Food for Thought:  Inclusive language — too far or not far enough?

By Amy Durr, Alliance Communications Coordinator

Whether progressive or conservative, Republican or Democrat, people are challenged, confused and frustrated about how to speak respectfully yet honestly these days. In fact, some people are fearful of being attacked, online and in real life, when choosing a word that may not be politically correct enough for their audience. Words are important, and so is representation. But where is the line between politically correct and we’ve-gone-so-far-people-can’t-keep-up? Turns out it’s hard to find.

“A national poll for The Times found that white Democrats were more than twice as likely to feel ‘very favorable’ toward the term [BIPOC] as nonwhite people,” shares Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times. He continues, Dr. Irwin Redlener, president emeritus of the Children’s Health Fund, 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,” says Redlener.

Kristof adds, “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. Second, problems are easier to solve when we use clear, incisive language. Third, while this new terminology is meant to be inclusive, it bewilders and alienates millions of Americans.” 

Another controversial example is “Latinx”. As NPR points out, “Latinx isn’t a new term, and neither are the debates around its use. According to a recent Pew Research Center national survey of Latinos, Latinx has not caught on.” Only 3% of all Americans say they use the term and only 2% or Spanish dominant language people use it. While Pew asked if people had heard the term or used it, it would be helpful to know if there are negative responses to its use.

During National Hispanic Heritage month the Alliance had a long, vigorous discussion about what term to use. We did research and talked again, with the commitment to use proper terminology when elevating these Americans. We planned to write a piece about the use of the term for the newsletter, but in the end, many of us still felt unclear about which term to use. We were clear that people of Hispanic background had different preferences that need to be respected on a one-on-one level. However, the challenge remains when speaking to a broad audience in a publication.

And as convenient as “BIPOC” is for white people to refer to non-white people, use of the term is not widespread or supported by the groups it’s meant to describe.

Van Jones, interviewed after Kristof on CNN Tonight, agrees about the language challenge: “Look, I understand that there are people who are concerned about the status quo, the way certain groups are left out and mistreated, and they’re worried…the old language might be codifying the old attitudes. And so, they want new language to signify new attitudes.”

Jones continues, “And so, even people like myself who are passionately committed to these causes, you find…you’re afraid to even talk on a zoom call because you might say the wrong word and spend 15 minutes getting lectured about how, you know, something that nobody even heard of six months ago is now required speech in polite company. And it is a distraction from getting anything actually done.”

Furthermore, Jones shared how language is being used as a political weapon to galvanize a political base, which further polarizes our country. He pointed to FL Governor Ron DeSantis’ attack on “woke” language.

Scott Jennings, a conservative Republican CNN political commentator, agrees and also feels that just speaking with others can be treacherous, even when talking with fellow Republicans: “I think a lot of it has to do with this language war that you are talking about and the implications of it that Van is alluding to.”

He continues, “When you speak like this and you don’t sound, you know, like just sort of a normal person talking about normal, everyday stuff, you sound like you’re searching for things to make up, searching for problems to make up, and you’re using language that sounds foreign, like a foreign language to people out here in the middle of the country.”

Kristof, Jones and Jennings have a valid point: communication is about people sharing and debating ideas, and when people feel they are “walking on eggshells” it’s difficult to say what needs to be said. However, there are groups of people, such as LGBTQ (and especially trans people within that group), that require new language which is more inclusive. Trans men have uteruses and periods and babies, and no matter how you may feel about that fact we need a way to include trans men in conversations.

Which terms should we use and which are going too far? How do we get the “alienated millions of Americans” to be comfortable enough to share their opinions? Here at the Alliance we have varying opinions about what’s necessary vs. what’s “divisive”. Yet we’re all in strong agreement that communication is perhaps the most critical piece to bringing about fundamental systems change with justice and equity.

Here are three thoughts on stumbling through a time in which everything feels topsy-turvy and change happens so rapidly that neither we nor our language may be keeping up:

  1. Come from a place of humility, wanting to learn and do better. When someone uses a new term, ask about it. If someone scolds or questions a term you use, engage with kindness and listen to why they may be offended or confused. We need to resist the impulse to judge or “other” people in our attempts to be inclusive and clear with our words.
  2. Empathy and active listening facilitate communication in wonderful ways. Empathy allows us to feel another person’s lived experience in our bones. Active listening helps to deepen our engagement and be less quick to take offense.
  3. The much-loved Maya Angelou quote springs to mind: “Do the best you can until you know better. Then, when you know better, do better.” It’s that simple and that complicated.

We at the Alliance will continue to do our best to use language that’s respectful and evolving while not alienating. We feel a shift is essential from the polarizing, judging approach that’s taking place all across the country if we are going to co-create a world of sustainability, health, equity and kindness.

We’d welcome any thoughts and suggestions you might have in response:

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