Inclusivity in Language

UPDATE 4/16: Derek Warwick pointed me to Roxane Gay’s piece about complexity in language and, as per the usual with Gay, it’s brilliant:

It would be useful to reconsider what complexity in discourse might actually mean for us—to no longer behave like intellectual challenges render us helpless and powerless, but instead might make us more powerful, more capable, might enrich the cultural conversations we are having.

We don’t have to give in to the ease and allure of discursive simplicity, where we acquiesce to forceful persuasion rather than critically engage with it. There is, I hope, something just as seductive about demanding complexity, for the better of all of us.


According to her Tumblr, Helen Lewis “is deputy editor at the New Statesman, a British left-leaning political magazine. After studying English at St Peter’s College, Oxford, and completing the PG (Dip) in Newspaper Journalism at City University, she was taken on to the Daily Mail’s sub-editor training scheme.”

Two days ago at her Tumblr, Lewis wrote a short piece called “Perfection in Language” that complains about what people have named “call out culture” online wherein marginalized people who are left out of discussions because the language is exclusive call on the author of whatever piece or the leaders of whatever movement to use more inclusive language:

Words are imperfect. They change over time; cut off from wider society, a group’s common language can quickly mutate into something incomprehensible to outsiders.

And that, to be blunt, is what I often feel when I talk about feminism online. Yesterday I saw someone mocked for not knowing that “WoC” was an acronym for “woman of colour”. (Why should they? It’s an American phrase. When did you last hear it on the Ten O’Clock News?)

Others might not know whether to use BME (black and minority ethnic) or “non-white”. There are people in Britain who are not remotely transphobic but have no idea that “tranny” is not acceptable to many trans people.

She ends the post with: “There’s no point in your language being “correct”, if only 12 of your friends can understand it.”

I don’t even know what to do with arguments against inclusive language. Ignore them, I guess.

It’s easy to be against inclusive language because trying to be inclusive is hard in a world where even language works against the marginalized.

The truth is that it’s not always possible to be inclusive because there is sometimes not space for it. But to set your default against inclusivity is baffling to me.

For the first few months I ran my reproductive rights Tumblr, I was constantly challenged by trans* and non-binary people about my language (I would say things like “women need abortions” and they would constantly remind me that more people than just cis women need and want abortion care – it took me a long time to get that. For more on that, read this). I was angry and frustrated by it because my intentions were good and I didn’t mean to be exclusive. But I eventually came around. I stopped, really listened, took account of how my language hurt people, and then I changed it.

I’m not telling this story to say, “I’m awesome!” I’m not.

I’m telling it to show that I know the frustration from being constantly called out and feeling derailed from my work. And yet, I still think it’s important to do it because inclusive language is important, especially if you do social justice work.


In practicing intersectional feminism or in making a concerted effort to use inclusive language, I have often come up against an argument Lewis makes:

One of the concepts that we find hardest as humans is the idea of a sliding scale. We feel, instinctively, there ought to be solid principles that you can hang your hat on. So: sexist, racist, homophobic language is bad. But who decides that? The affected groups themselves? What if two women have different opinions on whether something is sexist? Or, harder, what if one gay person finds a phrase homophobic and the vast majority of their non-gay friends don’t? If language is a consensus, who gets the casting vote?

This isn’t that hard if you are willing to listen, to apologize when you mess up, and then do better. If you care about what to call people of color, then read a lot of what people of color write and figure out how they self-identify. When a person of color explains to you, even if it is in an angry way (let’s be honest, they have a reason to be angry about being excluded), listen, apologize, then change your language, and move forward.

Language is constantly changing. If you are in the business of making your living off of words, you are going to just have to deal with it. If your problem in this scenario is that you are being asked to be more creative with your language to include more people rather than being constantly excluded by the dominant diction and rhetoric in your culture, you are doing ok overall.

In the end, if you don’t care about inclusivity, then just ignore critics when they point out that your words are exclusive. No need to rail against them for being angry at being excluded.

If you do care about inclusivity, listen and do better.

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3 thoughts on “Inclusivity in Language

  1. Great piece, Jessica. And the thing about “who gets the casting vote” – ugh. I detest that notion that unless EVERYONE finds a certain word or phrase offensive or wrong, then it can’t be considered such or those concerns can be ignored. Why does there have to be 100% consensus? Why not simply err on the side of caution and listen to the people who are offended or insulted by it? What do you lose by doing that? Nothing. Whereas, choosing to listen to the (probably smaller) group who aren’t offended is just going to alienate and hurt people. If not having to be careful with your words is more important to you than treating people with respect and dignity, well…way to be, I guess, but pardon me if I don’t want to follow that lead.

  2. @Allison – Well, the one thing you can lose is that in some situations there are no terms that won’t be objected to by SOMEONE. It doesn’t matter how ‘careful’ you are. It’s not just about “well, one woman says it’s sexist and one woman says it isn’t so it’s okay”, there are times where “One person says BLEH is offensive and I should say BLAH instead, but this other peron says BLAH is offensive and i should say BLEH instead.”

    The more public your words are, the more you can get subjected to that from all angles. It does lead a lot of people to simply turtle and give up.

    In the end you just kind of have to do the best you can and carry on, knowing that you’re not perfect but that you are trying.

  3. Emmy:

    It has SO rarely worked like that in practice for me, though. I mean, I get that people *say* it could be like that but most often, there is a rather large consensus among people in a single group about what language is good and which is bad.

    My point is that it is often not nearly as hard to be respectful and caring about word choice as people say that it is. The practice is, for once, easier than the theory.

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