“Words are powerful acts of creation.”
I have this quote from author Marg Herder scribbled in my notebook and etched into my brain. As I’ve grown up, I’ve learned that having terms — terms we create ourselves — for our feelings and experiences is essential to being able to understand them and describe them to others. Your average women’s studies program is dense with jargon, either being taught to students or being deployed by them as they practice a new, liberating means of discussing things which they may not have been able to really describe before.
Having a feminist lingo is an immense help in our activism. But it can also be a hindrance.
Without jargon, it can take many more words to describe the same idea; conversation is slowed when we don’t have an agreed-upon shorthand to streamline it. Without a jargon, our understanding of ourselves can be limited. For instance, before I knew what “romantic orientation” was, I had no idea how to conceptualize my feelings about various genders when they didn’t line up neatly with “lesbian” or “bisexual.”
Without jargon, we struggle to find what we have in common with others; two women may have experienced harassment at work, but if one was touched inappropriately by a colleague and the other had her boss regularly flirt with her, on the surface they haven’t endured the same problem and may not feel they can relate to each other.
Over the course of the feminist movement, we have developed this terminology which has been able to unite us, whether it’s among our affinity groups (Black women can talk about experiences with “misogynoir,” for instance) or as a greater feminist community. The creation and knowledge of these words and phrases is incredibly powerful.
Having this nomenclature doesn’t mean there aren’t problems. I’m a user of the microblogging site Tumblr, which has become notorious for its social justice community. There I’ve seen many people get chewed up because they didn’t get the words right. It’s one thing to express hurt when someone says something unintentionally offensive; it’s another to call someone cruel names just because they haven’t taken the time to learn a dictionary’s worth of feminist terms.
There is also the problem of people seeing terms being used, and then using them incorrectly. For instance, I referred to South Asian peoples as “desi” until I learned that White people shouldn’t use that word because it’s a self-given and self-referring term. If I wasn’t such a small internet presence, I could have been causing some serious division by my ignorance.
The solution to these problems is not in ditching the jargon altogether. Instead, we need to make it more accessible for others. We need to grant grace to people still learning because being punitive won’t encourage anyone. We need space in which to ask questions, to ensure that we learn right the first time. Communal terms were created to bring us together, not drive us apart; we just need to learn how best to use them.