaningful discussion. I hope that this presentation frees you to recognize that your words have power, and that you can use them to promote justice!

~ Ariell Watson
Class of 2010
Loyola University Maryland

As individuals who interact in society and play a role in setting norms, we must see areas in which our communities can grow and reach out to those on the margins. You can set the pace and change norms. This starts with the way we talk, which influences what others perceive as okay.

First let's define the problem...

  • Sexism: masculine pronouns, job titles (ex: Congressman vs. member of congress, Freshman vs. First Year students)
  • Homophobic: using the word “gay” or “homo” as a general negative term creates a negative association between these phenomena and anything unfavorable in the society.
  • Ableism: the same principle applies to the words “lame” and “retarded.” See video clip: The New R-Word.
  • Racism: in addition to racial slurs, our language also has many subtly racially charged phrases like “indian giver”, or "blackening" someone's name.
  • Classism: using phrases that identify and group individuals based purely on their class in a negative way. For example: “the poor,” “unskilled labor,” “bum”
  • Militarism: it maybe difficult to notice that wording that reinforces violence in our society, but the prevelance of violence in our language subtly influences our perception that violence is ok in society. (ex: take a “shot in the dark,” “blow them away,” pull out “the big guns.”)
  • Watch this video clip: The Weight of Words.

Look at the sample below to practice identifying unjust language:

The collegiate experience on our campus begins with our freshman learning communities, where each student lives with others from his classes. Each professor who works with a learning community organizes activities to do with his students outside of class. In many cases, these outside activities are a chance for the professor to introduce students to his wife and family and to share non-academic interests, whether it be biking or caring for the needy. For example, one professor took his class to meet homeless people and addicts at a soup kitchen in the community. The students enjoyed serving together, and their experience led to further conversations about the misconception that poor people were all raised to be unskilled laborers. They discovered that some of the people they met came from white-collar backgrounds, but they were unable to maintain a good life because they were retarded or crazy. Some were simply the black sheep of their families. Still others began as straight-shooters but fell on hard times. It is important for college students to get in the trenches and have experiences with the common man instead of just staying in the ivory tower of academia. The co-curricular portions of freshman learning communities can help students develop a sense of the brotherhood of all mankind. Many professors and students have noted that lessons have more punch when they are first hand than when they are from a textbook.

Choose to filter your usage of wording that could be offensive, biased, or militaristic. Think about the words that you use on a daily basis and what they communicate!

Be careful to use “he or she,” etc., especially in writing. This may seem clumsy grammatically, but be creative!

Use person-first language. (e.g. “people who are experiencing homelessness,” or “individuals who are differently abled.”) This has a positive impact because by using person-first language you address the humanity of the individual before grouping them in a category that might be easy to dismiss. This can be a challenge for both the speaker and the hearer. It’s something to use as a way of challenging yourself to forward thinking!  

Remember, this is a TOOL that we have to offer our communities in the pursuit of diversity.

Go back to the sample text above and the look at the unjust language that you identified. How can you replace that with more just alternatives?

Watch the "Larry the Cable Guy" video clip. Why is this video funny? Ridiculous? We can all agree that by cleaning up the terminology of a Christmas story, this man was not trying to—nor did he—create a more inclusive environment.

There is a difference between politically correct and just language.

  • Political correctness: Dilutes the meaning to avoid being offensive, but can inhibit natural dialogue
  • Just Language: Intentionally adds meaning to words to create more powerful terms that promote a discussion that gives both dignity and content.

A challenge: just language requires effort and time, to get used to the idea and to put it into practice with more and more of your language. The first step towards adopting just language is recognizing its importance and becoming conscious of the implications of words.

Must not become legalistic: it should be used as a tool to make YOURSELF think primarily, and to make others think. This is not something to be legalistic or frustrated about, but to hold as an ideal and a value.

Be a pace-setter in your community: Share this info with others, but in a way that is encouraging and thought provoking, NOT legalistic.

For more information, please visit http://www.8thdaycenter.org/resources/publications.html or email aswatson@loyola.edu.