I’ve been arguing and making peace for most of my life. Even when I was a kid, when my parents were fighting, I’d come in, put my hand on my hip and say, “you have to learn to cooperate”. Later, I made that a career as a mediator, helping divorcing couples and nonprofit departments navigate exponential levels of conflict. I teach about conflict to polyamorous families and lead communication workshops for nonprofits. And as a disability attorney, I spent most of my time trying to make trauma-informed changes to the law so we better consider the impact of lived experience. Modeling empathy through communication has sorta been my thing for as long as I can remember.
But, like most of us, I wasn’t perfect. Because when it came to my political interactions online you can see how misaligned I was (and sometimes still am) with the purpose that I preach. Someone might have been passionately defending an issue, but I’d come in with the withering judgment of *you’re to show off my cleverness, to undercut their argument, to embarrass them publicly. The alleviated the need for me to put effort toward a counterargument because by shifting the focus back to their imperfections, no one would notice that my argument actually lacked merit.
Most of the grammar errors we point out to our opponents online aren’t actually material to the meaning. I understood them well enough to correct the grammar in the first place, to know what they meant to say but didn’t have the words to match it. So when I clapped back with *their* I wasn’t actually responding to their point, which I correctly understood. I was trying to hurt their credibility. It wasn’t a kindness. It wasn’t a good-natured jest. It was elitist, classist, ableist nonsense.
The #RelationshipReboot moment here comes when we recognize when there are a lot of good, legitimate reasons to abandon this practice. Not only is it cruel and humiliating, but what does the shallowness of it say about us? When we triumphantly and foolishly correct someone’s grammar and spelling we are gloriously missing the point: What do our words and tactics say about the world we want to create?
Here are 7 reasons why it’s a good idea to abandon this practice:
1. Not all education is created equal
I have worked too closely with education policy to believe that there is such a thing as equality in education in the United States. Students of color are disproportionately labeled and identified for special education services, creating a new kind of racial segregation. Anyone who had a learning disability prior to the IDEA likely never received additional supports. The term “learning disability” was first first used in1963. Section 504 of the Rehabilitation Act was passed in 1973, a whole 10 years later and ADHD wasn’t even added to the IDEA until 1997. Or how about that school-to-prison pipeline (see graphic)? And then there is the impact of trauma on learning, making it difficult for executive functions that help us with things like language, self-editing, attention, and memory. Likewise, education inequality is quite well documented and has only gotten worse during the pandemic. Some schools have access to better funding, more parental support, less community violence which all have a direct effect on educational outcomes. Critiquing someone’s grammar only flexes the benefits we’ve derived from systemic inequality.
2. Intelligence doesn’t equal worth
I stopped believing intelligence was a measure of someone’s worth when my own IQ tested lower than anyone expected. Yup, all of you call me smart, but standardized testing says I’m actually not. So I’ve been on the receiving end of what it feels like to be called unintelligent “I can’t believe you actually got into law school with an IQ like that much less passed. You’re very lucky” is what the psych tech told me. And let me tell you, spending the entirety of my legal career wondering if I’m even smart enough to be here doesn’t feel “lucky”, it felt traumatic and discouraging…every single day.
For those who say “but IQ testing is inaccurate”, I know! And guess what, those tests are still widely used for diagnosis. I took the same tests we’d send our disabled clients to get for their disability cases. The same ones my dad gave for court cases as a psychologist. The same tests that Mensa requires for membership. The same tests that we’d win social security cases with. While evidence suggests that there isn’t one complete way to measure full intelligence, the fact that people are so quick to reject my score but not those of my clients says a lot to me about the differences in how my credibility is perceived vs of my clients. Privilege means people pour out of the gutter to reassure me of my intelligence while using the same measurement to label my clients as “stupid”.
3. Eliminate systems of supremacy
When we correct others’ grammar and spelling, particularly in an argument, it’s to position ourselves as superior to them. We’ll say “It’s ‘you’re’ not ‘your’, you stupid head” as if that’s the whole of the argument. Yet, all it communicates is that we think of ourselves as superior to the imperfection of grammar and spelling mistakes. Congrats, I guess?
If we haven’t figured it out yet, the core problem we have with inequality is when we have the arrogance to think that we are superior to others. And this happens not just systemically with groups like white supremacists, but with us as individuals. It’s the husbands who demand strict obedience to their will. It’s the parents who unilaterally make decisions for their disabled adult children. It’s the couple that imposes new rules on their polyamorous third without bothering to consult them. If we’re serious about actually wanting a more just and loving world then we need to identify and reject I reject systems where we position ourselves as superior to others.
4. Auto-correct will kill us all
And then there’s auto-correct and mobile optimization that won’t adjust enough for us to edit correctly. I can’t tell you the number of times I’m writing an otherwise well-articulated argument on Facebook or Instagram, but because I can’t scroll up to double check the grammar and auto-correct, I don’t always notice when Siri and my Grammarly decide to change what I’m writing despite writing it correctly the first time.
On the right you’ll see what Siri did when I was originally trying to edit this on the original Facebook post I made. What most people would have clocked as a grammar error was me typing it correctly and Siri choosing what I must have really meant 🤨 This happened three times (in this paragraph alone). So what you call a spelling error I call Siri sabotage made possible by the inattention required by this fast-paced world.
5. English isn’t a universal language
Americans love to think of ourselves as the center of the universe. We are so sheltered that we often forget that there is a whole world of non-English speakers who didn’t spend their formative years, dissecting sentences with the weird rules we have (“i after e except after c” still gives me pause). I remember right before law school I was teaching reading to a recent immigrant from Haiti. We were working on basic grammar and literacy so he could fill out job applications to be a cook. He had a great attitude and loved learning, but even after a year of intense work, he was still misspelling words like “time”, “date” and “judge”. Does it mean he’s dumb? Of course not, it’s because English is hard, y’all. Don’t take its complexity for granted.
6. Don’t be someone’s next abelist bully
There are a lot of medical and psychological reasons why spelling and grammar, whether spoken or written, may not be 100%. Someone’s fingers might be unsteady as they type with arthritis. Another might be inattentive due to their ADHD. The proud vet we’re talking to on Twitter might be recovering from a traumatic brain injury. And sometimes, people are just having a bad pain day or need a new eyeglass prescription. Exposing and exploiting someone’s symptoms is a shitty abuse tactic and I refuse to play along with any longer. What’s next? Are we going to revert to making fun of people in wheelchairs or who use hearing aids again? No thanks.
7. Grace Should be Available when Perfection is not
My very first time in a courtroom was on a dependency and neglect case as a student attorney. I was the child’s representative and had submitted my report to the judge justifying my placement recommendations. When I stepped up to the podium to summarize, he spent ten minutes tearing me apart for three typos that had been in my brief. Now, normally, I would have proofread much better, as we are taught to do as lawyers. But considering there had been a major shift in the case the night before, the fact that I had ten pages of well-researched, properly supported recommendations made no difference. I was dressed down in front of my mentors and peers for my “disrespect demonstrated with this inferior work product”.
Lady Justice carries a sharp sword, symbolizing the sharp judgment that can cut either way. His treatment cut just as deep, openly questioning me in court, whether I should even be part of the legal profession. No understanding or even discussion was offered. Just one-sided humiliation and shame which only made my recommendations seem less credible. That judge missed an opportunity to not only teach me about proofreading a second time out loud (where I could have caught “read” was typed as “red” and “they’re” written as “their”), but to heal one of the deepest ills of the legal profession – our summary dismissal of the humans involved in our cases.
Don’t be that guy. His words were a snowball lobbed at my face that then turned into an avalanche of guilt and self-doubt. I finally left behind last year when I left the practice of law. Yet, if we were to give people the simple grace and understanding that we expect for ourselves, we’d actually already have a better world, lawyer or not.
#RelationshipReboot: Clarification is okay; humiliation is not.
Our words matter, especially when those words are used to inflict shame. They stick with people and can even shift entire careers out of alignment, introducing self-doubt and pernicious judgment.
Every now and then, there is a typo, mispelling, misapplication of grammar that does substantively change the meaning of what was meant. A misplaced comma can be hilarious, in fact. It’s okay to ask for clarification. “Did you mean to say ‘read’ instead of ‘red’?” not only alerts them to a problem with their meaning but also indicates that we’re trying to understand them, not humiliate them. This means they don’t jump to the defensive quite as easily. Which means less hostility, drama, and needless hurt in the world. That’s a plus for everyone!
Nothing can or ever will be perfect, so it’s up to us to offer grace to soothe the impact of those imperfections. For the way we treat others says a lot about how we ourselves want to be treated and the world we’re ready to lead.
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