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Incivility on the Web
In the information age, online debates have come to represent the more toxic parts of our culture and are one reason that America is more divided than ever. Take any social media platform: a popular page shares an article on some social issue–it doesn’t matter much what page, or what the issue is–and almost always the comments section will be filled with divisive rhetoric, name calling, and palpable rage. Because of the relative anonymity our devices afford us, we are much more likely to speak to one another in the online forum in a way that we probably never would in person. This incivility among strangers will likely have lasting consequences for the future of the web.
Language & Polarization
The internet, where so much content is written, makes for easy sharing, and through sharing and re-sharing, language itself evolves. A case in point is the word “woke.” You may have heard the term being used more and more in recent years. What does this term mean? Aside from the obvious meaning (the past tense of wake), woke has taken on another meaning in the last decade referring to being “alert to injustice in society, especially racism.” Woke is used in a positive sense by social justice advocates and was originated by Black American activists. In contrast, detractors often use it sarcastically and as a means of deriding engagement in social justice issues. Regardless of the tone with which you use the word, it acts as a signal to something deeper, something that strikes to the core of our identities. The language we choose to use is the engine that polarization runs on.
It’s Not Partisan, It’s About Effective Communication
Woke is just one of the buzzwords that currently proliferate our culture. But, in general, the jargon that falls under the broad umbrella of equity, diversity, inclusion, and social justice can be double-edged. Although we certainly need a shared language with which to communicate these crucial issues (and using inclusive language is always the right thing to do), the vocabulary of EDI is, ironically, not always that inclusive. At times, the heavy reliance on jargon can be counterproductive or alienating. Using jargon has a potentially serious consequence for advocates: creating a missed opportunity to reach a person who otherwise may be receptive to the general message but who are put off by its difficulty or what is perceived to be its political baggage.
To be clear, this is not about policing language or catering to specific groups—it is about effective communication among people. Other examples of jargon that not everybody immediately recognizes and understands include: intersectionality, BIPOC, microaggressions, ethnicity, and implicit bias. The point is not that these terms have no value, or that people shouldn’t make the effort to learn them (and resources abound for those who do wish to know), but that it is unrealistic to expect that people already know and fully understand them.
It’s not that the concept of equity didn’t resonate—of course it did. But people in the field found that when they used these esoteric words in their own communities, outside of a room of advocates and practitioners, they were misunderstood. The words themselves created barriers between people, while they conceptually tried to convey the opposite. (RALLY)
Life is One Big Gray Area
Language has the power to unite and to divide. The online forum demands we take sides, that we pigeonhole individuals based on very little information. Social media perpetuates black and white thinking, but real life is filled with gray areas.
Call-out culture is another such place in the online arena where you are implicitly drawn into choosing sides on any given issue and where nuance is thrown out the window for oversimplification, incivility, and the venting of rage. One alternative to “calling out” a supposed wrongdoer (be it a celebrity, a politician, or business owner, etc.) is “calling in.” As Professor Loretta Ross of Smith College says:
A call in is actually a callout done with love and respect. Because you’re really seeking to hold people accountable for the potential harm that they cause, but you’re not going to lose sight of the fact that you’re talking to another human being. And so you extend a hand of active love and active listening to help them maybe stop and think about what they said. And you can say, ‘I beg your pardon.’ Or, ‘When you said that, that didn’t really land on me correctly. Can we talk about what’s going on with you to make you do that?’ I mean, there’s a whole bunch of things you could do other than, ‘You should not say these things! You are using the wrong word. You’re trash folk. You’re a racist!’
The development of EDI language is a necessity as social standards evolve, but it is crucial to bear in mind that not everybody “speaks EDI,” and insisting on the blanket use of jargon and neologisms can sometimes do more harm than good. An issue-based approach using plain English is a productive place to begin the conversation for those who are less familiar with EDI terminology. Finally, we must remember that the essence of equity, diversity, and inclusion are values that most of us can agree on: conveying respect, dignity, and kindness to every single person we meet.