Rejecting the Politics of Language

Rejecting the Politics of Language

“What do they want us to call them now?” “You mean I have to watch everything I say?”

Language is a form of knowledge construction; the language we use to name a social group shapes the way we think about that group. To think critically about language is to think critically about power and ideology. Take the example of homelessness. Just 20 or so years ago, the term homeless was not common. The terms we used at that time for people we would now term homeless included bums, derelicts, tramps, transients, hobos, and winos. These are clearly negative terms that conjure negative images and are all typically associated with men. Over time, advocates came to realize that many women and children were also homeless, and that women and children had different issues and needs because of their gender and age. In other words, the kinds of challenges that a single man living on the street might have are different from those that a single woman living on the street might have, and different still from those of a single woman living with children.

Advocates realized that they had to change the public perception of this population in order to increase the resources available to them; few people were interested in helping “bums” and “winos” (notice how some people are perceived as worthy of resources and others are not). There was a deliberate political effort to introduce the term homeless in order to change the public perceptions of this diverse population. When the language changed, so did the perception; this change enabled greater

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