Dr. Mindy McGarrah Sharp
Assistant Professor of Pastoral Theology and Ethics
Phillips Theological Seminary
Paying attention to how we talk with and about other people is more than a matter of being “politically correct.” Christians believe that all human beings are created in the Image of God (Imago Dei, Gen. 1); therefore, it matters how we treat and talk with and about each other. We human beings can easily slip into dehumanizing speech without even thinking about it. Dehumanizing speech is speech that either subtly or blatantly attacks the fundamental human dignity that all human beings share with God by being created in God’s image. Speech that hurts even one other person affects the humanity that we all share. The following list was created in collaboration with my Spring 2012 “Christian Ethics and Mission in a Violent World” course. Paying attention to these guidelines will help all of us be more respectful and less dehumanizing when speaking with and about other people.
10 Guidelines for Being More Respectful and Less Dehumanizing when Speaking With and About Other People
1. Use “I” Statements - Speak for yourself clearly and boldly without being fooled into thinking that all you need is yourself. Trying to be a lone leader is dangerous because being satisfied with an image of yourself as alone is isolating and can lead to poor boundaries. Build and participate in communal networks that allow each of us to speak for ourselves.
2. Who is “We”? - Clearly define your terms anytime you use dualisms such as “we/they;” “us/them;” “ours/theirs.” These dualisms label people into opposing groups. On what authority are you speaking for “we”? Who is included and who is excluded in this “we” and why?
3. Other People are Also People - Speak about other people as people. “Neighbor,” “persons,” “people,” “human beings” are more respectful and less dehumanizing terms than “those people” or “these people” or “the poor” or “women” or “men.” For example, speaking with and about my “neighbors who are experiencing homelessness” reinforces the human dignity and neighbor-love we share as human beings.
4. How Do I Know what I Know? - Watch for the temptation to make sweeping generalizations and back up all such claims with sources. As a United Methodist Female Professor, I can’t speak for all United Methodists or Professional Women. What I do know about these groups comes from my studies and personal experiences. You have a right to know my sources when I make claims on behalf of other people and I have a right to know yours.
5. What in “The” World? - Watch for the tendency to use “the” as a descriptor. Remember that cultures, neighborhoods, and churches are plural in nature and internally diverse; terms “the culture,” “the neighborhood,” and “the church” minimize the rich diversity of people and practices within cultures, neighborhoods, and churches. Also watch for claiming to grasp, understand, or speak for “the truth,” “the facts,” “the reality,” “the situation.” We always have more to learn about ourselves, our neighbors, and the world in which we live.
6. Slippage between “I’m Alright” and “I’m All Right” - It is easy to think of the world as split up into value based dualisms like “right or wrong” and “good or bad.” Especially when we feel passionate about an issue, we can easily slip into “I’m 100% right and good” and “You’re (or worse, “those people”) are 100% wrong or bad.” Yet we know this isn’t this case for ourselves or for other people. Instead of all or nothing thinking, take care not to participate in dehumanizing anyone, even “the other side.”
7. How Can I Be Wrong? - We human beings need to tell both our “success” stories and stories in which we were wrong. I call these our “misunderstanding stories.” We learn about our misunderstanding stories by asking other people: did I get that right? And then the harder part: We have to be willing to hear the response.
8. One Word Can Make a Big Difference - Consider using “survivor” or “victim-survivor” instead of “victim” for any human being who has experienced any kind of abuse or trauma. Consider using “evil” to refer to evil, “wrong” to refer to wrong-doing, and “good” to refer to good, instead relying on the problematic phrase “black and white.”
9. Speak With not Just About Other People - In writing, speaking, preaching, praying, and speaking out, find ways to “join” with others by cultivating an attitude of partnership.
10. Create Vital Conversations - Find, participate in, and host vibrant communities of conversation wherever and whenever possible. But don’t always be the host. When invited, be the guest in vital conversations already happening in your midst. Tap into the collective yearning for deeper and more meaningful conversations.