These words represent biases.
Biases that I have, against the people who say those words.
The use of these words by someone I don’t personally know frequently and quickly triggers a series of alerts in my brain that make me instantly question the motivations of the person speaking or writing. I start to question how well they understand the issues they’re talking about.
These biases formed out of repeated exposure to people who use those words pejoratively, whether it’s deliberately malicious or indifferently bigoted. And as a result of repeated experiences with and observations of such examples, I am now biased against people who use those words.
I identify them as biases precisely because they are bad biases I should strive to avoid. These words, by themselves, do not a bigot make.
Perhaps the person saying “homosexuals” is talking about it more clinically rather than personally, or maybe I’m reading the statement out of context.
It’s possible the person saying “females” instead of women is a non-native English speaker who just hasn’t mastered the language well enough to also be aware of the linguistic connotations that exist (mostly in progressive spaces) around using “females” instead of “women”.
Maybe when someone says “Islamists”, they simply don’t know that the word is actually “Muslims”, but they weren’t intending their statement to come across as bigoted at all.
And someone saying “thug” could, theoretically, be discussing a person who was actually a violent criminal (or they could be talking about the original thugs in India).
The truth is that as much as I can jump to conclusions based on people’s use of such words, what they lead to is me getting defensive more quickly, and being more eager to respond harshly, even aggressively. These biases, even when they prove to be justified, encourage behaviors and attitudes that I consider downright unproductive.
I won’t get homophobic people to get their heads out of their asses and see non-straight people as people by being angry with them.
I won’t get sexist people to stop seeing women as a separate species by harshly criticizing every single misstep they make.
I won’t get Islamophobes to realize that 1.6 Billion Muslims are exactly as friendly and peaceful as Atheists and Christians are, on average, by condescending back to them.
And I won’t get racist people to stop using dog whistles by badgering them about how racist they are.
The anger may be completely justified, but how I channel that anger remains a choice, a decision, for me to make on my own.
My choice does not have to be your choice, absolutely not. But there is a certain calm, a sense of peace and hope, in consciously avoiding the anger, hate, resentment and harshness I’m so eager to throw at people who diminish and discriminate. Even if for no other reason than to avoid falling into the habit of such reactionary behavior and aiming it at someone who truly does not deserve it, who was using such a term unintentionally, or unawares of its loaded contexts.
With our global communication networks so entrenched into people’s lives, there is a new form of social learning we have to undergo — regardless of our age — to make sure our communication behaviors are inclusive and respectful online.
The online realm has often little more than a name and static photo to represent another person, and it creates a disconnect that disconnects us from the normal human social behaviors that we have (hopefully) cultivated in our lives when dealing with people face to face. When we can see the pain or conflict on their faces when we say or do something awful.
There needs to be room for people to make mistakes, to learn and not feel immediately attacked at any mishap. Establishing that room for mistakes requires a concerted effort on all our parts, for there is no such thing as a moral purity. We are flawed, imperfect and beautiful, and that’s what makes us human.
All of us have the capacity to learn and grow and overcome our biases and bigotries, however deeply ingrained on us they might be as a result of our societal education rife with systems of oppression and subtle messaging that wants us to tear each other apart.
Every step of the way is one where we must choose not to. For that is the most humane thing a human could do.