If stigma is the problem, using different words may not help

From The Economist:

The associated press (ap) style book’s Twitter feed is not often a source of hilarity. But the wire service recently tweeted: “We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanising ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated.” After the tweet went viral, the ap deleted it and apologised for dehumanising “the French”.

Despite the mockery, the ap advice has solid reasoning behind it: that of “people-centred” language. English (like many other languages) allows the use of an adjective as a noun: the good, the bad, the ugly. But in contrast to some other languages, it is increasingly considered essentialising to refer to “the poor” or “the disabled”, as though they are nothing else. This especially applies to characteristics that might be considered unfortunate. The ap did not apologise to “the college-educated” as it did to the French, but it did not need to; nobody really minds being lumped in either group. The issue is essentialising combined with stigma.

Some people are also troubled by bare group nouns such as “blacks”, “gays” and “Jews”, though these too seem to be on the decline. Fortunately, it is not hard to add another word without clunking up your prose—either “people” or, even better, something descriptive as in “black veterans”, “gay activists” or “Jewish voters”. These make these phrases a bit more three-dimensional, like the people they point to.

These are far from the only ideas flowing into journalists’ inboxes today. Suggestions abound: replace “slaves” with “enslaved people”; “minorities” with “minoritised people” or “racialised people”; “addicts” with “drug users” or “people with a substance-abuse problem”; “obese people” with “people with obesity”; “convicts” or “inmates” with “those who are incarcerated”. And so on.

In each instance, the target is a term that is, or can be seen as, pejorative. The alternative is meant to be less so. But those who encourage these lexical replacements face several problems.

One is that though a case can be made for each individual change, adopting every one will quickly make a piece of writing lumbering, since every new option is longer than the one it is supposed to replace. It will also make prose seem more unnatural, since the entire point is to replace words in common use with phrases that are not. Good journalism is ideally conversational and accessible, calling for a brisk and compelling style.

Changing the world is hard; changing the language is a lot easier, which is why linguistic engineering can tempt people who may feel they have no other tools at hand apart from their keyboards. But it does not seem to work out as hoped. Replacing a stigmatised word often merely results in the stigma attaching to the new word. “Retarded” was once a polite way of saying “feeble-minded”; it was in long-standing clinical use before becoming a playground insult and, ultimately, deeply offensive. “Special needs” came next, but now “special” is a mean-spirited taunt too.

In the same vein “handicapped” was a kinder replacement for “crippled”, and “homeless” for “vagrant”. Now “handicapped” is out and “disabled” is in (or, better yet, “person with a disability”). “Unhoused” is gaining ground over “homeless”. This “euphemism treadmill” has been observed since at least the 1970s. Nevertheless, people still hope to remake the world through language.

Some groups have taken another tack, and reclaimed older terms. “African-American” had a 30-year heyday, but now “black” is back, and even given a capital B by many. Though “hearing-impaired” is still in medical parlance, many “Deaf” people proudly refer to themselves as such, also with a capital D. Other activists have decided there is nothing wrong with being “fat”, and have wholeheartedly embraced the term. As with reclaiming slurs, the idea seems to be that showing pride is likely to be more effective than swapping words.

Link to the rest at The Economist

PG loves to see English continuing to develop and finds it both invigorating and fascinating.

He’s not enamored with some of the substitutions made in the pursuit of respect for everyone, but people will find ways around that sort of attempted language/mind control. Ridicule has been quite effective in opposing the world of mandated speech for a long time.

As the OP notes, there is no field of speech which can compete with the ever changing standards for identifying Afro-Americans, negroes, blacks, African-Americans, Bros, etc., etc.

It’s as if getting the right word will solve a problem that has been around in various guises for a very long time. Poles won’t hate Germans if you can just get the proper wording for the Other. Untermenschen is definitely not going by be resurrected.

That said, PG contends that social problems are social problems, not word problems.

3 thoughts on “If stigma is the problem, using different words may not help”

  1. I think that people my age need a special dispensation when it comes to the current acceptable language. The euphemism du jour has changed so often in my lifetime that I cannot keep up and just have to avoid some subjects if I don’t want to shock my children, or to have to remind them that their preferred term will be on the “not to be spoken” list in a few years time.

    • I go with the latter option, that the “virtuous” term today will be the “naughty” term tomorrow. To me the focus should be on treatment of others rather than vocabulary, because kindness will always be en vogue. Plus for the young it’s an exercise in humility, because they, too, will be on the receiving end of lectures for using their “correct” term 5 minutes after it’s been declared “rude.”

  2. One bit of progress in this area, at least, which I was reminded of by reading the Richard Hannay novels by John Buchan: people no longer refer to “the Jew” or “the Turk” or “the Negro” as if these large groups of people were reducible to a monolith and could be generalized about as if they were a single individual.

    The OP makes an excellent point, though.

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