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Challenging the Use of Language

Courageous followers are alert to the language of leaders as well as to their deeds. Language both shapes and reveals the beliefs underlying deeds. Pejorative words thrown about are predictive of the stones that may follow.

The use of derogatory terms to describe groups or individuals dehumanizes them and establishes the climate for abusive actions. The use of the words yid, nigger, fag, or slut have all preceded lynchings, beatings, or rapes. Their public use is now considered outrageous, but their private use continues. Even mildly diminishing language creates an “us” and “them” mentality that justifies abuse.

It requires as much courage to confront a leader about language as about behavior; it is easy for the leader to ridicule our concern and claim the words were “unimportant” or “harmless.” They are not. Confronting the leader about demeaning language is a critical opportunity for establishing a relationship of principled creative challenge. It is a variation of challenging abuse early.

When leaders use euphemisms (collateral damage, relocation centers, downsizing), we should challenge them to explore their underlying discomfort with a subject. Challenging a leader’s use of language can flush value conflicts to the surface where they can be examined. Even syntax is deserving of challenge when it obscures responsibility for actions:

“It’s regrettable this happened” instead of “I’m sorry I did that.”

“Our policy has always been” instead of “I support the policy.”

“The budget didn’t permit” instead of “We cut your request.”

“Civilians were killed in the bombing” instead of “We bombed and killed civilians.”

We don’t have to bludgeon leaders about their use of language. We can point out quietly what we just heard and our discomfort with it. Patterns of speech are so deeply ingrained that the leader may be unaware of how he used the words. We are providing the leader an opportunity to become aware of the language influencing his thoughts, masking his feelings, or coloring the messages he is sending.

History is papered over with language that obfuscates the abuse of power. By challenging leaders and groups to assume responsibility for their actions and the words they use to sanitize those actions, a courageous follower holds up a mirror that demands self-examination.