Begoña Martínez-Pagán, “Bego”, is a Spanish interpreter, translator, and soon-to-be PhD graduate. She attended METM in Mantua last year to talk to us about the focus of this latter string on her bow: how to use inclusive language as a tool for liberation and unity.
Why is language so important? Language is a channel that can be used to discriminate or liberate. This is how we communicate with one another, express opinions, and exclude or include people. Visible discourse is only the tip of the iceberg – it is the external representation of unchallenged bias. Through language we can change how people think and how people are treated.
Bego highlighted how inclusive language can be used as a weapon, and how we can prevent this from happening. To do this, she walked us through the false, divisive dichotomies into which our society is often divided: what is considered “normal” and what “other”, through a list of traits that collectively portray “standard” as Prince Charming (white, male, able-bodied, coupled, monogamous, attractive, credentialed) and “other” as everyone else (non-white, non-European, female, gender-“deviant”, non-heterosexual, non-monogamous, unqualified).
Bego used this diagram from Mel Constain (2023, translated by Bego) to help us visualize patterns of dominance, privilege, and oppression. These visualizations help us to understand the complexity of the human condition and patterns of dominance and oppression at play, otherwise known as intersectionality, as coined by Kimberlé Crenshaw.
Anyone who knows the privilege walkabout, where participants start in a line and take steps forward or backward in accordance with their responses to questions that relate to privilege and discrimination – from skin colour, to gender, to education, and so on – will be familiar with how this simple exercise can help to visually reveal the intersectional nature of these forces, essential to gaining a deeper understanding of our society and breaking down us/them binaries.
“Words as things we wear and not who we are”
The second aspect of Bego’s talk focused on how language can be used as a toolkit for a fairer, more inclusive world. Empowered with an awareness of the intersectional nature of identities, we are all responsible for working towards a world in which language is used to include, to care for and to show compassion. When people complain about language inclusivity or gender fluidity, it is often positioned as a personal affront, something that imposes on their way of seeing things, that breaks with their ideals. It is common to hear people say they are scared to speak or say anything anymore. We need to understand, and make people understand, we are ALL guilty of bias. In linguistic terms, gendered language openly expresses bias, but non-gender languages like English can just heighten the levels of hidden bias. Gender stereotypes go unchallenged while evoking gendered images in the speaker/listener (“footballer” was the example Bego gave), and technology tends towards exaggerating these biases.
It is not about getting it right or wrong; it is about being open. It is about caring. It is about everyone having their rights respected, no matter how they identify or where they come from. A conscious awareness of our intersectionality can help us to navigate using inclusive language as a tool for liberation. It is a journey, not a simple end point. And as language professionals we have the power to take an active role in this. Bego’s takeaway was: “The road to freedom for us all requires fluid recognition and cooperative, collective compassion.” Note the words “fluid”, “cooperative”, “compassion”.
I invite you all to consider the hidden biases in you and your work, what you can do in your life (professional and personal) to be more aware of the language you use and how to change it to make it more truly inclusive. Please comment with your thoughts on language inclusivity, obstacles you’ve faced or overcome, or inspirational experiences to help us all on this journey.
This METM23 presentation was chronicled by Sandra Young.
Featured photo by METM23 photographer Leonardo Rizzato.