To decolonize, we must stop policing language

Saeed Husain

Viewpoints Editor


I write to inform you today that the ways with which you communicate are individualized to you, and have been ascribed by the culture(s) that you grew up with and live in today. The way I write relies on the cultural framework ingrained upon me. How and what I will write relies on your interpretation, and once this piece is published, I will have no control over what you may think about it. 

My reason for writing this viewpoint is my disdain for the common occurrence that if one frames a sentence differently, places a comma where it may not fit to someone else’s expectations of a comma, or has a stylistic flow that departs from an expected medium, there are people who will ‘correct’ (or rather, police) that individual’s way of writing. I believe this to be a gross form of applying one’s own imagination and style of writing to another’s. I can see how the person correcting language might think that they are doing the individual a favour by ‘helping’ them be more clear, and that the individual stands to benefit from this.

I direct you to the first sentence in this viewpoint. Once one realizes that the ways with which they interact with the world are dependent on the contexts they have experienced, they will hopefully realize that any efforts to police language according to any social conventions are utterly useless and intensely harmful. The sentence that you reframe, the comma that you remove, and the word that you change, are all your interpretations of how language should be. It is not a set category where everyone reading the piece will interpret it in the way that you intended it. If this is the case, then why change the original writing of anyone? 

Today we are unfortunately bound by the conventions of writing english that a group of people decided to be the ‘best’ way of communicating. I feel that a response to my viewpoint here might be that we need a form of standardization, and this is why we have things like editorial guidelines for academia and journalism. Standardization apparently, is what will help us create a world where we can create shared understandings. My response is to look at how standardized notions of gender, ethnicity, race, and nationality (to mention a few of several categories), have been so unsatisfying and harmful. The standardization of language that we have created today comes from a very basic understanding of how humans communicate, and needs to be critically examined immediately if we are to decolonize ourselves from a world governed by western metaphysics. 

Our standardization of language presupposes that everyone thinks and acts in the same way. Does anyone reading this viewpoint truly think that all humans think and act in similar ways? The issue with policing language according to a presupposed standard becomes much clearer then. As we move commas or change sentences, we are restructuring individuals to think in ways that are similar to us. This renders our diversity pointless. If we are to mould each other in thinking, speaking, and writing in specific ways informed by western metaphysics, what is the point of our diversity? If we keep correcting each other, then we are not celebrating the diversity of thoughts and ideas that emerge from the multitudes of different backgrounds that we have, but are only privileging phenotypic or demographic differences. To showcase the strength of diversity, we must broaden and accept the different ways we have of expressing ourselves. 

Of course, we can have a world where everyone who graduates from The College of Wooster could have the same way of writing, or rather, every citizen of the United States could communicate similarly. We would lose out on so much of what it means to be human. If we streamline and homogenize language and self-expression, we are stifling innovation, or rather, only allowing it to exist in the categories we deem fit for innovation. More dangerously perhaps, when we police someone’s language, we are quite literally cancelling out their way of expressing themselves, and once again losing out on what we can learn from the ways they express themselves in. 

We must accept that we can never truly understand another culture or its world views if we are translating ideas and concepts from another setting into our own. Language is not a trivial part of human existence, instead it is a critical base on which we currently live. Translation is a violent act, where we forego the applied meanings which certain words or phrases may have in the temporality of another language. In translation we break away from ‘original’ meanings, and apply new ones. Policing someone’s language is an act of translation as well. Even though one may think that they are both writing the same english language, they are once again applying their own interpretations of the english language, and are then translating it to fit their world views. The reality is that we will never be able to comprehend issues and concerns unless we position ourselves entirely in that culture or society (an impossible proposition), and language plays a massive part in how world views are formed. 

I leave you with this. If we truly wish to hear and learn from the beautiful voices that exist on our campus and the world, please refrain from applying your own interpretations of how something ‘should’ be. As a community of learners, I believe that we do our best when we listen, read, and learn from others. Ultimately, that is only my interpretation.