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Inclusion vs. Rhetoric

  • Posted on March 5, 2011 at 12:43 AM

Previously, I have published to short synopses—in blog post style—of chapters for the non-fiction book I’m working on, Neurodiversity at Work: A Manager’s Guide.  First, I wrote a post introducing the neurodiverse workforce, and then I addressed the need to cope with the challenges of inclusion, and the possibility to capitalize on a diverse workforce.  Here I will explore the rhetoric of business in contrast with the language of inclusion.

The Rhetoric of Business

One of the hallmark linguistic requirements of the contemporary business environment is the use of politically correct language.  The emphasis on an externally set linguistic standard betrays a vital fact that most seem quite unaware of, namely that respect is not dictated from the outside in.

Personally, I find that if you genuinely respect people, then respectful language will naturally flow through your use.  If, on the other hand, you are inclined to devalue people, then an externally enforced linguistic standard only seeks to cover up that disrespect.  While the purpose of politically correct language is to express tolerance, the reality is that an externally enforced standard does not breed tolerance, merely compliance.

By following the strictures of politically correct speech and further by attempting to enforce a distant, façade of respect through public and employee relations programs, business cultures convince themselves they practice tolerance.  And yet the problems of internalized prejudice continue.  In gender, race, and disability relations, equality is not attained despite our legislation and the enforcement of politically correct language.  The language used in businesses becomes empty rhetoric that is not played out in the culture of the business or in the everyday choices where prejudice holds its greatest power.

The Language of Inclusion

The language we choose to use can influence the way we think about the world and the way we perceive each other.  Choice is a significant factor, however.  Underlying the choices we make is the respects we hold.  I often refer to my children as children with autism, autistic children, autistic or even, though I try not to, Silly Willy.  According to political correctness, this is wrong; yet my regard for my children does not change.  Recently, Dave Hingsburger of Rolling Around in My Head wrote a post about the language we use.  There are some words and phrases that are truly offensive.  However, most terms can be used with respect.  Disability is not an ugly word, nor is it an ugly state of being.  It is only ugly when we have no respect for those who are disabled.

The language of inclusion is less about the words we choose and more about what we mean when they use them.  If you think an autistic person is worthless, it does not matter that you use people-first language.  You can call autistics “people with autism” all you like, but if “autism” means “inferior” to you, then everything else you say and do is going to communicate your prejudice loudly and clearly no matter how politically correct you are.

The Transition

The language of inclusion is not about political correctness or the façade of tolerance.  It’s about genuine respect.  You can’t fake it.  But you can shape it by making new choices for new reasons.  It can be shaped within a culture by people who use words with respect.  In order to make this transition, you need to incorporate respect into the culture of your business.  It’s not just about the words you use, but the ideas and beliefs you express.  This respect must come from a force within that organization, and it must be disseminated throughout the organization.  Respect diverse workers.  Respect diverse partners, suppliers, and customers.  Respect the diverse world we live in.  Inclusive language will naturally follow.

Impacting Language

  • Posted on May 30, 2010 at 10:27 PM

As a writer by trade, language is frequently on my mind.  Usually, though, I think about ways that we might change the language in common use.  Then, there are those bright moments when I see that the change is already occurring.

Saturday evening I attended my nephew’s high school graduation party.  I’m certainly proud of his accomplishment and the decisions he’s making to help shape his future.  But as he sat around with his friends, I observed another reason to be proud of him.  Generally speaking, I appreciate the wonderful people these children are as I’ve seen them interact with their cousins, my children (okay, two of them are now grown children!).  I can’t say how much coaching it might have taken, but they’ve always accepted their cousins for who they are—limits, challenges and all.  I appreciate that and am very proud of them for it.  But today it was a little thing that caught my attention.

This nephew sat around the table with his friends.  Ben ran around squealing with excitement over the new areas to explore.  The friends talked on, until one of them swore in an off-hand kind of way.  My nephew, conscious of his little cousin, said, “Watch the language!”  A moment later, another friend made a comment about drug-use.  “Watch the content,” my nephew exclaimed in theatrical exasperation.

It seems like a little thing, and maybe it is, but it says something wonderful about his character and his choice of friends that he felt comfortable to make his point.  I also appreciated his manner and approach in doing so.  A gentle reminder—performed well and complied with.  The issue was important to him, but he didn’t need to make a big deal of it to get his point across.

More recently, I was putting in some time freshening up on my grant writing studies.  A small subsection, on style and usage, made a quick, short comment about “political correctness.”  In a few short paragraphs, with a similar important-but-not-a-big-deal approach, the authors gave a lesson on respecting people with regard to race, gender and ability.  The reason it struck me is because their manner wasn’t one of qualification—this is the language you’re expected to use—but instead carried a subtle but discernible undertone of respect.  They didn’t say this just because it had to be said; they mean it.  I especially like this part:  “Don’t sensationalize with phrases such as ‘afflicted with,’ ‘suffering from,’ or ‘victimized by.’”

Don’t sensationalize…  With those two words they make a great, but subtle point.  Not unlike a young man who’s comfortable enough to stand up for his values and the values of his family without making it seem like he’s taking a social risk by doing so.

Our language is changing; our ideas are changing.  Sometimes it seems slow.  Our culture still has much progress to make.  But it’s happening.