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  • Writer's pictureJessica Jaymes Purdy

Language: A Powerful Tool for Good or for Harm

How Words Can Conceal and Enable Harm: Article 2

Scrabble tiles spelling out choose your words.

Language is a powerful tool that shapes how we perceive and respond to the world around us. The words we choose can either illuminate the truth or obscure it. They can either call out injustice or minimize and enable it. This is especially true when it comes to issues of hate, harassment, and discrimination targeting marginalized groups.

All too often, we see instances of serious harm against historically excluded and marginalized people downplayed or concealed through the use of "minimizing language." Minimizing language are words and phrases that reframe the actions of hate and prejudice to make them seem more benign, reasonable, or acceptable than they actually are. Rather than shining a light on oppression and holding wrongdoers accountable, minimizing language serves to protect and provide cover for the worst behaviors and actions.

Minimizing language shows up everywhere. We are seeing it in media coverage that characterizes expressions of bigotry and intolerance in response to Dylan Mulvaney’s National Women’s Day post as mere "backlash," as if they were natural and expected responses rather than unacceptable acts of hate. We see it in "free speech" debates where targeted harassment of vulnerable groups is defended as a matter of "opinion." We see it in bullying situations misrepresented as "disagreements" or "jokes."

The impact of these linguistic choices is immense. They gaslight marginalized people into doubting their own experiences of oppression. They lend a veneer of legitimacy to prejudice. They avoid assigning appropriate accountability. Ultimately, minimizing language fosters a culture where the humanity of minority groups is diminished, and acts of hate and injustice are tolerated.

As a society, we must become more attuned to this pattern and push back against it. We need to insist on using precise, honest, and clear language that illuminates the realities of hate and harm rather than concealing them. We must have the courage to confront oppression in all its forms even when it is “just” language. Only then can we hope to create a more just world.

In the articles I will be sharing over the next days/weeks, I will explore where minimizing language frequently appears, the rhetorical dynamics at play, and the importance of countering this language with unflinching clarity. By recognizing and rejecting minimizing language, we can make an important stand for truth and equality.

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