Inclusive or alienating? The language wars go on

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Before the millions of views, the subsequent ridicule, and finally the earnest apology, the Associated Press Stylebook practically oozed good intentions in its tweet last week:اضافة اعلان

“We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”

“The French”?Zut alors! The result was a wave of mocking conjecture of how to refer sensitively to, er, people of French persuasion. The French Embassy in the US proposed changing its name to “the Embassy of Frenchness”.

The AP Stylebook deleted its tweet, citing “an inappropriate reference to French people”. But it doubled down in recommending that people avoid general terms with “the”, such as “the poor, the mentally ill, the wealthy, the disabled, the college-educated.”

It is not obvious to me that “the college-educated” is a label that dehumanizes people. I am guessing George Santos wishes he were included in that category.

‘Definitions and divisions’The flap over “the French” underscores the ongoing project to revise terminology in ways that are meant to be more inclusive — but which I fear are counterproductive and end up inviting mockery and empowering the right.
How about worrying less about jargon and more about zoning and other evidence-based policies that actually get people into housing?
Latino to Latinx. Women to people with uteruses. Homeless to houseless. Asian American to AAPI. Ex-felon to returning citizen. Pro-choice to pro-decision. I inhabit the world of words, and even I am a bit dizzy.

As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for is not to be called houseless; they want housing.

Representative Ritchie Torres, who identifies as Afro-Latino, noted that a Pew survey found that only 3 percent of Hispanics themselves use the term Latinx.

“I have no personal objection to the term ‘Latinx’ and will use the term myself before an audience that prefers it,” Torres told me. “But it’s worth asking if the widespread use of the term ‘Latinx’ in both government and corporate America reflects the agenda-setting power of white leftists rather than the actual preferences of working-class Latinos.”

Similarly, terms like BIPOC — for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color — seem to be employed primarily by white liberals. A US poll for the New York Times found that white Democrats were more than twice as likely to feel “very favorable” toward the term as non-white people.

The American Medical Association put out a 54-page guide on language as a way to address social problems — oops, it suggests instead using the “equity-focused” term “social injustice”. The AMA objects to referring to “vulnerable” groups and “underrepresented minority” and instead advises alternatives such as “oppressed” and “historically minoritized”.

Hmm. If the AMA actually cared about “equity-focused” outcomes in the US, it could simply end its opposition to single-payer healthcare.

Dr Irwin Redlener, president emeritus of the Children’s Health Fund and a lifelong champion of vulnerable children, told me that the linguistic efforts reflect “liberals going overboard to create definitions and divisions” — and he, like me, is a liberal.

“It actually exacerbates divisions rather than accomplishing something useful,” Redlener said, and I think he is right.

Why the terminology reform has gone too farI am all for being inclusive in our language, and I try to avoid language that is stigmatizing. But I worry that this linguistic campaign has gone too far, for three reasons.

First, much of this effort seems to me performative rather than substantive. Instead of a spur to action, it seems a substitute for it.
While this new terminology is meant to be inclusive, it bewilders and alienates millions...
After all, it is the blue cities on the West Coast, where those on the streets are often sensitively described as “people experiencing homelessness”, that have some of the highest rates of unsheltered homelessness. How about worrying less about jargon and more about zoning and other evidence-based policies that actually get people into housing?

Second, problems are easier to solve when we use clear, incisive language. The AMA style guide’s recommendations for discussing health are instead a wordy model of obfuscation, cant, and sloppy analysis.

Third, while this new terminology is meant to be inclusive, it bewilders and alienates millions of Americans. It creates an in-group of educated elites fluent in terms like BIPOC and AAPI and a larger out-group of baffled and offended voters, expanding the gulf between well-educated liberals and the 62 percent majority of Americans who lack a bachelor’s degree.

So I fear that our linguistic contortions, however well-meant, are not actually addressing the US’ desperate inequities or achieving progressive dreams, but rather are creating fuel for right-wing leaders aiming to take the country in the opposite direction.

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