Well-Meaning Verbal Attempts at Inclusivity Can Be Counterproductive
Words matter, but the fuss over certain words can be counterproductive.
The first act by newly elected Arkansas Governor Sarah Huckabee Sanders was to outlaw the official use of “Latinx”. Her order said the word is “ethnically insensitive” and that “pejorative language has no place in official government documents or government employee titles.”
Congressman Ritchie Torres, who identifies as Afro-Latino, says Latinx isn’t pejorative, just irrelevant. Noting Pew Research found only 3 percent of Latinos refer to themselves as ‘Latinx’, Torres chalked up its use to “the agenda-setting power of white leftists rather than the actual preferences of working-class Latinos.”
The AP Stylebook, the unofficial arbiter of common expression, says, “Latino is often the preferred noun or adjective” for most Spanish-speaking persons from Latin America. AP adds, “Some prefer the gender-neutral term Latinx, which should be confined to quotations, names of organizations or descriptions of individuals who request it and should be accompanied by a short explanation.”
So is Latinx an insensitive pejorative, a clumsy attempt at inclusivity or a to-do about nothing? If you are trying to communicate a serious message to a Spanish-speaking audience, referring to them as Latinx might peg you as a wannabe do-gooder.
In a recent New York Times column, Nicholas Kristof observes that verbal concoctions can do more harm than good. He quotes Dr. Irwin Redlener, past president of the Children’s Health Fund, as saying, “Liberals going overboard to create definitions and divisions…actually exacerbates divisions rather than accomplishing something useful.”
Some attempts to avoid stigmatizing people are a mix of comically funny and sadly pathetic word salads. Examples Kristof cites include women to ‘people with uteruses’, breastfeeding to ‘chestfeeding’, ex-felon to ‘returning citizen’, Asian American to ‘A.A.P.I.’ and pro-choice to ‘pro-decision’.
“As for my friends who are homeless,” Kristof says, “what they yearn for isn’t to be called houseless; they want housing.”
Give credit to people who appreciate language can signal sensitivity. However, Kristof thinks that positive energy could be directed more usefully at meaningful actions.
“Much of this [linguistic] effort seems performative rather than substantive,” Kristof claims. “Instead of a spur to action, it seems like a substitute for it. How about worrying less about jargon and more about zoning and other evidence-based policies that actually get people into housing?”
Problem-solving is aided by clear, easy-to-understand language “instead of a wordy model of obfuscation,” Kristof adds.
The biggest failure of coining new terms, Kristoff says, is “bewildering and alienating millions of Americans”. Baffling insider references can offend those already suspicious of people who act and sound like elitists.
As Governor Sanders and Florida Governor Ron DeSantis have shown, attacking “woke” phraseology can be finger-lickin’ good politics. Kristof fears “our linguistic contortions, however well-meant, aren’t actually addressing our country’s desperate inequities or achieving progressive dreams, but rather create fuel for right-wing leaders aiming to take the country in the opposite direction.”
Josh Shapiro, the new Democratic governor of Pennsylvania, has taken a distinctly different approach in his first executive order. Shapiro directed that 92 percent of existing state jobs be open to qualified candidates with or without a four-year college degree. He opened doors and bridged divisions using plain language clear enough for anyone and everyone to understand. Action spoke louder than words.