I like to think about words. I believe that thinking about the words we choose is a wonderful way of pushing the bounds of our thinking. I believe that choosing our words carefully and drilling down in the nuances of their meaning helps us understand both what we personally believe and how others’ thinking is subtly different. I believe that strongly enough that I’ve written a number of posts now about the importance of choosing your words carefully.
In the discussions I’ve had on this topic, though, another theme has emerged: that of treating our words as if they are the only things that matter. I was discussing this with a close friend recently and she brought up the idea of “liberal shibboleths,” which I think is a brilliantly simple way to explain this problem. A shibboleth, after all, is “the watchword of a party,” and often “some peculiarity in things of little importance.” And before I single out liberals for illiberal use of shibboleths, there are plenty of conservative shibboleths, libertarian shibboleths, progressive shibboleths, and so on.
I and my friend both have seen moments when a well-meaning person is rebuked by members of the in-group for use of the wrong words. Sometimes that rebuke is called for—there are, indeed, people who are offensive with intent, and those people should be called on their behavior. But what of the rest? If someone reaches out honestly to understand a thing they are not, it’s natural that they not know how to speak about it. Why do we treat them as if they should? These are people who have taken a step outside their comfort zone—they do not need us to critique their form, they need us to show them new ideas.
There is value in treating people with respect. There is respect in describing people with the words they choose and not the words we choose. There is respect in recognizing what is offensive, and why, and avoiding it. But there is also value, and respect, in presuming the best of intentions. Certainly when a prominent white man publicly speaks of women as girls, the inherent sexism of his statement is worth critique. But if that man had gone to some of his colleagues with an honest desire to learn and asked how he should handle situations with “girls” in his lab?
Someone who wants to learn is a rare and precious commodity. What would you teach in such a moment? Would you teach this man that he is making unwarranted assumptions about half the human race? Would you teach him that basic human decency should not be dependent on gender? Would you teach him about women’s experiences when men view them as erratic, emotional, unintelligible aliens, instead of as human beings?
Or would you take this moment, this rare open moment, to teach him only that he is using the wrong word?
The thing I did not mention before is that a shibboleth is not merely a password or a badge of membership—it is a tool of exclusion. We know, by the words they use, who agrees with us and who does not. If we are complacent and unwilling to engage our own ideas, if we prefer superficial discussion with no dissent, the shibboleths tell us who to echo and who to exile.
In my opinion, the way we engage with outsiders is the true test—of whether our groups are bent on real, deep discussion and self-improvement, or whether they are rigid places where ritual is king and doubt is forbidden. We, who profess to be open to multiple ideas; we, who profess to believe in human rights and human decency; we, who claim to value discourse and discussion: it is incumbent on us to pay more than lip service to these ideals.
We can choose our words carefully, and we should. But we can make those choices out of understanding rather than prescription, and when we speak to those who disagree we should not conflate the two. The form is what we see, but it cannot be what we teach—because form, without the ideals to inspire it, is dead.