October 9, 2019; Generocity
Writing for Generocity, Valerie Johnson recalls a recent event that sounds suspiciously like the one many of us went to last week, one where nonprofit execs gave speeches about what they do to one another. This, she writes, is a formulaic show that’s pretty objectionable and full of stigmatizing and counterproductive language from the very people who should know better.
It’s a regressive blast from the past, full of words and phrases that are coded shortcuts to narratives that do social harm.
If you’re working with people with substance use disorder, I expect you to know that there are studies that confirm that hearing the term “substance abuser” automatically made those surveyed assume that the “abuser” was less likely to benefit from treatment and more likely to benefit from punishment, be socially threatening, and be blamed for their substance use disorder.
So, to summarize, the way you talk about the work often automatically excludes and “others,” thus reinforcing attitudes that are arrogant and harmful. Johnson adds,
Further, it’s your job to help build self-confidence and autonomy for the people you serve. Stigma doesn’t just apply to the general public that isn’t affected by an issue; it affects the way people think about themselves if they’re affected by an issue too. Calling your clients “addicts” or “drug abusers” is going to reinforce all of the self doubt they themselves carry, and further their shame and guilt over their disease. It doesn’t help, it hurts.
I could go on for days about program design and harm reduction principles, but really it comes down to this: Philadelphia nonprofit leaders, please do better.
Johnson understands that keeping up on the evolution of language requires paying attention—this is, after all, your job. The “othering” you do that you believe makes you look more professional? Well, that particular trope is over, or at least it should be.
Of course, this language issue doesn’t end with not using “wrong words.” The problem is in holding and perpetuating wrong ideas—and that, as she notes, should not be tolerated in rooms where nonprofits gather.—Ruth McCambridge