What do all of the following words or phrases have in common?
Bitch. Cripple. Grow a pair. Lame. Cunt. White trash. “He/his/him” as a generic when the gender of a subject is not known. Ballsy. Harpy. Whore. Female impersonator. Jewed. Real woman. Retarded. Slut. Dumb. Natural woman. Harridan. Witch. Idiot. Man up. Biological sex. Crazy. Tranny. Step up. Breeder. Shrew. She-male. Gay. You guys as a generic greeting to a mixed gender group. Skank. Mankind. “Man” as a generic for “people.” Gyp. Insane. Schizo/schizophrenic. “Disabled” as a noun. Women born women. Ungendering by using “he” as a pronoun for a trans woman or “she” as a pronoun for a trans man.
They’re all exclusionary. Some of these words are actively used today as insults, and some of them have a historical context of use as insults which oppress, silence, and marginalize large groups of people, some of whom happen to be women. Some of these terms are racist, some are sexist, some are classist, some are cissexist, some are heterosexist, some are ableist. (I deliberately haven’t used speciesist terms here because, while I think that there is a clear intersection between animal rights issues and feminism, others may disagree, and thus, may not think that using speciesist language is exclusionary.) Many of these words are a common part of the vernacular; I use “bitch” all the time, for example. Many are examples of subconsciously exclusionary terms, in that people use them thoughtlessly, without realizing what they are really saying.
All of them should not be used by people who claim to be feminists, if feminism for them is about advocating for all women and improving conditions for all women. I include myself in this admonition. Every time we use them, we engage in othering. We exclude The Other, and make it clear that we don’t actually care about the issues that other people may experience. We make it clear that our claims of ally status are just lip service.
At its core, feminism should be, to my mind, about justice. Justice for all women. Not just women who fit into a very narrow set of categories. And this is why we need to use inclusionary language. This is why we need to cultivate spaces which are truly safe for everyone. This is why we need to own our actions and apologize for them if they are hurtful. We cannot repair the damage we have done to other human beings, but we can work to prevent it in the future.
Lots of people like to defend exclusionary language. They say that they like using a term, or can’t come up with a good alternative, or don’t really see why they should have to change. “The word doesn’t really mean that anymore,” or “but I’m not really [pick your poison]ist, so it’s ok.” But, here’s the thing. Even if the word doesn’t mean that anymore, that doesn’t mean that it does not carry very negative implications. Even if someone thinks that the word is being used in a positive sense, it is still loaded with negative meaning. It does not mean that the word does not have a very loaded history. It does mean that every time you use it, you are unconsciously enforcing a system of oppression. You can participate in and even perpetuate a system of oppression without actively subscribing to it.
People who dislike being told that they should not use exclusionary language are often people who have something to lose if actual justice is achieved. If we ever live in a society where trans hatred doesn’t exist, everyone who is cis gendered will lose privilege, for example. As the old saying goes, “we all like to see our friends get ahead, but not too far ahead,” and this appears to apply to social justice issues as well, though you would be hard pressed to find someone who openly admits it. Being informed that you are hurting people with your actions threatens people when they have something to lose in this fight. This is why people push back so strongly when they are informed that their word usage is hurtful. This is why people become defensive when they are asked why they failed to include different perspectives in discussions. This is why people get angry when they are called on their privilege.
You can believe with all your heart that sexism is terrible and evil, but when you call a woman a bitch, it kind of undermines your point. You can think that people with disabilities are oppressed and marginalized by society, and that this is wrong, but when you call something “lame,” you’re saying that you think it’s ok to continue oppressing people with disabilities. When you say that someone should “step up,” you are unconsciously erasing everyone in the population who cannot step, like wheelchair users and people who are bedbound. When you refer to someone or something as “insane” or “crazy,” you are using mental illness as a slur.
So stop it. Stop using exclusionary language. Start including people.
And stop trying to defend it. If you’re too lazy to find a better word or phrase to use, that’s your problem, not society’s. If you can’t be creative enough to think of a different word or phrase, a word or phrase which does not exclude or silence someone, you apparently have not heard of a thesaurus.