Dani is a 22-year-old Utah County resident who was born and raised in the LDS faith. She is a Literature and Gender Studies major who has a passion for literary theory and non-traditional philosophy. When she’s not busy sticking it to the patriarchy, she dreams about living in an anarcho-communist world. But, she’d settle for Vancouver, Canada.
Language makes things.
During the “Understanding Same Gender Attraction” fiasco I attended in March, I had the awesome (read: terrible) opportunity to listen to a psychiatrist discuss the mind (singular because all queers are the same) of “people with same gender attraction issues.” Mhm. Phrased just like that. Said psychiatrist went on to explain how “people with SGA” have higher rates of depression than straight people (problematic because this). A fellow attendee asked, “Don’t you think some of this depression could stem from using the term ‘SGA’ to describe people, as though they have some sort of disease?” The psychiatrist answered in the affirmative, and kept going. I interrupted, “Then why use that language?”
This created sort of an uproar. Short version of a long story: I need to not be offended by the words people use because they are just words.
If you are one of these people, stop it. Stop it right now. Despite what Elder Bednar says, you need to purge the phrase “it is your choice to be offended” from your vocabulary. Never say it again.
Did you throw it out? Good. Let’s move forward.
Words are important. You know the old “sticks and stones” phrase? (Another good one to never speak again.) NOT TRUE. The words we say are not free from consequence. As such, we need to be mindful of our language. Repeat it with me: we need to be mindful of our language.
In the October 2011 general conference, Elder Ballard gave a talk entitled “The Importance of A Name.” Elder Ballard discussed why we should refer to ourselves as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints, and not The Mormons or the Mormon Church.
“The Lord Jesus Christ knew how important it was to clearly name His Church in these latter days. In the 115th section of the Doctrine and Covenants, He Himself named the Church: ‘For thus shall my church be called in the last days, even The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ (verse 4).”
The Church bears Jesus Christ’s name, and we are to identify as bearing that name, as well. I think that, for the most part, we are okay with this. We make the effort to say, “I am a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints,” even though it sounds a bit cumbersome. But, we respect the Lord. So, we use the terms he has asked us to use.
But, undoubtedly, this is more than just a respect issue. Christ’s edict that the Church bear His name didn’t come about because Christ likes to see His name plastered on every street corner in Utah. A lot of confusion about what we as members of the Church stand for can be cleared up by emphasizing the official name of our organization. We are Christians. We believe in Christ. We believe in a Latter-day restoration. We are Zionists, of sorts. We do not worship Joseph Smith or Mormon, though they both play integral roles in our history. We believe that Christ is at the helm of our organization, and we try our best to glorify Him through all our deeds.
So, if we are conscious of Elder Ballard’s words and use the Church’s full name, why do we find it so difficult to be mindful of our language in other capacities?
Well, part of it must be that we do not hold other people in high esteem, nor do we respect them, the way we respect Christ and the way we respect the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles. Fine. I mean, there is that whole commandment thing about loving your neighbor, and the situation where we are all brothers and sisters in the Gospel, and that Golden Rule bit someplace, but sure. Other people don’t matter as much, and so we do not need to be aware of how our language choices impact others.
For a variety of complex reasons, language is powerful. Language is not just some tool that humans use to communicate with one another in a form slightly elevated above throwing sharp objects at one another. Language does things we do not intend. It evades our grasp and shapes our reality. It is not something over which we have complete control. As such, when we take on the attitude that words are just words and therefore what I say does not really matter, we make a huge error in judgment.
Language has been used for a very, very long time to determine who gets to benefit from the structure of power. Those who are not of the privileged class get othered. We call them names. We distance ourselves from them. We use the word “them” to separate ourselves. When we are not conscious of our language and/or we use language that is racist, sexist, classist, ableist, homophobic, or otherwise derogatory toward members of the human race, WE ARE FURTHERING EXCLUSIONARY IDEAS. These terms can be currently offensive, or their offensive history might have been forgotten. Either way, you are participating in oppressive practices. Stop it.
The rules get more complicated when marginalized people do reclamation work in using language formally spoken in a derogatory manner by the oppressor. For example, I refer to non-heterosexual and gender-nonconforming people collectively as the queer community. In terms of sexuality, I identify as being queer. Some gender-nonconforming people identify as being genderqueer. If we talk to anyone who was alive in the United States during the 1960s, I am sure they will reaffirm that the usage of the term “queer” was most frequently used as a slur. Currently, the usage of “queer” is more complicated. But I am sure we can agree that there is a difference between saying “I am queer” and “You are such a queer.” The difference is being able to speak for yourself, versus othering and putting down someone else.
You get to choose what terms you use, and the rest of us need to respect that by using affirming and preferred language. When you start speaking for other people, when you push people to fit into little Tupperware boxes with your language, or when you start using the power of words to elevate yourself above other people, you need to stop.
Stop. Close your mouth. Remember Christ, and His admonition that we refer to His organization as The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. And then, when you open your mouth once again, use the power of language in a way befitting one who identifies as belonging to an organization with Jesus’ name on it. Respect the wishes and the histories and the identities of other people by refraining from using derogatory, slurred, prejudiced language. Hate-based and prejudicial speech has no place in the Kingdom of God. If that is what we are trying to build, then our speech should reflect that.
And then continue to be conscious of your language. Use preferred pronouns. Use preferred nicknames. Refer to people by the last names they want to be known by, and not by the ones you think they should use. Be attentive to the reactions of the people with whom you interact when you use certain terms. Discard the ones that make people cringe. And cringe. By all means, cringe at hate-based language. Cringe, and then speak up. Speak up when people use slurs, whether they intend them as such or not. Point it out when someone doesn’t use preferred pronouns and names to refer to someone else. Insist that the language we use matters.
Because it does.