Do We Have Compelled Speech Ideologies in the Fair Trade World?

The Empowerment Series deals with the deep-rooted issues within Fair Trade and serving artisans around the world. In the past several posts, we have looked at challenging issues surrounding poverty and serving in impoverished areas in other parts of the world. These articles are meant to bring awareness to some of the challenges that exist and offer some suggestions and solutions to those challenges.

When I went to Kenya in Feb 2018 on a mission trip with a Christian group, I felt it was God calling me to go serve there. I had no idea my life was about to change and I would embark on a journey to teach women artisans in a slum in Kenya how to become entrepreneurs. I wasn’t aware of many of the issues surrounding what is known as social entrepreneurism or the “do good” space (see previous blog posts). I simply decided originally to buy a few beads and sell them with my book when I speak in hopes to help the women I had met in the Kipsongo slum.

As a professional speaker for many years I refused to use certain language patterns that many marketers were teaching to trick people into spending huge amounts of money to buy into programs that would be the supposed solution to their problems in business or life. There’s a fine line with ethical selling and I never felt that was the path for me to take to earn a living speaking. There is one speaker in particular that was a master hypnotist and would use what’s known as hypnotic language patterns to move his audience to buy.

Why do I bring this up here in regards to Fair Trade? In any industry there are the good and the bad. You must be discerning to make sure you recognize both. Avoid the bad - those people in the “do good” space who aren’t in it to do good, but instead are exploiting artisans or children or using a non profit as a front to garner money, accommodations or attention for themselves. The Poverty Inc documentary describes this very well. (See previous blog post about the poverty industry. )

As with anything in today’s world, people take things too far. There are some who dissect terminology, intention or processes and make other people wrong for what they’re doing or how they’re doing it. There are those who are making an industry out of shaming social entrepreneurs for using what they have determined to be the wrong words, pictures or stories.

I’ve come across some ideologies that suggest anyone doing a business working with artisans or groups in another country must be reprogramed to certain ideas, terminology or what seems to be known as “cultural humility” If you don’t use the terms that they have deemed appropriate or have those ideas they have approved as acceptable, you may be labeled as a white savior, neo colonialist or racist.

It seems to me some of this is going a little too far. People over analyze and decide that everyone is doing the wrong thing or using what has been determined to be inappropriate terminology. In essence we are being compelled to change our minds, our words and the way we operate. It borderlines the dangerous concept of compelled speech in my humble opinion.

What exactly is compelled speech? It is a transmission of expression required by law. For example the University of Toronto psychology professor and clinical psychologist Jordan Peterson has used the term "compelled speech" to describe the Canadian federal government's Bill C-16, which added "gender identity or expression" as a prohibited ground of discrimination under the Canadian Human Rights Act. Basically refusing to call someone by a preferred gender pronoun is now a punishable offense under this act.

Please note, this post has nothing to do with the subject of that law, it is simply an example to describe the term compelled speech which is the concept being discussed not the law or anything to do with gender identity.

A related legal concept is protected speech. Just as freedom of speech protects free expression, in many cases it similarly protects an individual from being required to utter or otherwise express a thought with which they disagree.

Moving into an environment of compelled speech is a dangerous place to be. There may not be a law about it in the US but if enough people get on the bandwagon, they will compel or attempt to compel people to change their language to suit what they think is the proper thing to say. Not so much of what we should say but what we shouldn’t say. There are people that keep changing the words that they think should be said or not said to describe a social entrepreneurs work with artisans in another country.

For example Third World Country was changed to Developing Country and then to the Global South which apparently none of those terms are now considered acceptable by certain individuals who claim they are all racist and appear to exert some form of power dynamic over the people in those locations. Therefore the term must again be changed. However, the new acceptable term has yet to be determined. I will address this in a future post but just bringing it up here to show how far down the rabbit hole this goes.

Did the people attempting to make the rules for everyone ever think to ask the people we are serving if we should change the words we use or if they are offensive to them? Or is it some people deciding the words are no longer appropriate because of some kind of perceived abuse, racism or white savior complex/neo colonialism these terms supposedly cause?

Let’s look at one of the words that depending on who you speak to is no longer considered acceptable.

Slum – The definition of a slum is a squalid (extremely dirty and unpleasant, especially as a result of poverty or neglect) and overcrowded urban street or district inhabited by very poor people.

The place the ladies I work with in Kenya live is called the Kipsongo slum. Kipsongo was built on an old landfill. The inhabitants squatted on the land. It is a slum by the definition described above and that’s what the people in Kenya call it. I’ve had a few people here in the US tell me not to call it that. One woman posted on my Facebook that it was not the correct term to use these days and that she lived in a “third world country” before and that this term was no longer seen as acceptable to use.

Her first comment was "ouch slum!"

I responded saying that was where they live and it’s called the Kipsongo slum.

She responded with “I know where they live. The word ‘slum’ is deprecatory and in very poor taste now-a-days. I lived in a third world country for ten years and out of respect for the people living in the community, that term would be avoided when describing any severely deprived neighborhood.”

I responded with “Thank you for your opinion. I respectfully disagree. I don't know where you lived but in Kenya it's called a slum. This is real world and in my humble opinion changing the word does not change the reality of what it is. "Third World Country" can be considered in poor taste as well. Where does it end?

Other’s have told me I should call it a village. Calling it a village is not going to change the fact that it’s a slum or will make the slum go away and become something else because the name was changed to village.

She said “Out of respect for the people in the community.” Who decided it was disrespectful to call it a slum? Not the people living there I’m sure. It was some person in the do good space that decided the word needed to be changed because it made them feel bad. People want me to change the term to make them feel more comfortable. The word slum makes them feel uncomfortable, bad or makes them cringe. It has nothing to do with the people that live there or eradicating the slum and the poverty that goes along with it.  It's about making people not feel so bad which has become a culture in the US.

I had one woman cringe when I describing the slum and every time I used the word slum she tensed up and said “slum! Don’t call it that, that’s their home!.” I said yes and their home is a slum, that’s what they call it. I’m not going to change it just because it makes you feel uncomfortable or you can’t deal with it. It’s not going to change the reality of what it is. Our Kenya director and the ladies I work with in Kenya confirm that it’s called a slum and they see no reason to change it. I’m not changing the term just because someone here in the US feels uncomfortable when they hear it. Facing reality is tough but it might help bring about change faster if people don’t attempt to cover it up to make themselves feel better.

I think the real problem is people deciding that certain words make them feel a certain way about something so they seek to change those words to make themselves feel better or make it appear to be more appropriate or acceptable to themselves. People have assigned certain meaning to those words that make them feel uneasy, uncomfortable or inappropriate. This I believe is why the term third world country has changed names 3 times now and it’s still unacceptable to some so they are attempting to force another “politically correct” term. Where does it end? When is it too much? When does the service become more important than the terminology?

We have a place in Los Angeles where many of the homeless live called “skid row” Skid Row contains one of the largest stable populations (about 4,200–8,000) of homeless people in the United States and has been known for its condensed homeless population since the 1930s.

The term "skid row" or "skid road," referring to an area of a city where people live who are "on the skids," derives from a logging term. Loggers would transport their logs to a nearby river by sliding them down roads made from greased skids. Loggers who had accompanied the load to the bottom of the road would wait there for transportation back up the hill to the logging camp. By extension, the term began to be used for places where people with no money and nothing to do gathered, becoming the generic term in English-speaking North America for a depressed street in a city.

Skid row is the same thing as a slum basically. Why aren’t people moving to change that term, isn’t that offensive and means something derogatory?

I don’t think anyone thought to ask the people that are being served if those words bring up negative experiences or make them feel less than in some way. It’s only in the US that people are dissecting the heck out of every word we use and attempting to tie some type of negative connotations or racism to those words.  

I think we are spending too much time on dissecting words and not enough time on eradicating the real issue of poverty and injustice for the people we are serving. I am certain that the women I am serving are not degraded by the mere fact that they live in a place called the Kipsongo slum and they don’t view me as some racist white savior attempting to exert power and control over them and exploit them simply because I describe where they live as a slum in a Third World Country, Developing country or the Global South, and bring awareness to the struggles they have and how we are working to empower them out of poverty.

Empowerment will be dealt with in the next blog post. In the meantime, if you are a social entrepreneur. I hope you will do some research for yourself and get informed about this movement to eradicate certain speech in the name of cultural humility. We are taking this kind of thing way too far in my humble opinion but that's the nature of our culture here today in the US.  Focus on the people instead of dissecting the terminology.  If you are doing what you do out of love and concern the words you use isn't going to change the mission you are on.  Go forth and empower. 

1 comment

  • This has to be one of the most well written and well thought out particles I’ve ever seen on the subject. More and more, I have felt this uprising and seen evidence of the things that you’re talking about in other areas of life. If we spend so much time re-defining terms that have already been defined, we will never get anything productive done. I think that your references are also well selected as free-speech is clearly under attack and using the wrong word in the wrong place in the wrong context in front of the wrong people can get you canceled permanently. That’s not the country I thought the United States was. I thought this was the land of the free and the home of the brave. I think it’s very brave that you go out to Kenya and try to help women in the slums(yeah i said it!!) to escape poverty, escape prostitution, escape violence and I’m so honored that there are people like you in this world that continue to help other people. I’m sure they appreciate your efforts! You’re one of the best examples of a Christian woman that I’ve ever seen.

    Alex Van Name

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