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The New Language Police, IV

The New Language Police, IV

Sensitivity is the new correctness. This is the fourth article in a four-part series.

David Skinner

You never know when the language police are going to show up.

It was a workday around lunchtime. I was sitting in diversity training on a large Zoom call and the woman leading the session went a little off topic to say she no longer uses the word alien to refer to illegal immigrants. The reason she gave is that aliens makes them sound like martians.

To which I thought, Oh stop, you are being ridiculous.

First, I doubt aliens was ever her go-to word for immigrants. Maybe, like some of us, she has used the term aliens or cited it in conversations about immigration as a variation to address legal or historical aspects of immigration, but that’s about it. Second, while the science fiction sense of alien is very common in contemporary English, the chance that she would be misunderstood to be likening someone from, say, Mexico to a non-human being from another planet is close to nil.

The possible confusion of the two meanings does have comic potential, although humor is, of course, highly subjective. Still, I might award funny points to someone attending an anti-immigration protest with a sign saying, “Aliens, Go Back to Space!” (Would they be making fun of the immigrants or the protesters? I don’t know.)

But the idea that one of the meanings (martian) would cling on (see what I did there?!) to the other (immigrant) and color its understanding (green, presumably), except in the mind of someone ignorant of one or both senses, seems to me very, very unlikely.___STEADY_PAYWALL___

It is strange, though, that a person in a professional setting would publicly disavow language she doesn’t actually use to make a dubious broader point that one hears frequently these days: that any number of words we say and write are, all the time, flying around like poison needles with wings, distorting perceptions and diminishing those they name, and that we must ransack our personal lexicons for all the hidden dangers lurking within and then root them out to avoid wounding any persons within a 50-mile radius of our moving lips.

It’s a broad and confusing phenomenon, especially when people credulously accept that words they use regularly mean something other than what they and their listeners have understood them to mean. As it happens, there are sometimes pretty good reasons to drop a term despite there being no problem with its intended meaning. A classic example is the word gyp as in to cheat or swindle, which many English speakers did not realize might be connected to Gypsies (itself a disputed term) and therefore derogatory. Once the connection (which the Oxford English Dictionary only calls “probable”) is pointed out, however, dropping gyp seems if not absolutely necessary then probably the right thing to do.

But there is a tension between derivation and usage, and the English language is full of words whose meanings have shifted over time. In the fifteenth century, to call someone nice was not kind or flattering; in the twenty-first century, it is a compliment, most of the time, depending on the context.

Among linguists and lexicographers it is even considered a fallacy to appeal to a word’s historical roots to assert its meaning in contemporary usage. Today we see controversies drummed up all the time using any old footnote of linguistic history to litigate a usage and call attention to a favored class of victim.

The singer Lizzo was recently applauded for changing a song lyric to remove the verb spaz, which disability activists have called an ableist slur. For most American English speakers, however, the word’s connection to spastic diplegia and other neurological conditions is obscure, something you would only know after a good bit of research, as spaz has come to mean something not unrelated but in common usage separate, more akin to klutz or idiot.

The language columnist Ben Zimmer in Slate recently tallied many uses of spaz in rap lyrics, lending support to the argument that in African American Vernacular English spaz has nothing to do with putting down disabled people, though in British English, spaz is, indeed, a well-established slur. Either way, it’s certainly not a polite term, more of a schoolyard taunt, though often used by people frustrated with their own lack of coordination: Why am I being such a spaz? he said, after spilling coffee on his shirt.

Sensitivity is the new correctness, and it may be too demanding a standard for some of us, but there is nothing wrong with Lizzo or Beyoncé (who this summer deleted a spaz from her new album) trying to spare other people’s feelings. This reasonable position, however, does run into some issues in a culture such as ours, teeming as it is with bits of both high rhetoric and gutterspeak and everything in between.

Consider this other eye-popping lyric in the very same song (“Grrls”) from which Lizzo removed spaz: “I'ma go Lorena Bobbitt on him so he never f— again . . . .”

Probably it was not Lizzo’s intention that we take this fantasized violence against a fictional boyfriend seriously. If so, fine, point taken, but I have to say the Lorena Bobbitt line paints a far more vivid picture of a crime against male anatomy than the use of spaz does of an offense against people with spastic diplegia—a comparison invited by Lizzo’s subsequent re-edit of the song and all the praise she received for it. The dark fantasy to cut off someone’s genitals would normally get you a feminist lecture on the dangers of misogyny, were the sex of the victim reversed—and rightly so.

In such ways, the new sensitivity tends to be suspiciously mediatropic, playing to the media’s own biases and blind spots, and extremely selective about whose feelings should be defended from possible offense. Whether the new sensitivity endures as a reigning standard, however, may depend on whether people take notice of its absurdity or continue to look the other way.

The questions it poses are interesting but they tend to answer themselves. As a new regime of manners is daily announced in culture trend stories like those we read about Lizzo, is one really expected to believe collateral absurdities like the idea that inclusiveness is a cherished value of people who entertain by flouting the cultural and linguistic manners of a large portion of society?

Also, there is some denial going on about the role of offensiveness in art, which I take to be perfectly intentional most of the time. Combined with the new sensitivity, it paints artists into corners. You want to shock the bourgeoisie and at the same time get credit for sensitivity? You want to be polite and dance along the sharp edge of slang at the same time? Okay, just keep in mind you are attempting a gravity-defying triple axle of literary effect and at some point the judges are likely to stop awarding medals for effort alone.

The present moment certainly does signal a shift in what language is surveilled and called out: Instead of harassing people over noun-verb agreement or the historical meaning of fulsome (for which I have more than once wanted to speak up myself), the new language police go around telling people that the words they use show them to be callous or close-minded or complicit in broader social injustice. The grammar scold has been replaced by DEIA consultants and political activists (including many in the news media) and a semi-professional class of social media enablers.

It’s not just the politics of personal preening that promotes such posturing, although there is that. Frequently, it also involves still more credulousness toward another part of the new language ideology: the idea that words trigger a deeper narrative—one that may even be contrary to our own intentions or understanding—that tells people what to think and sends them hurtling toward faulty and immoral conclusions.

Some days the discussion takes place under the rubric of framing, an area of communications and cognitive research that has helped scientists notice hidden influences and biases in how humans process information and draw conclusions. Another way this discussion takes place is under the rubric of the Sapir-Whorf thesis, by which is meant some version of the hotly debated idea that differences in the structures of languages help determine differences in culture. Yet another way this discussion takes place is in a therapeutic vein around dysfunction and trauma. I have even come across a literary school—influenced by science fiction writing and its facility for world-building—that argues that our shared reality can be reconstituted and utopia finally reached partly through the use of new vocabulary.

But whatever the theory, it always seems ready-made for reverse engineering into prescriptive language messaging, leading to an expanding phone book of suggestions—often commands—about what people should and should not say, all of them narrowly interpreting what people do say to make you feel as bad as possible for having spoken and then guilt you into conformity.

The social context matters as well. We are living through a many-sided war for conquest of our attention spans. It’s digital Hobbesianism out there, a war of all against all for relevance, being fought by the public relations squads of countless professional and political factions each trying to tell us what to say and think about subjects dear to them. And Don’t say X is a multi-function propaganda tool. Not only is it a direct linguistic prescription, it is a public relations technique, a tried-and-true method of saying “Look here,” “Pay attention to me,” “This is new and urgent.”

More broadly, Don’t say X is a way to insist on rules of engagement favorable to one side, and to blunt disagreement through semantic regulation. I would not go as far as some who say the new language policing is an attempt to control how other people think. That’s not entirely wrong, but, as far as I can tell, it’s only right in a trivial way: By arguing, we are all trying to influence how or, rather, what other people think.

The new language police, however, does aim to mark off ever more segments of public discourse as danger zones, and bring into existence a voluntary bureaucracy of rules around so many of the words we use to write and talk about sensitive topics that we cannot speak our minds without one of the self-appointed referees throwing a flag to halt the game. And as in one of those excessively-refereed sports—NFL football and women’s lacrosse come to mind—the rules prohibit so many naturally occurring actions that sport gives way to litigation. The image of the humble citizen, as in Norman Rockwell’s famous painting of the man standing up in a town-hall meeting and speaking his mind, becomes worse than an exercise in nostalgia. It becomes an image of false consciousness, a violation of preferred meaning, a sin of interpretation, evidence of white male privilege, a triggering event, a microaggression, and so on. It cannot be allowed to stand. He cannot be allowed to stand.

But the phenomenon is broader than political correctness or wokeness. It also has parallels on the right. Any time I hear a conservative ranting about how the Democratic party is not truly democratic, in which case their very name is a lie, I don’t even nod at the mental patient. I just wait for the conversation to move on.

The feminist linguist Deborah Cameron coined the term “verbal hygiene” to describe the universal fixation with commenting on and revising our language to wash out bias and other undesirable meanings. The new language police is the lineal descendant of a feminist linguistics that was successful in many interventions, but in too many cases seems deprived of its self-awareness. It hums the tune alright, but changes the lyrics. It leaves you wondering if they know that a concrete fault should be identified before word-suppression begins.

Alongside the possibility that some of our language may need a refresh, it’s worth keeping in mind the fact that many of the most sophisticated observers of language have rejected the very premise that language is something in need of being fixed. In fact, the history of linguistics is built on the observation of language as it reveals itself in the speech of native users. By the middle of the twentieth century, this hands-off approach was so triumphant among linguists that it resulted in widely read books such as the 1950 classic Leave Your Language Alone! by Robert A. Hall, Jr., whose title pretty well sums up its argument.

The scientific view of language has given rise to its own share of controversy, but it is not only the academic linguist who looks to native speech as the touchstone of all language. So does the newspaper columnist, so does the poet, the local gossip, the standup comedian, and the podcast narrator.

Writing then opens up a whole culture of premeditated utterance. With an advanced degree you can analyze it politically and, as the new language police do, treat public language as some kind of social text (the narrative, contemporary discourse, story of the week) authorized users may edit together, but only with permission, as you raise your arm, ever ready to throw another flag.

The price of this presumption, though, may be higher than you think. As one fashion replaces another, and this reckoning gives way to the next, the citizen you have been browbeating may finally be heard. And we should not be surprised if we find him dominating the town-hall meeting, specifically by flouting all your little lessons in how to express himself, his bold indifference to your editing having become its own kind of eloquence.

David Skinner is a writer and an editor. He is the author of a book about dictionaries and was on the usage panel of the American Heritage Dictionary.

Image: Rene Magritte, The Son of Man, 1964, private collection.

CultureUnited States