The Moral Case Against Equity Language

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From The Atlantic:

The Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy. The first two fail at inclusion, because not everyone can stand and not everyone living in this country is a citizen. The third and fourth, even as figures of speech (“Legislators are blind to climate change”), are insulting to the disabled. The guide also rejects the disabled in favor of people living with disabilities, for the same reason that enslaved person has generally replaced slave : to affirm, by the tenets of what’s called “people-first language,” that “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”

The guide’s purpose is not just to make sure that the Sierra Club avoids obviously derogatory terms, such as welfare queen. It seeks to cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. In its zeal, the Sierra Club has clear-cut a whole national park of words. Urbanvibranthardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism. Y’all supplants the patriarchal you guys, and elevate voices replaces empower, which used to be uplifting but is now condescending. The poor is classist; battle and minefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant—no explanation, it just has to go.

Equity-language guides are proliferating among some of the country’s leading institutions, particularly nonprofits. The American Cancer Society has one. So do the American Heart Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, and the University of Washington. The words these guides recommend or reject are sometimes exactly the same, justified in nearly identical language. This is because most of the guides draw on the same sources from activist organizations: A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others. The guides also cite one another. The total number of people behind this project of linguistic purification is relatively small, but their power is potentially immense. The new language might not stick in broad swaths of American society, but it already influences highly educated precincts, spreading from the authorities that establish it and the organizations that adopt it to mainstream publications, such as this one.

Although the guides refer to language “evolving,” these changes are a revolution from above. They haven’t emerged organically from the shifting linguistic habits of large numbers of people. They are handed down in communiqués written by obscure “experts” who purport to speak for vaguely defined “communities,” remaining unanswerable to a public that’s being morally coerced. A new term wins an argument without having to debate. When the San Francisco Board of Supervisors replaces felon with justice-involved person, it is making an ideological claim—that there is something illegitimate about laws, courts, and prisons. If you accept the change—as, in certain contexts, you’ll surely feel you must—then you also acquiesce in the argument.

In a few cases, the gap between equity language and ordinary speech has produced a populist backlash. When Latinx began to be used in advanced milieus, a poll found that a large majority of Latinos and Hispanics continued to go by the familiar terms and hadn’t heard of the newly coined, nearly unpronounceable one. Latinx wobbled and took a step back. The American Cancer Society advises that Latinx, along with the equally gender-neutral LatineLatin@, and Latinu, “may or may not be fully embraced by older generations and may need additional explanation.” Public criticism led Stanford to abolish outright its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative—not for being ridiculous, but, the university announced, for being “broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity.”

In general, though, equity language invites no response, and condemned words are almost never redeemed. Once a new rule takes hold—once a day in history can no longer be dark, or a waitress has to be a server, or underserved and vulnerable suddenly acquire red warning labels—there’s no going back. Continuing to use a word that’s been declared harmful is evidence of ignorance at best or, at worst, a determination to offend.

Like any prescribed usage, equity language has a willed, unnatural quality. The guides use scientific-sounding concepts to lend an impression of objectivity to subjective judgments: structural racializationdiversity value propositionarbitrary status hierarchies. The concepts themselves create status hierarchies—they assert intellectual and moral authority by piling abstract nouns into unfamiliar shapes that immediately let you know you have work to do. Though the guides recommend the use of words that are available to everyone (one suggests a sixth-to-eighth-grade reading level), their glossaries read like technical manuals, put together by highly specialized teams of insiders, whose purpose is to warn off the uninitiated. This language confers the power to establish orthodoxy.

Mastering equity language is a discipline that requires effort and reflection, like learning a sacred foreign tongue—ancient Hebrew or Sanskrit. The Sierra Club urges its staff “to take the space and time you need to implement these recommendations in your own work thoughtfully.” “Sometimes, you will get it wrong or forget and that’s OK,” the National Recreation and Park Association guide tells readers. “Take a moment, acknowledge it, and commit to doing better next time.”

The liturgy changes without public discussion, and with a suddenness and frequency that keep the novitiate off-balance, forever trying to catch up, and feeling vaguely impious. A ban that seemed ludicrous yesterday will be unquestionable by tomorrow. The guides themselves can’t always stay current. People of color becomes standard usage until the day it is demoted, by the American Heart Association and others, for being too general. The American Cancer Society prefers marginalized to the more “victimizing” underresourced or underserved—but in the National Recreation and Park Association’s guide, marginalized now acquires “negative connotations when used in a broad way. However, it may be necessary and appropriate in context. If you do use it, avoid ‘the marginalized,’ and don’t use marginalized as an adjective.” Historically marginalized is sometimes okay; marginalized people is not. The most devoted student of the National Recreation and Park Association guide can’t possibly know when and when not to say marginalized; the instructions seem designed to make users so anxious that they can barely speak. But this confused guidance is inevitable, because with repeated use, the taint of negative meaning rubs off on even the most anodyne language, until it has to be scrubbed clean. The erasures will continue indefinitely, because the thing itself—injustice—will always exist.

Link to the rest at The Atlantic

PG suggests there is nothing inclusive about a new set of invented terms that the large majority of the population, regardless of race or class, doesn’t understand.

It smacks of dividing the intelligencia from the peasants. It creates divisions not unity and amplifies forces that separate people rather than draw them together.

PG was reminded of the elaborate behaviors and circumlocutions required of courtiers in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV.

8 thoughts on “The Moral Case Against Equity Language”

  1. When I was 7, my parents moved me to Mexico City, and I spent years having to learn that if there was even ONE boy in a group of thousands of girls, it would be ‘niños’ and not ‘niñas.’

    Any Spanish speaker in the world went through the automatic version of that (as a child) or learned it awkwardly in school.

    And now they want to change it so ‘they’ don’t have to look around and see if there is a single boy in the cloud of girls? I say they need to grow up and use the correct version that has been around for centuries. However sexist.

    • About spanish (and romance languages in general) is it actually *sexist*? 😉

      As you well know the romance langages unlike modern english are gendered and everthing has a gender, living, unliving, concepts and actions. So groups of children are gendered “male” but on the flip side “cria” is gendered female. Not as popular these days but it balances out. On the abstract side good and evil is male and kindness and mercy are female. 😀

      Goes back to latin, at least. So it is millenia old.

      In general inking gender in langage to sex strikes me as yet more presentism. Cause sexism is a modern first world concept to describe something that evolved naturally from the very biology the absolutists wish to deny in the face of actual reality. And trying to impose presentist ideology on a gendered language only results in absurdities as “Latinx” and “Latine”.

      No better example of such absurdities than hollywood’s fascination with having 100 lb 5ft females fighting and beating 200lb musclebound males at hand to hand. (I suppose we can blame Whedon for it but Buffy is technically superhuman, unlike, say, the latest example of the breed in CBS’s alleged reworking of TRUE LIES.) Like that might work in real life. Now if the lady were packing at least a .30 Super Carry she might survive but otherwise the hospiral woud be the likely next stop.

      As Napoleon is quoted, quantity has its own quality.
      When ideology meets reality, bad things follow.

      • Entirely OT:

        I never watch martial-arts-type† films because my disbelief is almost invariably suspended by the neck until dead: They’re not actually trying (or at least not trying very hard) to hurt each other. Of course, showing them actually trying to hurt each other would (a) needlessly endanger the actors (especially untrained ones) and (b) no doubt give some bad people some bad ideas, so in that sense I understand… but can’t enjoy the films, with rare exceptions when it’s sufficiently meta and played for laughs. Or played for contrast when Inigo takes out four soldiers in three seconds.

        † I’d say “martial-arts-oriented” but that would be on topic.

        • Bruce Lee and David Carradine were notorious for actually hitting the stunt staff when they go going. Fortunately they weren’t as deadly as they pretended.

  2. “It smacks of dividing the intelligencia from the peasants…PG was reminded of the elaborate behaviors and circumlocutions required of courtiers in Versailles during the reign of Louis XIV.”

    To the people propagating such things, that’s a feature, not a bug.

  3. I’m old enough to remember the shifts in “polite conversation” from “Negro” to “Black” to “African-American” and now back to “Black,” with some usage of “persons of color” (echoing “colored persons,” and we’ve still got a major civil rights organization with that usage — NAACP). I try not to be old and set in my ways, but the more things change…

    …the more they come down to “sometimes a descriptor of difference is just a descriptor of difference, and sometimes it’s an insult, and the answer then, now, and always will be that it’s a matter of symbolism and intent.” Symbols do matter, and can fail to acknowledge irony; just consider the meaning of “Red State” now and in 1951!

    If a descriptor is used in ignorance or with intent to diminish, it’s wrongful; otherwise, it’s ambiguous. <sarcasm> Except, that is, when I use a descriptor it’s inevitably so right that nobody should even think about questioning it. </sarcasm>

    • As usual, I couldn’t agree more. The biggest shift of all is in the weight given perception vs. the weight given intention. Today what the speaker/writer intended (what’s truly important in communication) doesn’t matter at all. Today all that matters is what the reader/listener chose to perceive. And if that person, in his/her perception, chose to be ‘offended,’ you lose, period. Which is why I so quickly mark off my list those who wake up in the morning hoping to be ‘offended.’

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