We need to adopt common decency in our language use

Persistent discriminatory language use is a stain on Ireland’s progressive and inclusive culture

“More of us than we’d like to admit continue to use offensive language in contexts deemed excusable because they are ‘funny,’ ‘private,’ or ‘not serious’.”

In his 1704 satirical work “A Tale of a Tub”, Jonathan Swift famously wrote that “words are but wind”. Swift was making a satirical attack on dissenting religious sects of the time, but the sentiment of his words remains ever relevant today. 314 years later, and there are certain people who believe that indeed, words, like wind, are meaningless – devoid of consequence, they’re “just words”.

This, and many other excuses, are the main reasons cited by people when defending their continued use of discriminatory and derogatory language today. Thankfully, it’s only a minority of the general population who use such language. However, more of us than we’d like to admit continue to use offensive language in contexts deemed excusable because they are “funny”,“private”, or “not serious”.

The fact is that if your white friend is using the n-word, whether it’s on the street or in a private group chat, it’s racist and unacceptable – but this is something still seen happening regularly. Offensive slurs referring to members of the Asian community or other ethnicities remain commonplace. Homophobic, ableist, and other discriminatory slurs are still used by many. For a country that claims to be progressive, our language use remains incredibly problematic.

The root of the problem lies predominantly in ignorance, which is something we’re all guilty of. It’s much easier to ignore the fact that your language use is probably discriminatory, rather than to take responsibility, educate yourself, and break the bad habits that have likely been ingrained since primary school.

Coming from a small town in rural Ireland, casual racist, homophobic, ableist, and other “bad” language was a part of life that no-one questioned. Growing up, I used those “swear words” in the schoolyard with little or no consideration for what they actually meant. To me, they were just words. If a teacher gave too much homework, someone would say “that’s gay”. Many offensive words were completely divorced from their true meaning, which had a desensitising effect. The legacy of this is that it’s still common for people to continue using offensive language well into their adult years. If this language use goes unchecked, be it by parents, peers, or work colleagues, it becomes what many would describe as a “habit”. Because of the conservative culture that is far more predominant in rural Ireland than Dublin, “political correctness” was pretty much unheard of, and such “habits” were allowed to become more ingrained.

“If you take issue with political correctness, then change your language use on these grounds: that it is common decency to respect other human beings and the difficulties they have faced historically and socially.”

Using the term “political correctness” has become problematic because it gives ignorant people an excuse to revert to the tired argument that “PC has gone mad!” This further enables them to continue to use discriminatory language in the name of “free speech”. Substituting political correctness for the term “common decency” can help in pointing people in the right direction in examining their language use. If you take issue with political correctness, then change your language use on these grounds: that it is common decency to respect other human beings and the difficulties they have faced historically and socially. Avoiding the use of racist, homophobic, and other discriminatory language isn’t some great trial, that makes you a hero if you complete it – it is merely a display of genuine common decency.

Evaluating and changing your language use is a process that takes place over time. It took moving to Dublin for me to finally ditch the homophobic language that had become so ingrained in my psyche. Old habits die hard, and many people continue to use such language, out of what is essentially masked laziness. Contemporary culture and education means that we are well aware of what constitutes racism and homophobia. Ableist language provides a more complex hurdle, as it’s not something that is necessarily being warned against or criticised in contemporary discourse. Words like “ret****d”, “slow”, or “spa” have become so divorced from their meaning that people seem to have completely forgotten that there are groups of people for whom these words cause real emotional harm.

Harm is caused not only by the word used, but in the implicit attitude and ideology underlying such word use. Whether meant consciously or unconsciously, when racist, homophobic, ableist, or other discriminatory language is used, it assists in maintaining attitudes of difference or exclusion towards those groups of people. It affects people in their subconscious: if racist language use is deemed acceptable, as a byproduct, a racist attitude is promoted, whether that’s intended or not. Your white friend who still uses the n-word as a joke or in a song is not just “having a laugh” – they’re contributing towards the perpetuation of racist attitudes in Ireland.

Recent controversies, including criticism of Dublin rap duo Versatile’s racist and homophobic lyrics, and the publication of a racist “joke” in the Tralee Advertiser, have shown that there still exists a minority of people who still somehow deem discriminatory language acceptable in the name of “having a laugh”. Why does comedy trump common decency in the minds of certain people? Versatile do not represent the last bastion of artistic comedy and free speech – they simply need to make better word choices.

The same people defending discriminatory language on those grounds are the same people who bellow over and over about “everyone getting too offended these days”. The irony is that, in reality, it is this certain minority of people who themselves get too offended and “triggered” at the very notion that they may have to grow up, take responsibility, and change their horrendous attitudes and language use. Members of the LGBTQ+ community have put up with discriminatory attitudes and language for decades, as have all minority groups who are discriminated against. They are not “easily offended” – if anything, they are incredibly tolerant. The various groups who feel the effects of discrimination – too many to mention – have been tolerant for far too long.

Ireland has progressed, along with most of the Western world, to fantastic new heights of diversity and tolerance in terms of acceptance of different groups. There is still more progress to come, and part of that progression should involve ditching our discriminatory language use.

“Whether it’s a ‘bad habit’ or an ingrained attitude, discriminatory language use needs to be left behind.”

There is simply no excusing you or your friends continuing to use such language and contributing to the exclusion of minorities. If you’re confused about what language is acceptable and what isn’t, try talking to a member of these communities. Listening is often far more valuable than speaking, and many of us, myself included, have been guilty of speaking without listening to the desires of these groups for far too long.

Jonathan Swift was wrong when he said that “words are but wind”. There are members of these minority groups who are pushed to suicide every year because of bullying that is enabled by discriminatory language use. Words have a very powerful and real effect, both on individuals and at a societal level.

It takes so little effort to simply change the words you use every day. If you want to swear, there are a plethora of acceptable swear words at your disposal. Whether it’s a “bad habit” or an ingrained attitude, discriminatory language use needs to be left behind.

If you hear discriminatory language, or see it in the groupchat, don’t stay silent: hold yourself and your friends accountable. Speak with authority, because there is very little grey area – we are beyond a time when any supposed “acceptable” circumstances excuse such ignorant behaviour. This is not political correctness or identity politics. It’s not an infringement on anyone’s right to free speech. It is simply common decency.

Hugh Whelan

Hugh Whelan is a current Deputy Comment Editor of Trinity News. He is a Junior Sophister English Literature and Film Studies student.