Language Differences Need Not Be Wars
A few weeks back, Nicholas Kristof wrote a New York Times Opinion piece about how language wars are waged by some people who are trying to be more inclusive. I felt compelled to respond because he is a compassionate, thoughtful person and writer, and I believe he momentarily erred towards shutting down important conversations in order to keep the peace.
Kristof’s concern is that some attempts at inclusive language are excessive, confusing, and alienating to people. He makes some fair points but, in my view, misses the forest through the trees. From my perspective, for language to expand in order to include the experiences of everyone, it's inevitable and maybe even necessary for it to be a bit disorienting. Granted, some people are strident in their views, or offer versions of inclusive language that leave many of us scratching our heads which, of course, gets a lot of media airtime.
Language has the power to transform the way we see the world, and many people meet change with resistance, even when the change is healthy.
The truth is that most of us grew up with language that is conditional in its welcoming and excludes far too many at the expense of us all. Our language continues to prioritize old paradigms of who is included and who is not, and we see it perpetuated in the discomfort with more inclusive language.
Kristof’s choice to use the words “language wars” is unfortunate because it empowers those who wish to cause divisiveness over the disagreement in how we use language. His lumping inclusive language in with examples of extreme intolerance has the unfortunate outcome of feeding into the narrative of those who have no interest in greater diversity and true inclusion.
Kristof also asserts that terms like BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) were created by white, privileged folks. Regardless of who first used the acronym BIPOC, the term is accepted and actively used by many people of color as a powerful form of solidarity.
The same is true for LGBTQIA2S+, the ever-evolving acronym that can be hard to keep up with, but its intention is the clear message: “We are in this together”. I can relate to Mr. Kristof's question of whether the expansion of the acronym LGBT to LGBTQIA2S+ is counterproductive. It was not all that long ago that I, as someone who throughout her life has had more than one identity under this umbrella, had a similar thought. Yet, over time, I developed a powerful sense of belonging that comes from the unequivocal commitment to leave no one behind, when I explored my discomfort and opened my heart to an ever-expanding circle of kin.
Standards for inclusive language will change as language changes, and we will sometimes choose to use words that differ from what is generally thought of as the ideal, but hopefully, when we do, it is always with intention and an eye toward inclusion.
Mr. Kristof is deeply concerned with this country's desperate inequities, and he is correct in recognizing that changing language alone (for example, shifting from the word homeless to houseless) doesn't provide solutions to the problem. But it is ill-advised to hinder improving language to elevate and encompass a greater range of experiences.
Language that is more inclusive invites everyone to bring all aspects of themselves to solving the problems at hand and enables us to join in solidarity and more effectively work together towards solutions.
I’ll close with an excerpt of Toni Morrison’s Nobel Lecture, in which she speaks about both the power of language and the responsibility we have to it.
Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?
Word-work is sublime … because it is generative; it makes meaning that secures our difference, our human difference – the way in which we are like no other life.
We die. That may be the meaning of life. But we do language. That may be the measure of our lives.
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