We all know that people can give biased accounts of what happens, for example posing as innocent victims by slanting their story to sidestep culpability.
We know this can be done by omitting inconvenient truths or exaggerating and distorting to show oneself in a favorable light. It can be done with word choice too, using negative terms to describe other people’s behavior and positive terms to describe one’s own.
For example, if I say that someone whined, badgered or nagged at me, I imply that their grievances are unfounded. I was innocent; they attacked me for no reason.
What we don’t tend to notice is that those supposedly negative terms aren’t necessarily negative.
We wouldn’t begrudge a torture victim their complaints—whining, badgering or nagging at their torturers. If the torturer said “stop your whining,” we wouldn’t assume the victim was at fault. We’d think the victim was right to whine about being tortured.
Apparently, there are times when complaining, whining, badgering, and nagging are not just acceptable but morally appropriate. It’s our civic duty to badger bullies until they stop bullying.
We might not call our badgering “whining” because “whining” implies complaints from a position of weakness. A domineering husband who accuses his wife of whining implies that it’s morally wrong to challenge his dominance. If anything, that puts the husband in the wrong. Accusing people of whining is often a way to “punch down”.
But here’s the thing: If you’re accused of whining, you’re likely to feel insulted, ashamed, or defensive. That’s a habit to overcome if you want to stop getting pushed around.
“Whining” is but one example of how word choice can be an expression of bias but not just in the way we all recognize—not just that people can use positive words for their behavior and negative words for the behavior of those who challenge them.
There’s a second way that word choice can be biasing: the false assumption that a negative word accurately identifies universally negative behaviors. Whining, nagging, badgering, and complaining are not universally bad. Not every complaint makes you a Karen.
A related example: Passive aggressiveness has negative connotations. Never be passive aggressive. Should we always be actively aggressive instead? “Act of aggression” is also pejorative.
Should we never be either actively or passively aggressive? Should we feel ashamed every time we’re accused of both passive or active aggression?
More generally, do we want a world in which anyone can make a moral-police citizen’s arrest simply by accusing people with pejorative terms? Someone says you’re complaining, and that’s it—you’re busted?
I don’t bet you do. I think there’s a place for all such pejoratively labeled behaviors. I believe that pretending there’s never a place for them stunts our growth on learning the core curriculum of morality: figuring out which situations call for which behaviors.
People use connotations to imply moral laws that don’t and shouldn’t exist. To combat the bias toward assuming that word connotations accurately reflect universal moral rules, I’ve practiced a trilingual approach to English. I translate morally loaded terms between three languages which I call positivese, negativese, and neutralese,
To illustrate, “nagging” is negativese. It makes the behavior sound universally bad. If I want to make nagging sound good, I can translate it into positivese with terms like “standing up for yourself,” or “boundary setting,” or “steadfast advocacy.”
Translating negative to positive is called euphemism. A less familiar term is “dysphemism” which means translating from positive to negative. When I do my translations between positivese and negativese I don’t assume that the described behavior is inherently positive or negative. That’s the point here. The question for me is whether a behavior is good or bad in the particular context at hand.
I have yet to find a behavior that is universally bad or good. There’s a place for any behavior. To me, moral wisdom is lifelong learning about when to apply which behaviors.
I translate fluidly between positivese and negativese, and the third language, neutralese. Neutralse is strictly descriptive. For example the negativese term “nagging” or the positivese term “steadfast advocacy” can be translated into neutralese as, “sustained advocacy” which sounds neither positive nor negative.
Some of our biggest mistakes are made under the influence of loaded language, not just loaded with personal bias in our choice of negative, accusatory words for other people’s behavior and positive, flattering terms for our behavior, but biased by the false assumption that negative terms point to universally bad behaviors and positive terms point to universally good behaviors.
Being trilingual helps curb my knee-jerk tendency to get ashamed or defensive when someone accuses me of a supposedly “bad” behavior.
The other day, someone accused me of being aggressive. I replied that my peace of mind comes of being equally worried that I’m too aggressive or not aggressive enough for a situation. I take that worry seriously, but I don’t let myself get rolled by people posing as moral police, busting me for behaviors that, in the moment, they choose to cast as strictly negative.