As a rhetorician, I love words. I love etymology — the history of word and its meaning(s). Still, like most people, I find that I get annoyed by a dozen or so words, and I hate a few, too. (As I write this, “grin” and “chide” are floating around in my head, causing my eyes to roll.)

In “A Dictionary of Despicable Words,” Jen Doll cobbles together an A to Z list of words that are widely disliked, prefacing with the disclaimer that “Often, word-hate is not the fault of the word itself; it’s due to the meanings humans have attributed to the poor word.” This is not to mean that we should ignore context and employ words without regard to the meanings they’ve picked up. Rather, we should consider that each time we communicate with others to describe our world or argue our ideas, we are always participating in a practice of reflecting, selecting, and deflecting.

When we decide to reject a word we need to think about that rejection. What is it that we are rejecting? A misrepresentation of an idea we believe deserves to be considered in a different way? A representation of an idea that we fundamentally disagree with? In trying to figure out our resistance to a word, it can be helpful to consider the way the word is functioning.

Let’s think, for instance, about the word privilege, which we generally understand to mean a special right afforded to a specific person or group. Like most words, “privilege” is used different ways — “it was a privilege to work with you,” “he will not exert executive privilege,” “driving is not a right, it’s a privilege.” The flexibility the word holds, however, does not alleviate the rigidity with which it can be received when we are asked to check our privilege.

The instruction “check your privilege” is often perceived as hostile, challenging, condescending, or judgmental. This negative association can, at times, cause us to react rather than respond, to immediately refuse the word and whatever premise it stemmed from. What if we didn’t do that? What if we worked through the context of the word, the meanings that it constructs and reflects while we work to construct our own reflective response?

Franchescha Ramsey’s video, “Why Does Privilege Make People So Angry?” is a helpful place to start when you or a discussion partner feel resistant to the word. In less than five minutes, Ramsey provides a basic understanding of privilege (being “treated better than others” because of “race, gender, class, sexuality, or physical ability”) while acknowledging the difficulty of seeing one’s own privilege and the discomfort of examining one’s own privilege: “Privilege doesn’t mean you’re rich … or have never had challenges or struggles. It just means that there are some challenges and struggles that you won’t experience because of who you are.”

Tiffany Jana’s TEDx talk “The Power of Privilege” is also a productive way to approach understanding privilege. Like Ramsey, Jana sees privilege as something that is plural and something worthy of self-reflection. Jana’s message is positive — acknowledging privilege is not about shrinking away in shame, but instead about gaining an awareness that may be uncomfortable, but necessarily so: “Sometimes we need to be a little bit uncomfortable in order to understand the power that we have to effect a change on our lives and to effect a change on the lives of others.”

These changes can be positive, Jana argues, if we use our privilege to resist and tear down cultural and institutional bias. We all have a role to play in making the world a better place, so acknowledging our privilege and acting with awareness of what that privilege does is important.

UMA’s academic theme for the coming academic year is “Truth.” As a community, we will be examining truth and its relationship to constructing knowledge — something that requires a willingness to explore, through language, the world in which we live. To contribute to this collaborative venture, we will likely all need to revisit words that tend to cause us to react rather than respond, in order to contribute more fully to our community of discovering, making, and sharing knowledge.

An English professor at the University of Maine at Augusta since 2014, Elizabeth Powers teaches introductory and advanced writing courses, and coordinates a writing lab which allows her to work individually with students on their writing skills. Powers’ scholarly focus is on Rhetoric and Composition, especially rhetorical theory, visual rhetoric, and writing center studies.

 


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