The Generalization of Language: A Double-Edged Sword

By Kevin Koo, ECAASU National Board Advocacy Coordinator

Healing, violence, trauma—these are some of the words that have entered my vocabulary recently. I’ve noticed that as these words are starting to become more widely used, they are also becoming substitutes for a wide array of feelings, almost as a “catch-all” type of word. Disclaimer, this is not to say that these words should not be used or do not have place in our day-to-day vocabulary. They most certainly do. The way that trauma and violence are used in place of more detailed and often emotional descriptions is extremely valid and often vital to our ability to cope with our daily lives. Sometimes they are used specifically because of their ability to carry across a specific feeling without having to explain all of the details—it’s hard to unearth all of the associated emotions and experiences every time you want to talk about something. But what I want to bring attention to is an unintended effect of this use: the tendency for these words to minimize our very real and powerful experiences. Also, words like healing, violence, and trauma are difficult to outright define— everyone comes upon them in different circumstances, and therefore defines and uses these words in different ways. So when we do use these words, there’s a chance that what we’re saying and what somebody is hearing are two completely separate things.

For example, what is healing? How do you personally define it? Is it the process of moving on, of complete resolution? Is it the process of being content with the current situation, or of being able to cope with something that will always be a part of you? When can it be used? In which circumstances? When we talk about the healing of a wound, what is considered healed? When the wound is gone? If there is a scar, is the healing incomplete? What if the wound is open, can there still be an ongoing healing process? Can you tell indigenous people to “heal” when they are still actively being removed and erased? Tell Black communities to “heal” after the loss of a loved one, when the systems of policing and incarceration that target them still exist? What are alternatives to this? More accurate descriptions? What do you really wish to communicate in that instance?

What is trauma? When you tell another person that you’ve experienced trauma, what does that entail? What of your experiences are actually carried over through the word “trauma”? Is the trauma associated with your racial identity similar to the trauma associated with your gender identity or queer identity? Is the context provided along with the word trauma enough to fully encapsulate the power and magnitude of your experience without diluting it? Who are the ones who will understand what you mean, and who will not? What about violence? Used often hand-in-hand with trauma, do they carry similar weight? Is the violence enacted upon the body physical or mental, or perhaps a combination of the two? Is one equal to the other? What was the severity of the act? Can the severity even be judged, and do you want it to be? Yes, to be specific about our experiences is to re-open wounds, to delve deep into remembrance, and to re-live pain—none of which we wish to do needlessly. But we also know that there are times where we might decide that this vulnerability is worth it, if it means validation, understanding, and community. What can we do to ensure that these experiences and memories are heard and noticed by others, and passed on to the next generation so that this vicious cycle does not needlessly repeat?

This isn’t to say that every word we use in our vocabulary is lacking. We are continuously forging new words— new tools to express ourselves and to tackle systems of power. White supremacy. Whiteness. Heteropatriarchy. Intersectionality. These words have undoubtedly arisen out of a lack of tangibility, a need for definition and clarity. But language can also be a double-edged sword. Our tendency to use terms such as trauma, violence, and healing as another door between us and our feelings can also minimize and downplay the realness and importance of our experiences when sharing with others. This is not to invalidate the use of trigger warnings, or the paralyzing heaviness that comes with remembering and reliving such experiences. This is also not to deny people their limitations, or to push them beyond their boundaries.

Instead, this is to imbue people with the knowledge that this issue exists, and to empower them with the choice to act accordingly depending on their current situation, emotional state, and capacities. Not just in our speech but in our writing, our art, and any other mediums through which we express ourselves. This is to ensure that when our lived experiences or others’ lived experiences are threatened and invalidated, our lives are not reduced to a mere word that could not possibly encapsulate the magnitude of it all—the sprawling sea of our pains, our fears, our sadness and rage, our hope and helplessness. This is to ensure that our lived experiences are communicated, heard and supported, are passed on; that these experiences are there for others to identify with, bond with, and learn from; to break cycles of oppression, to dismantle systems, to build communities from shared experiences— or at the very least, to be understood and know that we’re not the only ones.