My intention in writing this piece is to bring to your attention a rather peculiar development, a certain epistemological disconnect I have came to observe in the arguments put forward concerning the employment of so called “oppressive language”. Certain groups of people, (an attempt at giving a definition of whom here would go against the whole intention of this article) have been accusing others of using it for quite some time, and so this is by no means a recent or all encompassing occurrence, yet the never-ending increase in the utterance of the phrase on our campus and also its oxymoronic conceptual core makes it a fitting target for a petty inquirer of philosophy such as myself to critique.
The term “oppressive language”, or more appropriately, “language of oppression” was first coined by Haig Bosmajian, a scholar of speech communication who is known for his extensive research on racist and sexist discourses. His employment of the term refers to such cases as the Nazi portrayal of Jews as ‘parasitic vermin’, and the labels used in the suppression of African and Native Americans through attaching to them beast-like qualities. According to the fuzzily-defined and yet somehow universally agreed-upon idea of oppressiveness, which is itself nothing but an outcome of the historical period that we live in, there is no doubt that such words are highly oppressive when used to describe human beings. However, we can only separate these words from every other word that is used to describe human beings only in their degree of oppressiveness, which is subjectively perceived and thus is a product of our own life experience, and not in their essential quality of oppressiveness. In other words, when utilized to describe people language itself is oppression, and oppression is a matter of degree. Violence begins (at least on the conceptual level) the moment one puts boundaries around the human variable and assigns to it a fixed essence.
Any qualitative description of a human person entails its essentialization, which necessarily implies the speaker exercising illegitimate authority over the one(s) being spoken of. Authority comes from a claim of knowledge, a claim to know how people are, and why they do the things they do, by extension implying that the speaker also knows what is best for them and for society as a whole. It is illegitimate to claim this authority since the speaker in fact has no access to this knowledge, given that having access to it would require for the speaker to share the exact same life experiences as the subject(s) of his/her speech. For this reason, any articulation of normative claims advocating social change is a will to coercion, unless it manages to incorporate every individual political desire there exists.
The concept of ‘oppressive language’ automatically implies the existence of a non-oppressive language, a language that is somehow only known by the employers of the term, the accusers. The accused are guilty for speaking in a different one. When we hear people protesting ‘That is oppressive speech!’, then, what they are really calling for is the replacement of our present language with one that not only fits in with the normative conclusion that came as a result of their life experience, but also fits with their understanding of every other life experience. The reason why they cannot perceive the irony displayed by the contrast between their supposedly anti-oppression posture and their barbaric coerciveness is due to the fact that they are unaware of their own subjective limitations and pretend as if they are blessed with this non-oppressive epistemological gizmo that magically allows them to know universal truths about people and their collective existence.
At this point, I have made it clear that acquiring knowledge of and speaking about social phenomenon is inherently oppressive, since it employs language; a far from perfect tool of communication, given our innate inclination towards reflecting ourselves in the qualitative words we use to describe other people. However, this does not necessarily mean that we have to abandon normative claims altogether, since in doing so not only would it be impossible to satisfy any kind of political desire at all, but equally impossible would it be to even correspond to one another in debating social matters. In fact, there are many normative claims that are quite true in their subjective abstractions of objectivity.
The possession of a strength in the ability to be perceived by different subjectivities in its level of abstraction is what makes certain abstractions truer, or rather, more communicable and transcendable to. This is the reason why we have not abandoned language all together, and why we can still talk about the relevance of academic inquiry and debate regarding social phenomenon. Nonetheless, abstractions are abstractions, and advocating an abrupt social transformation based on them, especially on one that appears to be only shared by a marginal subjectivity, is nothing but totalitarian propagandism. Any such claim to truth inevitably lacks the very necessary intellectual honesty and prudence required to come up with solutions to societal problems.
Thus, we must engage in this practice without denying it being an outward manifestation of oppression, in doing so also admitting our limitations as observers of everything outside of us, and accept each individual way of being as incommensurable in value. Only an understanding of politics as such can give way to fertile ground on which dialectically opposed political desires can be articulated and only then their clashes may end in unison. A conscious acceptance of the inherently oppressive nature of social philosophy forces us to acknowledge it as a necessary evil that comes with wondering about other people, but overlooking this limitation and ignorantly waging war against “oppressive language” is far more domineering and dangerous, for the reason that it is an attempt at regulating what can and cannot be said, which results in the further polarization of certain political desires, obstructing the flourishing of productive political debate with senseless fanaticism.
Still, even if one accepts everything to be true about the statements made above, one question might appear to be remaining: where should we draw the line, meaning, how can we distinguish ways of speaking that are threateningly (what we consider to be threatening to the wellbeing of society, that is) oppressive from the ones that are only oppressive by virtue of simply being speech? If you expect a readymade answer to this question that will allow you to go around and preach your fast food-like “ought to” arguments, this means that you have read the previous paragraphs in vein. My only relief is that likes of you will inescapably become more and more extinct as we approach the end of history.