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:
“We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanising ‘the’ labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college educated.”
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 United States 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’s not obvious to me that “the college-educated” is a label that dehumanises people. I’m guessing George Santos wishes he were included in that category.
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.
Latino to Latinx. Women to people with uteruses. Homeless to houseless. LGBT to LGBTQIA2S+. Breastfeeding to chestfeeding. Asian American to AAPI. Ex-felon to returning citizen. Pro-choice to pro-decision. I inhabit the world of words, and even I’m a bit dizzy.
As for my friends who are homeless, what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who identifies as Afro-Latino, noted that a Pew survey found that only three per cent 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 national poll for The New York Times found that white Democrats were more than twice as likely to feel “very favourable” toward the term as non-white people.
A legitimate concern for transgender men who have uteruses has also led to linguistic gymnastics to avoid the word “women”. In an effort to be inclusive, the American Cancer Society recommends cancer screenings for “individuals with a cervix”, the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance “for breastfeeding people”, and Cleveland Clinic offers advice for “people who menstruate”.
The aim is to avoid dehumanising anyone. But some women feel dehumanised when referred to as “birthing people”, or when The Lancet medical journal had a cover about “bodies with vaginas”.
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 minoritised”.
Hmm. If the AMA actually cared about “equity-focused” outcomes in the United States, it could simply end its opposition to single-payer health care.
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’s right.
I’m all for being inclusive in our language, and I try to avoid language that is stigmatising. 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.
After all, it’s 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 per cent majority of Americans who lack a bachelor’s degree — which is why Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have seized upon all things woke.
DeSantis, who boasts that he will oust the “woke mob”, strikes me as a prime beneficiary when, say, the Cleveland Clinic explains anatomy like this: “Who has a vagina? People who are assigned female at birth (AFAB) have vaginas.”
So I fear that our linguistic contortions, however well-meant, aren’t actually addressing our country’s desperate inequities or achieving progressive dreams, but rather are creating fuel for right-wing leaders aiming to take the country in the opposite direction.
This article originally appeared in The New York Times.
Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He is the winner of two Pulitzer Prizes — for coverage of the Tiananmen democracy movement in China and columns about mass atrocities in Darfur, Sudan — and the Dayton Literary Peace Prize.