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 dehumanizing '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."
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.
Rep. Ritchie Torres, D-N.Y., who identifies as Afro-Latino, noted that a Pew survey found that only 3% 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 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 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention offers guidance "for breastfeeding people," and Cleveland Clinic offers advice for "people who menstruate."
The aim is to avoid dehumanizing anyone. But some women feel dehumanized 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 minoritized."
I'm 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.
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 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% majority of Americans who lack a bachelor's degree -- which is why Republicans like Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis have seized upon all things woke.
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.
The New York Times