What Power Do Your Words Hold?

The way you say it, matters.

“Weirdo.”

“Retard.”

“Loser.”

I heard it all the time: whether while walking down the hallways, or sitting inside class, skimming through a textbook, while eating a snack, or even while just sitting quietly while waiting for a ride to get back home. This is just the tip of the iceberg: the huge, glacial edifice of hostility and astute hatred ran far deeper, all through High School and College. It didn’t matter what I did — or didn’t do — I was me, and that was immensely difficult for so many people around me to accept. I set out with my ambitions, I had my dreams. But to them, I was nothing more than a joke, a stimulus for cruel laughter and insults. To them, my ambition was not supposed to be anything besides trying to be invisible, if the earth below didn’t do me a favour by caving in and swallowing me whole.

It is easy to throw adjectives. It is very easy to sit on that side and pass judgment. It is totally easy to say that someone is ugly, or that someone is a “retard”, or that someone is a loser. Very, very easy. It is very easy to string two harsh words together and stamp it on someone’s forehead, branding them forever.

But what is not easy, is being at the receiving end. And, when you’re at the receiving end while dealing with the challenges posed by mental illness.

Words can be terribly destructive. They can leave you crushed under their power. We forget that words are not just a means of communication but become a verbalisation of our thoughts. We forget that words are not just callous utterances that one forgets like yesterday’s news, but are etched in the hearts and minds of the one hearing them.

Every person is born with rights and dignity that are inherent in their identity as a human. Every person has intrinsic value and deserves to be respected and treated with equality for that very value. When one is coping with mental illness, there’s already a challenge to their perception of themselves — they are unable to see their value and dignity, and feel vulnerable. Stigmatising them with language that polarises their needs, their identities and their challenges makes for demeaning experiences that are hurtful and which complicate their personal situations.

Language can, whether inadvertently or otherwise used, assault the dignity of an individual, and this is as true of a person in need of help for a mental health disorder. If they are made to feel fear or are shamed, it makes their treatment and healing difficult. Dignity should be promoted in the caregiving process, both professional and personal. Always be there for a person who has a mental health disorder and is in need of some assistance. Do not judge them, scold them or tell them to “snap out of it”, because that can be one of the harshest things one can say to them. This is both dangerous and also a bad example to set — for the individual may not feel comfortable with sharing, or talking about what he is going through.

It’s all in how you say it.

It might come from a place of care, but what you say is only one part of it; it’s just as vital, if not more to also be careful about how you say it. Concern is but natural, and you want your loved one to be okay — so the best way to go about is to cast aside any considerations that you might have, and avoid imposing solutions upon an individual who is in need of help for his mental health issue. Avoid forcing your solutions onto them — it is important that you stand steadfast in support of the person, but always ensure that you do not expect that your solution for them to be the be all and end all. A solution is not a solution until it is owned and shared as a vision for the person in need of a solution.

The way you say it, matters.

Kirthi Jayakumar is an Advisor at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Bobbo Sintes

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Queer Infocus | July 2020

The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression

The Need for Inclusivity in Gender and Education

Whether it is in our verbiage or in our actions, we continue to perpetuate gender stereotypes.

Science has no idea what causes gender. It can explain sex. It can explain sexual orientation. It can even explain romantic orientation. And yet, gender is a fact of life. Being an element or aspect or attribute of one’s identity, in a day and age where the personal is invariably the political, there appears much of a challenge in the way gender is perceived: in the form of stereotypical and rigid notions informing the understanding of a gender experience.

The perpetuation of “gender norms” has resulted in skewed ideas of gender, and therefore, a skewed manifestation of gender dynamics in society. Sex is a biological dimension of the human body: the presence of genitalia, chromosomes, hormones, gonads and reproductive organs. Gender is a range of characteristics that pertain to masculinity and femininity. While sex is more or less “fixed” — the only exception being sex-change operations, gender is less rigid, and more of a fluid, dynamic attribute of one’s life.

Segregating gender into watertight divisions of a binary nature, i.e., “masculine” and “feminine” has only fed into a social hierarchy of dominance. Historically, the roots of patriarchy tend towards the division of roles when fatherhood and community values began to take root. When it became apparent that there were social groups that sought to gain prominence and dominance over each other, reproduction became the key factor in preserving the purity of their ethnic, racial and other community lines. Hegemony and dominance found ways to preserve the purity of lineage by safeguarding the reproductive capacity of their women — and that, among other explanations, led to patriarchal dominance over women. This is not the only known theory that offers an insight into what led to the creation of patriarchy as a form of structural violence, but it is generally arguable that this influential factor contributed in shaping attitudes to a large extent.

Whether it is in our verbiage or in our actions, we continue to perpetuate these stereotypes. Sometimes we do so without consciously intending to. It is in many of our everyday practices to say things like “I stand for equality” and then surreptitiously share a giggle at someone’s (gendered) expense with words like “stop PMS-ing” or “that’s so gay!” or “what are you, lesbo?” and such else. It is in our everyday practice to come up with what we dismiss as “jokes” when we see memes like “If a man rapes one man, he is called gay. If a man rapes eleven men, he is called Chris Gayle.”

It is all these instances of micro-aggression that feed into macro-aggression — it is these instances that inform and allow a “rape culture” to thrive. It is these instances in peace-time that enable war-time strategies of carefully plotted sexual violence as war tactics.

It is easy to say that we need to effect change and that this change can come from education. But how much of our existing scope of education really cares about this side of things? We have history texts that have whole narratives comprising women’s stories and voices that are cut out from the narrative. We have historical records that don’t even offer a place for gender identities beyond the binary. Education is undoubtedly the primary path that can result in a shift in attitudes. But, education of an inclusive kind that opens up avenues to create woke people, people who are able to decipher the burdens of gender insensitivity and discrimination.

Kirthi Jayakumar is an Advisor at One Future Collective.

Featured image: Duy Pham

We’re updating our website!

Queer Infocus | July 2020

The Beginning, Middle and End: A Tryst with Depression