Equity Language Guides03-05-2023
George Packer argues that the proliferation of “Equity Language Guides” is a misguided attempt at salvation, one with negative consequences. The guides are being issued by colleges, non-profits, and corporations. They are largely lists of banned words often with suggested replacements. The Sierra Club counsels against using “stand, Americans, blind, and crazy” so that even saying we are “blind to climate change” is held to be insulting and thus to be avoided. Felon is to be replaced by “justice-involved person.” Waitresses must now be servers, history can no longer be dark, and vulnerable is a word to be erased from your vocabulary. The full scope of the effort to ban all harmful words is dizzying. The intent is good, Packer writes. But the result is actually blindness to the real problems that need to be addressed. He writes:
The universal mission of equity language is a quest for salvation, not political reform or personal courtesy—a Protestant quest and, despite the guides’ aversion to any reference to U.S. citizenship, an American one, for we do nothing by half measures. The guides follow the grammar of Puritan preaching to the last clause. Once you have embarked on this expedition, you can’t stop at Oriental or thug, because that would leave far too much evil at large. So you take off in hot pursuit of gentrification and legal resident, food stamps and gun control, until the last sin is hunted down and made right—which can never happen in a fallen world.
This huge expense of energy to purify language reveals a weakened belief in more material forms of progress. If we don’t know how to end racism, we can at least call it structural. The guides want to make the ugliness of our society disappear by linguistic fiat. Even by their own lights, they do more ill than good—not because of their absurd bans on ordinary words like congresswomanand expat, or the self-torture they require of conscientious users, but because they make it impossible to face squarely the wrongs they want to right, which is the starting point for any change. Prison does not become a less brutal place by calling someone locked up in one a person experiencing the criminal-justice system. Obesity isn’t any healthier for people with high weight. It’s hard to know who is likely to be harmed by a phrase like native New Yorker or under fire; I doubt that even the writers of the guides are truly offended. But the people in Behind the Beautiful Forevers know they’re poor; they can’t afford to wrap themselves in soft sheets of euphemism. Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.
The project of the guides is utopian, but they’re a symptom of deep pessimism. They belong to a fractured culture in which symbolic gestures are preferable to concrete actions, argument is no longer desirable, each viewpoint has its own impenetrable dialect, and only the most fluent insiders possess the power to say what is real. What I’ve described is not just a problem of the progressive left. The far right has a different vocabulary, but it, too, relies on authoritarian shibboleths to enforce orthodoxy. It will be a sign of political renewal if Americans can say maddening things to one another in a common language that doesn’t require any guide.