Words not only reflect our cultural attitudes and beliefs, but also reproduce those attitudes and give them legitimacy. They give voice to cultural standards about gender and sexuality—the norms that dictate what it means to be a man, whether or not being gay is acceptable and how women ought to be treated. And words, by giving these standards voice, give them substance. They make imagined sexual differences seem fixed and weave beliefs that dehumanize certain groups into the fabric of our language, making those beliefs difficult to tease out and eject.
Most of the time, we use derogatory language unintentionally. We overlook or forget how our friends and peers might feel when we use words that trivialize or demonize parts of their identity. But, even if we do not intend for our words to wound, language carries latent and slippery meanings that can easily stray from their intended deployment. As the “You Don’t Say” campaign reminds us, it is for this reason that pondering the effects of language is such a valuable exercise.
It is rarely wise to ban speech or to make sweeping claims about which words ought to leave the lexicon. The “You Don’t Say” campaign succeeds precisely because it avoids blanket prohibitions of certain words. Although the posters clearly have an agenda, they display one person’s opinion about a particular word and his or her reasons for choosing not to use that word. The posters do not tell people what to believe or do; they only ask readers to consider the opinions of their peers and decide for themselves how they want to choose their words. In this way, the campaign avoids the primary pitfall of political correctness—telling people what they can and cannot do—while encouraging students to recognize that causal utterances and thoughtless phrasings can cause others to feel like they are less than human.
Poster campaigns spring up every few months and most fade away after just a few weeks. Think Before You Talk and BDU plan to extend their campaign beyond the initial flurry of flyers. They will co-host events during Me Too Monologues week in February and plan to host more events, including panel discussions and speakers, the following week. Expanding the campaign to include in-person events promises to improve the efficacy of the project.
The posters will resonate with some people and cause others to roll their eyes. Indeed, this campaign cannot solve the deep cultural problems reflected in disrespectful language—namely, insidious cultural attitudes and practices that quietly assert the inferiority of women and sexual minorities. But, if they are able to encourage some of us to think more carefully about how we use language, they have succeeded.