On “The Debate Over Language on the Left”

On the complexity of language. And why we shouldn't read the comments section.

Critique on this opinion piece from the New York Times.

While I agree that we shouldn’t settle for mere word changes in the social justice realm, I think the fear that these changes are a proxy for “real change” is misleading. The people who truly care about real change seem generally emboldened by this inclusive language push as *one of many* “prongs of attack” towards social justice. Word choices are small, accessible, yet still powerful acts in which all people can participate, especially during a pandemic (compared to other forms of activism such as physical protest, law change, donation, etc.).

Shaming others for “getting it wrong” is not OK and can be a form of virtue signaling. The effort in changing word choices for a more inclusive world is not.

I think the fear or shame of “getting it wrong” for people who aren’t bad actors is being overblown. If shaming is a true issue where people are getting bullied or losing their jobs, that needs to be stopped. But let’s also recognize the core issue: that exclusionary language has systemically minimized other people well before we as a society realized their effects. That issue will still go unanswered if we stop inclusive language efforts to avoid shaming. We can instead just not shame, or not fear messing up.

Otherwise, I wonder about the constitution or genuineness of “allies” who end up losing steam towards social justice just because they need to be more mindful about language. Do we seriously think the folks who “aren’t doing the work” would’ve done it at all had the “distraction” of inclusive language not discouraged them? The work always has been unfortunately done by a small but courageous part of society. This particular work of inclusive language is just more accessible and all the more important in our social media age where regular individuals can literally broadcast a message to the entire world in seconds.

Reading some of the comments, I see a pattern of people from “outsider” groups shaming correcting each other for terms about other groups, as well as “insiders” not agreeing with terms about them, e.g., a white person telling a Black person to use “Latinx”, and a Mexican American person not liking that term because it is difficult for Spanish speakers to say and was probably not invented by a Latin person. Or how many non-white folks don’t like BIPOC (myself included). The reality is, “Latinx” is still new to our collective societal consciousness and being debated, as is “BIPOC”. That the debate exists is honestly a great thing — we are thinking more critically about the terms we use, and we should definitely lean into the opinions of those from the “target” group we are trying to elevate with these terms. The debate’s existence is not a sign we should stop trying, but that we should be more mindful of the choices and continue iterating if needed. The debate’s existence is all the more reason we should NOT be shaming others for “getting it wrong” in good faith — but there should be shame in willfully refusing to try. The debate is also a reminder that the marginalized groups we are trying to elevate with inclusive language are NOT a monolith — some non-white people do like “BIPOC”, and some Latin people do like “Latinx”…

Other comments on the article come from women feeling alienated by gender-inclusive language around pregnancy and birthing. The general feeling is that to change language around those topics to be inclusive of trans and intersex folks who can also give birth (as well as acknowledge cis *women* who cannot) somehow erases womanhood. I think these fertile cis women are just now starting to feel how these trans, intersex, and sterile female folks have felt for a very long time… except, strangely, *they’re still being included themselves* as they are still “birthing” or “pregnant parents.” Okay, it’s complicated because women (myself included) have been erased in many other ways under patriarchy, but please know: this case is not one of those ways.

The comments also point out a numbers game — why change language for a mere 2% of the population (or whatever the small number is)? But then I ask you, why not change language for them, in addition to simply being more accurate and precise? One facet of inclusion is elevating a group that has been marginalized — even if part of that marginalzation is due to a numbers game, people are people, whether they are 2% or 20% of the population. And for all the pseudoscience counterarguments against gender-inclusive language, it is ironic given accuracy and precision are incredibly important in science and medicine — “birthing” and “pregnant parents” are simply more self-descriptive and accurate than “women”.

The next pattern I see in the comments is from folks from marginalized backgrounds frustrated at being lumped into a larger group rather than being specifically identified. For example, gay people instead of LGBTQIA+, or Filipino Americans instead of Asian Americans or AAPI, or Black people instead of people of color. Yes, yes, yes: always be as specific as you can! But there is value in terms that unify a larger group together, so I don’t think the answer is in removing those unifying terms. (See Why I don’t use the term “BIPOC”.)

The largest sentiment I get from the commenters is frustration in needing to “keep up” with all the term changes. I understand and sympathize with this sentiment. The ones most passionate and knowledgeable about these language changes are often the ones most passionate for real change (encompassing language and other avenues and especially among academics), often because they are the ones directly marginalized by the status quo. Others aren’t necessarily going to be on top of the news for terms all the time. I think, instead of grumbling, we should take these moments as learning opportunities. These terms don’t come out of thin air — even if I personally don’t agree with all of them myself, I understand why they have come about and what problem they are trying to solve. If we take the time to learn about the terms and still disagree, at that point we have the tools necessary to contribute to the ongoing debate on our evolving language for social justice reform. If we don’t try, well, it seems we aren’t even willing to do *this* work, let alone other forms of activism.

While anyone should have the freedom to disagree after becoming aware of the terms and their backgrounds, we should always strive to respect how each individual person wants to identify. If I as a non-Black, non-African American person prefer the term “Black ” to refer to American descendants of enslaved Africans, but my colleague who identifies as African American prefers me to call them that– “African American”– I need to respect that and maybe reconsider my preferences, though acknowledge that my colleague does not represent all people of that group. At the same time, while I can respect you preferring “BIPOC” as a general term for non-white Americans, I should have the space to say that, as an Asian American or Filipino American, I do not feel included with that term if you intend to include people like me in it when you use it (and that I don’t represent all Asian Americans or Filipino Americans). If you still “mess up” in good faith, I will not make a big deal about it and likely not even point it out to you, but if you want to talk to me about it and I have the energy, I’m willing to engage.

I also think there is sometimes a realization of privilege in one’s ignorance of given terms — I’d say most people who identify as Black or African American are well aware of the two terms and their pros and cons, and have their own personal preferences (or don’t mind either), but many people who aren’t in that group do not know the intricacies and are just frustrated trying not to offend rather than truly understand. That deeper level of understanding involves a greater knowledge of colorism, anti-Blackness, mixed race heritage, the African diaspora, “passing” as white or Black, being “Black enough”, the one-drop rule, the brown paper bag test, colonialism, etc. Sure, not everyone wants to spend the time learning all that stuff, but that choice in knowing is often grounded in privilege — Black and African American folks largely need to know that background to survive and understand their identity, while others do not (though other non-white folks directly understand colorism and racism to some degree because of their own identities and experiences in a racialized society).

Ignorance of such English language terms is more forgivable for folks whose native language is not English, and who are generally older, outside of academia, do not engage with the Internet, do not have particular marginalized identities, or do not have more diverse social networks (especially connections with people of diverse backgrounds beyond surface-level water cooler chat).

Overall, I think we just need to treat these terms as other parts of our news — try your best to stay an informed citizen of the world, and particularly for this list, an informed American. Don’t beat yourself or others up over not knowing or for messing up, but do try to be more inclusive and informed in general, and try to engage in the salient topics these term changes are addressing.

Nguyen’s quote at the end that highlights how new (at least to the popular consciousness) terms such as the ones in the cover photo are in conflict even among the target groups (like BIPOC vs POC among non-white folks, or where the LGBTQIA+ acronym ends among folks in that community) has been a phenomenon for decades, if not longer, and that is fine — that is how language works, as language is powerful and often has political implications. We are still trying to figure out these words as a society, and it’s false to assume we were ever all OK with the “old” terms in the first place.

This article seems to minimize the evolution of language and the thrust for more inclusive language, but to me that ironically underlines the importance of the thrust.

Finally, I think it is disingenuous to frame the phenomenon of language change as a thing of the Left. The Right powerfully and perhaps masterfully uses language for its own reasons, though arguably not always for inclusive reasons. I also truly believe that inclusive language as a topic has no political leaning, for  conservative folks can get behind at least some of the terms on the list from the article’s cover photo and have the platform to add to it — so long as there is a good-faith intent towards inclusion and equity. I understand this stance is perhaps my most theoretically bound and idealistic, but still important to say.