If you follow debates over the strident style of social justice politics often derided as "wokeness," you might have heard about a document called "Advancing Health Equity: A Guide to Language, Narrative and Concepts." Put out by the American Medical Association and the Association of American Medical Colleges Center for Health Justice, the guide is a long list of terms and phrases that some earnest people have decided others in the medical field should avoid using, along with their preferred substitutes.
Some of these substitutions make sense; health care professionals shouldn't be referring to people who have been in prison as "ex-cons." Some, however, are obnoxious and presumptuous and would impede clear communication. For example, the guide suggests replacing "vulnerable" with "oppressed," even though they're not synonymous: it's not oppression that makes the elderly vulnerable to COVID.
Like most other reports written by bureaucratic working groups, "Advancing Health Equity" would probably be read by almost no one if it did not inadvertently advance the right-wing narrative that progressive newspeak is colonizing every aspect of American life. Still, the existence of this document is evidence of a social problem, and the problem is this: Parts of the "diversity, equity and inclusion" industry are heavy-handed and feckless, and the left keeps having to answer for them.
Consider the endless debate over critical race theory in public schools. In certain circles, it's become conventional wisdom that even if public schools are not teaching graduate-school critical race theory, they're permeated by something adjacent to it.
"The idea that critical race theory is an academic concept that is taught only at colleges or law schools might be technically accurate, but the reality on the ground is a good deal more complicated," wrote Yascha Mounk in The Atlantic. Across the nation, he wrote, "many teachers" have started adopting "a pedagogical program that owes its inspiration to ideas that are very fashionable on the academic left, and that go well beyond telling students about America's copious historical sins."
In truth, it's hard to say what "many teachers" are doing; school curriculums are decentralized, and most of the data we have is anecdotal. But there was just a gubernatorial election in Virginia in which critical race theory played a major role. If the right had evidence of Virginia teachers indoctrinating children, you'd think we'd have heard about it. After all, school there was almost entirely online last year, offering parents an unprecedented window into what their kids were learning.
Instead, the Republican candidate for governor, Glenn Youngkin, ran commercials featuring a woman aggrieved that her son was assigned Toni Morrison's "Beloved" as a high school senior. But if conservatives couldn't find useful examples from the classroom, they discovered a rhetorical gold mine in materials from a training session for administrators, including a slide juxtaposing "white individualism" and "color group collectivism."
Such training would be worth fighting for if it had a record of success in changing discriminatory behavior, but it doesn't. As scholars Frank Dobbin and Alexandra Kalev wrote in The Economist, hundreds "of studies of anti-bias training show that even the best programs have short-lived effects on stereotypes and no discernible effect on discriminatory behavior." Instead of training sessions, they suggest that employers should focus their diversity efforts on concrete efforts such as recruitment.
In The Washington Post, columnist Matt Bai described the document as an ominous development. "I'd argue that it's actually a powerful testament to where we are at the moment — and it should frighten you as much as it does me." It doesn't frighten me: In a truly Orwellian situation, people would actually have to follow new linguistic edicts instead of being able to laugh at them.
But it does irritate me, because it's so counterproductive. "It's not scary; it's just ridiculous" is not a winning political argument.
The New York Times