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.