Word Problems

I kind of want to have a podcast, but not one where I just ramble about my life. I want to train my attention on words that are neutral in a vacuum but harmful in their usage.

I want to differentiate between slurs, which are objectively poisonous, and words that are used, even unintentionally, as codes for othering. An example here would be the phrase “cultural fit,” which still shows up on job descriptions from time to time or in justifications for hiring or not hiring someone.

These words can indeed have only innocent meaning, but they’re used as cudgels, covers for more insidious acts. When someone says “cultural fit,” what’s unsaid is that the dominant culture in an organization (or school, or what have you) would be unsettled by the person’s inclusion. Could this mean the person was genuinely unsettling and unstable? Yes. But could it also mean that something “other” about a person would be uncomfortable for the dynamic, something not easily defined and something that would be ideally left unsaid, so it is slotted under “cultural fit” and forgotten, and the homogeneity and hegemony are perpetuated.

What should be used instead? “We decided to go with someone else” is honest and doesn’t stigmatize the othered person. Or, more directly, “we liked (them) more.” Because that’s the truth, isn’t it? If we want to use a white lie, mention qualifications, although credentials are a potential source of stigmatization as well.

There are a lot of other words or phrases like this, diction that needs to be problematized and analyzed. And I think I need to do it. We’ll see.