Roach: Reviving the linguistic legacy of the Civil Rights Act

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Roach: Reviving the linguistic legacy of the Civil Rights Act

Jonathan Roach, Columnist

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This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Civil Rights Act of 1964. As we commemorate the breakthrough piece of legislation, it is worth asking what lessons we learned from it. When President Lyndon B. Johnson addressed the nation before signing the bill, he articulated that its purposes, among many, were “to end divisions” and “to promote … a deeper respect for human dignity.”  Although we have made a lot of progress on both of these goals, there is still work to be done and many obstacles to overcome.

Recently it occurred to me that it is widely accepted to refer to a woman sexually interested only in women as “a lesbian.” However, it would be considered at best weird and at worst pejorative to refer to a man sexually interested only in men as “a gay.” Instead we say that he “is gay” or “is a gay man.” Why does the difference matter? It is demeaning to refer to a person only by one aspect of her identity. That is to say, when we refer to her as “a lesbian,” we are reducing her from a person with wonderful complexities to only her sexual orientation. Sexual orientation is significant and should not go ignored, but the most important thing is a person’s human dignity.

While this might be dismissed as merely a call for political correctness, it is instead a plea for correctness of thought. Continuing to use terms that obscure someone’s human dignity will not directly influence others in the way that politically incorrect words such as the N-word or the C-word do.  In fact, chances are that nobody who hears or reads the utterance will feel offended. For example, in all the discussion of this year’s Best Picture winner at the Oscars, I never once encountered someone arguing that the title should be changed to “12 Years Enslaved.”

Rather, the language you choose directly affects yourself. Every time you refer to people without making an effort to emphasize their human dignity, you train your brain to understand them as less than people. For example, at Northwestern it is common to hear someone define themselves or others by their major, as in “He’s a theatre major, she’s a theatre major.”  There is a notable difference in saying instead “a person majoring in theatre.” Through mere terminology, we make ourselves forget that majoring in theatre is not the only thing that matters to the person.

To be clear, it is not our language alone that reduces people to their demographic names. Often such language stems ultimately from maliciousness, ones that intentionally attempt to obscure a person’s human dignity. But, to invoke the argument made by George Orwell in “Politics of the English Language,” an effect can become a cause, one that reinforces the original cause and intensifies the effect. Namely, our language preserves the sentiments of those who wanted to diminish others.

At some point, it may seem that this type of language is awkward and cumbersome. The argument may even follow that it gets in the way of the efficient communication needed to solve more urgent issues. Are we going to worry about a few lost syllables when same-sex marriage is not even recognized in most states in the country? I sympathize with this rebuttal, but it misses the main idea.

When we think about other people, we still have the choice to focus on what divides us or on what unites us. When we use language, we can reduce people or we can promote a deeper respect for their human dignity. We can either let the legacy of the Civil Rights Act fade away or we can revive it and make it stronger than ever.

Jonathan Roach is a Weinberg sophomore. He can be reached at If you would like to respond publicly to this column, send a Letter to the Editor to