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How Should We Address the Use of Outdated and/or Offensive Terminology and Labels with Others?

July 14th is Disability Awareness Day

by Katherine Itacy

If you’re reading this, there’s a high probability you’re a member of at least one minority or marginalized group. It’s also highly probable that you do your best to empathize with and respect other minorities and marginalized individuals. And if I was a betting woman, I’d also wager that you’ve unintentionally misidentified and/or offended another individual at some point in your life, just as I’d wager you’ve been misidentified and/or offended by at least one individual at some point in your life. Am I close?

If so, how did you handle those moments? How did the person who offended you handle their transgressions? How did the person you offended take it? Presuming these interactions could’ve gone better, how would you have handled the interactions differently? How do you wish the other person had handled it?

In a more general sense, how should we, as a society, address the use of outdated and/or offensive labels? Should cancel culture continue? Do you believe the shaming and attempted silencing of wrongdoers effective? How (if at all) can someone redeem themselves after using inappropriate labels or terms?

Is the speaker or writer’s intent when using the word all that matters? Or should the sole concern be how the use of said word made the recipient feel? What if it’s said in front of or read by multiple people – does the majority opinion rule? If some were offended and others weren’t, what then? Do you count how many of the recipients are actually members of the labeled group?

Can we agree there are certain terms that are never acceptable to use and completely offensive to all members of the labeled group? What if a certain subset of that group reclaims the word? If that happens, do we agree only those group members can use the word? And if we do that, what if their self-identifying use of the label still offends others? And what happens when a term suddenly becomes rejected or declared offensive or outdated? Is there a grace period in which those who continue to use the term without learning of its current interpretation get a pass or are forgiven more quickly?

Should there be a statute of limitations as to how far back you can look at someone using offensive language in the past and hold them accountable for it now?

– Katherine Itacy

Should every individual of a minority or marginalized group equip themselves with a bibliography of useful resources to supply to any individual who appears uninformed or misguided? What if there’s a difference in opinion as to whether a term’s outdated or offensive? Is there a listed hierarchy of experts, a recognized validity in one source’s take on a given label versus another’s?

Should each of us go through life with our preferred labels clearly displayed for or vocalized to every person we encounter? If that’s the case, would we then need to update every acquaintance, colleague, family member, and friend any time our self-identifying labels change or evolve?

Putting aside the fact there will always be cruel and degrading people out there, how do we educate others as to what our preferred labels are and what labels they’re seemingly unaware have become offensive or outdated? If you can’t go a week without having to educate others on this topic, and you’re already facing obstacles or discrimination based on your membership in a given minority or marginalized group, should it always be on you to edify others? To reassure the very person who’s offended you that you accept their apology and recognize they never intended any harm? How many times do you need to rise above before you’re allowed to get angry or annoyed?

Image credit: Getty Images

And for those of us who try our best and still manage to unintentionally offend someone, do we get a pass because we didn’t mean it? How exactly do you apologize profusely without making the incident more about your embarrassment than the feelings of the person or persons you offended?

How many more questions do you think I’ll pose in this article? No more, I promise.

I wish I had all the right answers to these questions, but the truth is, I don’t. I’m no etymologist, anthropologist, or cultural expert of any kind. Yes, I’m a member of the Disabled community and a female, and I’ve been mislabeled, misjudged, and misunderstood countless times. But I’m also a white, middle-class, heterosexual cis woman with a law degree and private health insurance. While I’ve had numerous health conditions since birth, I’ve only been disabled for five years and can usually “pass” as nondisabled. I recognize both my privilege and the ignorance that accompanies a relatively advantaged life. I’m a flawed individual who’s misunderstood and offended others, just as I’ve been misunderstood and offended by others.

But I’m also someone who’s dedicated most of my adult life to better understanding, respecting, and honoring the humanity in everyone. I spend most of my free time learning about the lived experiences of a variety of minority and marginalized groups, and I try my best to empathize with those groups.

That doesn’t mean I always get things right or that I should get a pass when I ask a question in an unintentionally insensitive manner or ignorantly use an outdated term. My good intentions also don’t invalidate the hurt feelings of the person or persons I end up offending.

Image credit: Getty Images

What it does mean is that I’m committed to doing my best, and I will assume others are doing their best until proven otherwise. I will continue to try and educate myself about the appropriate labels and terminology for a given group, to be respectful of an individual’s preference for certain labels over others, to be humble enough to be corrected and apologize when I use an outdated or not preferred term, and to give others the same grace and forgiveness when they mislabel me as I’d hope to receive from them had I done the same. And if and when I make a mistake and offend someone else, and they’re too pissed or fed up to take the time to educate me on where I went wrong, I’ll apologize, tell them I meant no offense, and try to do better in the future.

While I unfortunately don’t have a sure-fire way to ensure I never unintentionally offend anyone else ever again, I firmly believe in the power of a genuine apology, and the science appears to back up that belief.

According to Dr. Kien Vuu, author of Thrive State: Your Blueprint for Optimal Health, Longevity, and Peak Performance, research shows receiving a sincere apology helps return your heart rate and blood pressure to normal levels faster than if you don’t receive one. And if you choose to forgive the transgressor, it can counteract some of the negative impacts of stress and is good for your overall physical and mental health. [1]

With regard to the transgressor’s health, unresolved feelings of guilt, shame, and regret can cause your cortisol levels to rise, increase inflammation in your body, and weaken your immune system. [2] For the health benefits alone, it pays to apologize and to forgive. I plan to continue working on my ability to do both. Who’s with me? (Okay, so I had one more question to pose.)

[1] Dr. Kien Vuu, Thrive State: Your Blueprint for Optimal Health, Longevity, and Peak Performance (USA: Lifestyle Entrepreneurs Press, 2021), 227.

[2] Vuu, 228.

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