...Did I just agree with one of the "cancel culture" crusaders?
This is the line that really matters here.
"Cancel culture" isn't the issue. The issue is first that the origin story of this kind of attention to language is an ungrounded runaway train version of poststructuralist/crit theory focus on language's constitutive power. The old idea of the liberal subject who has thoughts that are then expressed though language where the idea preceded speaking has been pushed out by both cognitive science and by critical theory (in different ways), and the replacement proposition on the critical theory side was (loosely speaking) that language IS thought, and thus that language CONSTITUTES consciousness, subjectivity, society. When that view seeped into activism and became instrumentalized, it led to the commandment, "Seek ye first the semantic kingdom" as the road to political transformation--that if you could get people to speak differently you'd change how they thought and if you changed how they thought you'd change the social structures that their thought was maintaining.
That was a dramatic overestimation of what change in language can accomplish. But it also hid what you (and Packer) are pointing to here, which is that this move amounted to--intentionally or otherwise--a bid for social power by people who believed they were able to see the causality of semantics from somewhere up and above the lived experience of speaking and writing, that they could identify accurately the work that particular words, phrases, discourses were performing in the maintenance of inequality, hierarchy and discrimination and they could identify accurately the replacement words and phrases that would remove that maintenance. That isn't just empirically incorrect; it also essentially enthrones a kind of master-class of hidden editors and their messengers who assert that they need to be given authority over communication and representation because they're the only ones with the proper education and training to identify bad communications and to create good ones.
As a political move, that's just a disaster: it's created enormous resentment even among people who are strongly inclined to support social transformation. It not only gets us caught up in essentially trivial struggles within organizations and between them, but it often ends up in the painful farce of a highly educated progressive telling the kind of person that he/she putatively wants to liberate that they're using the wrong word--e.g., someone who absolutely embodies the meaning of the idea of intersectionality in their experience and situation being scolded that they should be using the word "intersectionality".
The intricate business of moving the culture forward towards new power sharing arrangements involves language cultivation. And perhaps cultivating intestinal fortitude to withstand all the pettiness and raw bullshit that’s part and parcel with the larger progressive changes we seek. These moves are ANNOYING sometimes unintentionally fully (Herstory instead of History comes to mind but seldom is the linguistic tango truly sinister. (Seldom not never. For instance I find the use of the word “Democrat” in the mouths of Revivalist QAnonists lately quite sinister - “Democrat” in this context having rather the opposite meaning to what is offered in Merriam Webster).
I work in local government and have for decades. I’ve gone to more equity training and inclusion seminars and trainings in those years that the course work may now exceed my college curriculum. Some of it is laughable and there is the tendency towards reductionism and gadget level Utopianism (“if you can just get the pronouns right we will all live in harmony!”). Some of it may be misguided some of it laughable but dangerous? I’m still intellectually free to go about my business at work. When I say “circle the wagons” no one is writing me up for HR. Where does that happen ? In organiZations that are already losing some element of there “base” - whether it’s that the charismatic founder left with no provision for a decent successor to organizations which got complacent with their missions or largely accomplished them and wanted to stay in business. That’s when we get stuck in the petty disputes and disagreements around specific forms of language.
In healthier contexts GRACE is REQUIRED for lasting social change. I’m tired of the critique that doesn’t acknowledge the real challenges of social change and gets stuck in these debates over. quotidian mannerisms
Part of the issue here is the “euphemism treadmill” or the “activist language merry-go-round”: you’re playing a game of whack-a-mole trying to outpace the development of new slurs.
That said, the approach I have is that design constraints are good actually, and necessity is the mother (parent? lol) of innovation. Oh, so your metaphors are racist? Interrogate your old metaphors and come up with new ones. If your new metaphors are clunky, make better ones. It’s no use whingeing about writing being hard work.
Some examples here: in your subsequent post you use the word “spastic”. “Spastic” is an outdated medical term referring to people with cerebral palsy. It’s literally considered a slur in some parts of the world. However, this use has largely been forgotten in the US, so now it just makes you sound old. Not as old as someone using a word like “dago” (so outdated I don’t even need to bleep it), but still… old.
Some more examples: in computer science, “blacklist/whitelist” has been replaced with “blocklist/allowlist”, “master/slave” has been replaced with “primary/secondary”, and “master” (for Git) has been replaced with “trunk” or “main”. All of these replacements are clearer and more accurate than the words they replaced, and, more importantly, they are largely invisible.
My approach is, again, that coming up with new metaphors is a fun challenge. If you don’t like a particular suggested replacement, come up with a different one! Complaining about the process of writing us just complaining about your job. It’s just… not a flattering look, you know?
The people in this discussion should all take a good Wittgenstein course.
The meaning of a phrase (word) is how a group of speakers find the phase (word) is correctly used. These links between usage and phrase (word) make language a mirror of a 'way of life'. Basically, if phrases (words) become offensive it is because they are linked to a shared experience that is/becomes offensive. If such shared experiences exist they will create the meaning of the phrases (words) used for them, whatever you do. If you simply change the phrases (words), but the shared experience remains, other phrases (words) will take the meaning of that (offensive) shared experience.
In other words, when 'nigger' is at some point deemed unacceptable because it is linked to strong racism, and it is thus replaced by 'black', and it even mostly disappears, 'black' also takes the place of 'nigger' in much of racists speech (the underlying cause that does not go away). As then after a while 'black' gets this racist meaning (while it was introduced as a less toxic term), we might move to 'african american', but the same thing will happen again. Etc.
As long as racism is part of society, phrases and words will exist that will be linked to it and the existing racism will damage the 'more neutral' phrase or word. Changing the words has little use in the long run, though I must admit that these discussions may highlight the underlying problems of racism, sexism, etc., and help in that way.
A second lesson from Uncle Ludwig is about 'bewitchment by language'. The fact that you use the same phrase or word, doesn't mean they are the same thing. So, 'being blind to climate change' is using the factual phrase 'blind' (and see above: we will always have a factual phrase as long as blindness exists in the world and is part of our shared experiences). Neither the fact that 'being blind to' is negative, nor that most seeing people rather not be blind (so see it as a negative), does not mean 'being a blind human' is negative towards those humans.
I first became annoyed with changing names (Squaw Algonquian languages meaning woman probably English girl - woman). Words can be hurtful, but it is the usage not the word. Try the word "dame" different if you are reading Mickey Spillane, hear "whata dame Jimmy Durante or read about high society and becoming a dame.
A little nuance, a little eyes on the prize, nice. This got me thinking about an old interview I heard on Pacifica Radio, a well-known (if you know about such things) disabled rights activist who had recently died. At one point she mildly complained that the civil rights community whose tactics and language she credited as inspiration didn't welcome them with open arms in what she saw as their shared struggle (early 70's timeframe). It struck me that there is a difference in advocating for removal of legal impediments to full participation in society, and advocating for legal enforcement of accommodation to enable full(er) participation in society. Both worthy goals, but one is/should be an easier lift than the other, and require different strategies to effect different change. But she didn't see it that way. She thought the shared language should be enough to join them (and possibly grant access to resources a fledgling movement didn't yet have).
Language is both a weapon and shield, conservatives have generously shown how easy it is to co-opt the language of civil rights to promote hate and lying as free speech in the marketplace of ideas. These type of phrase recommendations don't strike me as language police so much (I can tell you who has power to coerce language, and it ain't the Sierra Club or Stanford IT) as marketing test runs. I spent enough time in corporations to know that HR campaigns come and go, but if the culture doesn't agree coercion will backfire, badly. People will adopt phrases if they seem reasonable and feel natural to use. Enslaved may get there, but I think being held as a slave is more demeaning than being called a slave to fashion. But I'm not black, and that experience matters to me. If a black person reprimands me for using a word, I will apologize and try to do better. That's not oppression, that's just good manners.
I wonder how age sorts these positions? I’m 70 and sympathetic to your argument, Dave. (I hardly recognize the Sierra Club I once supported at UC Berkeley.)
Are we losing the ability to see the forest (as an ecosystem deserving of protection) by having to name each tree primarily by genus/species instead of our emotional affinity that is filled with positive memories?
The pendulum is approaching the outer limits of its reach and we see it trying to swing back fast and hard in the opposite direction. Yes to more grace and less picayune surface distractions. It is about THE ENERGY and the intention, more than the labels. There are no absolutes so let’s cultivate vibe awareness more than nitpicking rules. Because as we see, any rule, any word, any law, can by misconstrued. (See the Supreme Court who are mastering the art of breaking the ideals of democracy where all are entitled to free expression and full human rights.)
Agreed. At some point, a focus on words took precedence over action.
It can be tempting to believe that shifting words is equivalent to changing behavior...the former is much less of a heavy, sustained lift.
The focus on words over actions is also distraction from the hard work of education and legislation.
As you note, when language focus is taken to extreme, it alienates vs welcomes 'would be 'allies.
When a YT influencer paid for surgery to reverse blindness in 1,000 people, he was attacked by some for discriminating against those who are blind as being 'less than' and needing to be fixed. That's both absurd and counterproductive. A person doesn't need to see to be a valued member of society, it simply makes their life easier if their blindness can be corrected.
We don't need style books, we need courtesy, good faith, common sense, fairness, and equality.
As noted earlier, fixating on language detracts from action to achieve real change.