The left these days gets a bad rap for policing language. It can be irritating to feel like you have to watch how you say things or keep up with the latest lingo when the old lingo still seems perfectly fine. This is especially the case with counterintuitive ideas such as referring not to “pregnant women” but to “people who are pregnant” — a phrase now used on Planned Parenthood’s website — or the even less intuitive “birthing people,” which we’re asked to embrace as inclusive, and therefore progressive, despite that both reduce women to being biological vessels.
I’m certainly not arguing for intolerance toward those who can become pregnant but don’t identify as women. I’m saying that even if we’re not being forced to use the new terms, the way they’re introduced, almost as if by fiat, can make it seem as if sticking with the old ones is a kind of thought crime. But it isn’t that those on the left have some weird, childish yen for control. Rather, they seem to be operating under an attractive but shaky idea that language channels thought: Change how people say things and you change how they think about things and then the world changes.
That’s not how it works, though. Good intentions frequently don’t translate into efficacy. So, the question is, how much does changing terminology really accomplish?
In the late 1980s, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said the term “African American” had more “cultural integrity,” and “Black” was, therefore, out of date. But I’d be hard-pressed to say that the Black community today has a greater measure of cultural integrity or is any prouder than it was then. And though a recent poll showed that a majority of Black Americans see being Black as central to their identity, the younger they are, the less central it is — suggesting less significance, as time goes on, about what we call ourselves.
I think also of Nina Simone’s musicalization of Lorraine Hansberry’s phrase “To be young, gifted and Black.” Watch Simone perform this song in Questlove’s Oscar-winning documentary, “Summer of Soul,” with her vocal emphasis, full of conviction, on the word “Black.” Singing “African American” wouldn’t — couldn’t — ring with the same richness. Black America added meaning to and wrested pride out of a word that was supposed to have negative connotations by thinking of ourselves as beautiful and determined. I’m not sure “African American,” just as a term, has furthered that at all: “To be young, gifted and African American”?
Remember, too, the “euphemism treadmill” described by the Harvard University psychology professor Steven Pinker, who explained in a 1994 Times Opinion essay: “People invent new ‘polite’ words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations.” For example, the pathway from “crippled” to “handicapped” to “disabled” to “differently abled.” New words ultimately don’t leave freighted ideas behind; they merely take them on.
Consider the phrase “urban renewal.” Starting in the 1930s, there were initiatives in American cities to raze working-class, often Black neighborhoods. They would eventually be replaced with various civic projects, such as new highway construction. One term for this, embraced by city planning éminences grises such as Robert Moses in New York City, was “slum clearance.”
As the years passed, the downsides of this destruction of modest but cohesive communities became more apparent, and the term “slum clearance” was gradually supplanted by the term “urban renewal,” starting in the 1950s. But calling it urban renewal didn’t persuade a range of writers, thinkers and displaced residents to celebrate this destructive dislocation. Other than by, perhaps, some city planners, urban renewal was increasingly perceived as a glum business — the same business — as slum clearance. James Baldwin memorably coined it with the more reality-based term, “Negro removal.”
Even when factoring in Pinker’s treadmill, I understand the impulse to refer to “enslaved people” rather than “slaves” — not all new terminology is pointless. Describing someone as a “slave” can be taken as indicating that servitude is an inherent trait rather than an imposed condition. But I suspect that after a while, the term “enslaved person” will continue its lexical drift and we’ll need a new term. Why? Because of what happened to “homeless person,” which began as an enlightened replacement for terms such as “bum” and “bag lady,” but is now itself being slowly replaced by referring to someone who is “unhoused.”
It is, then, reasonable to surmise that terms such as “pregnant people,” while pleasing a certain contingent, will not deter most people from continuing to perceive the world according to an old-fashioned gender binary. Basic perception will remain that most pregnant people are cisgender women, such that it will still feel natural to think of being pregnant as something women experience, and it will feel forced to use gender-neutral language, even as we acknowledge that there are people who identify as men or nonbinary who can become pregnant.
As I’ve discussed before in this newsletter, research has shown that language can influence thought, but sometimes only slightly. And what pops up in a psychological experiment may not track with real-life behavior: The Implicit Association Test, more than two decades old, has often been used to demonstrate how implicit bias is supposed to work — how negative associations with terms such as “Black” may correlate with people exhibiting prejudice or bigotry. But a more recent analysis argues that there is no evidence that quietly associating negative terms with Black people rather than white people in such tests correlates with racist behavior.
Today’s predilection for newspeak neglects all of this. Frankly, I think it is partly because generating new labels offers instant gratification, especially with the internet handy. It’s easier to introduce new terms than to change the way different groups referred to by those terms are really perceived. In that way, never-ending calls to change the way people talk and write is less an advance than a cop-out.
Terminology will, of course, evolve over time for various reasons. But broadly speaking, thought leaders and activists of past eras put their emphasis on what people did and said — not on ever-finer gradations of how they might have said it.
Far better to teach people what you think they should think about something, and why, instead of classifying the way they express themselves about it as a form of disrespect or backwardness. After a while, if you teach well, they won’t be saying what you don’t want them to say. Mind you, you may not be around to see the fruits of the endeavor — a frustrating aspect of change is that it tends to happen slowly. But “Change words!” is no watchcry for a serious progressivism.
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John McWhorter (@JohnHMcWhorter) is an associate professor of linguistics at Columbia University. He hosts the podcast “Lexicon Valley” and is the author, most recently, of “Woke Racism: How a New Religion Has Betrayed Black America.”