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The Flawed “Text Filter” Approach to Kindness

Killing With the Name of

Some words sting because they have a history of pain. The word itself evokes past usage.

However, no matter the source or history or general connotations of a group name, any group name, even endonyms (in-group names), can be turned into an insult (via tone) or be reductive. “It’s not what you said, it’s how you said it.” Let’s break it down.

Insulting Tone

Sometimes it’s clear from tone of voice that a speaker hates a group.

Any group name–I’ll use groups that are generally exaulted in my examples here: saints, angels, kittens–can be said with disgust, as if the name itself tasted disgusting on the tongue (“those… kittens!”) almost as if causing the speaker to spit or gag.

Reduction

You can sort things with labels or boxes. A thing can have multiple labels but only be in one box.

Sometimes a speaker can express syntactically that they see members of the group as nothing but members of the group.

“Oh, he’s pretty good at cooking… unusual for a saint.” “Oh, he’s a typical saint, great at marching in.”

While this can have directly hurtful intent (maybe with some feigned ignorance) it’s more common that the speaker genuinely don’t get what the problem is.

“What did I do wrong? That’s what they call themselves these days, right?”

The problem is that being reduced to just a saint can make any saint feel like the smallest, worthlessest ant in the world. You almost come across as not seeing them as full human.

Speaker revealed as having an “us” vs “them” pov.

The Text Filter non-solution

People generally wanna be seen as polite, at least in some circumstances.

So they try to memorize which words they can use and which they can’t. Like a computer’s text filter. “As long as I don’t say ‘angel’, I’m OK” or “They call themselves saints, don’t they?”

That’s great for words where it’s the history that stings, but doesn’t solve the problem of tone or being reductive. (Or coming up with nonce slurs.)

If you wanna live your life right, start seeing other people as people.

Appendixes

Extra-Ordinary Taboos

While I reject the “text filter” approach as insufficient, I can still have sympathy for the perspective that a handful of words are so taboo that even quoting them is enough to get you in trouble.

The true way to kindness means changing your pov and seeing other people fully as people. That might be a long road, to get everyone on board with that. The second best thing is politeness.

As much as I could wish it were different, people often just aren’t thoughtful about this kinda stuff. (That includes me sometimes.)

A strong taboo creates instincts. Instincts is what helps humans navigate everyday situations without having to be thoughtful every day.

I’m coming across as contradictory here when I’m trying to be nuanced. “How can the ‘text filter’ instinct be both bad and good?” It’s just insufficient. It’s just not enough.

The “see other people as people, fully” heuristic helps you vs being reductive, while the “text filter” approach helps you avoid words where it’s the historical connotations of the word itself that’s the issue. Use both approaches and you’re golden.

This is also why the “euphemism treadmill” must be never-ending. Words acquire new hurtful connotations by being used with a tone of insult, or in reductive sentences, and gets replaced. That’s probably unavoidable but if you want to slow the treadmill, be mindful of how you use the current words. A new word isn’t any better than an old word, and quickly picks up some of its hurtful power, when being used to reduce.

Structural Unfairness

You might ask:

Isn’t the “see people as people” pov incompatible with your disdain for “color blindness” since the latter can obscure oppressive structures?

Listen. Sometimes we need to combine seemingly contradicting perspectives to get the full picture. Double binds, doublespeak can trip you up but dialectics, as this sort of “picture combining” is called, can be pretty awesome when we do end up with a nuanced, cohesive, zoomed out worldview.

In this case, I wanted to lay out a generally applicable, evergreen approach to everyday kindness. That doesn’t mean we have to lose track of the full view.