George Packer is kind of right about equity language guides.
...Did I just agree with one of the "cancel culture" crusaders?
(If you repeat the phrases “strategic political communication” and “Sierra Club” three times, I appear. Just like Beetlejuice.)
Here’s Packer’s introduction:
The Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy. The first two fail at inclusion, because not everyone can stand and not everyone living in this country is a citizen. The third and fourth, even as figures of speech (“Legislators are blind to climate change”), are insulting to the disabled. The guide also rejects the disabled in favor of people living with disabilities, for the same reason that enslaved person has generally replaced slave : to affirm, by the tenets of what’s called “people-first language,” that “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”
The guide’s purpose is not just to make sure that the Sierra Club avoids obviously derogatory terms, such as welfare queen. It seeks to cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. In its zeal, the Sierra Club has clear-cut a whole national park of words. Urban, vibrant, hardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism. Y’all supplants the patriarchal you guys, and elevate voices replaces empower, which used to be uplifting but is now condescending. The poor is classist; battle and minefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant—no explanation, it just has to go.
I think Packer essentially conflates two arguments here. The first is a retread of the standard old-man-yelling-at-clouds complaint about cancel culture.
I have no patience for this argument anymore. Plenty of people have already written definitive critiques. Read Michael Hobbes, or Parker Molloy, or Thomas Zimmer, or literally dozens of other authors who routinely dispense with this line of argumentation. There isn’t much more to say on the matter. It’s 2023. Republican state governments are literally banning books and attempting to outlaw trans lives. If you think the biggest threats to civil society come from diversity and inclusion seminars, then you’re kind of telling on yourself.
But the second argument has a different texture. It’s an argument about effective strategic communication. Packer, narrowly read, is saying “take a look at this style guide. It’s a mess. It is demanding that well-meaning political advocates become awful communicators. That’s bad. It runs counter to so many rules of good writing.”
And I’ve gotta say, I find myself aggressively agreeing with that sentiment.
Patriotism strikes me as the most obvious example. Should progressive advocacy organizations use language that is overtly patriotic, stressing how their values are American values and connecting their cause to a moments in history that are broadly celebrated?
Yes. Yes they should. Duh.
They should do so because it is effective. They should do so because ceding patriotism to your opponents is a mistake. Conservative media personalities are eager to insist that progressives are ashamed to even use the word “American.” Why would a mainstream progressive political organization go out of its way to agree with them?
This ought to be obvious. If it isn’t obvious, that’s a sign that you’ve spent too much time in committee meetings and lost your bearings.
[I suppose I should note here that I haven’t had much involvement with the Sierra Club in recent years. I served on the organization’s Board of Directors from 2004-2010, and was part of the Sierra Student Coalition’s national leadership from 1997-2002. All of my practical political insights came from the organization. It’s where I learned organizing, and where I developed my pedagogy. I devoted my teens and twenties attending far too many Sierra Club committee meetings. There were times when I surely lost my bearings.]
Leafing through the organization’s style guide, what strikes me is the overwhelming number of commonplace turns of phrase that have been rendered problematic:
Don’t say “rule of thumb” or “stand for [some principle].” Replace “classy,” “empower,” and “retirement” with more inclusive language. And, naturally, avoid words like “minefield” and “smoking gun.”
That’s… a lot. Too much, I think. It leaves me with the general impression that one should never use two words when five might suffice. Proceed with the utmost caution when using imagery or metaphors that clearly communicate your ideas.
This isn’t some grand threat to democracy or civil society. But it’s a self-imposed disadvantage for the political organizations whose causes I support. And I think they should know better. They certainly taught me better than this.
There is an underlying theory-of-change at work here. The basic logic is as follows: (1) Language that excludes potential allies weakens your political movement. (2) the environmental movement needs to be stronger in order to accomplish its goals. (3) the American environmental movement in particular has historically been a well-off-white-people’s movement. Today’s movement leaders need to hold themselves accountable for this legacy if they are to build the trust and relationships necessary for a stronger movement.
I get that reasoning. The basic insight is just “don’t needlessly alienate potential allies. Also, recognize that language changes over time. Stay aware of that and adjust accordingly.” That’s simple enough on the individual level.
But apply it to the communication routines of a large organization with hundreds of staff and thousands of volunteer leaders, and you’re left with a huge mess. You end up creating a culture that focuses on avoiding language that might offend allies, instead of focusing on clearly communicating your message to your target audience. The result is impenetrable, jargon-filled committee-speak.
Even worse, it can end up being deeply counterproductive to your actual goals. It is a gift to your opponents, who will make you out to be out-of-touch elitists and “hall monitors.” The work of challenging the power structure and securing meaningful victories is hard enough. Try not to give rhetorical gifts to your opponents.
I might just be old-school. I still teach Saul Alinsky in my strategic political communication classes (and Schattschneider. Always Schattschneider). I believe in analyzing the power structure for vulnerabilities, and designing campaigns that mobilize people to pressure powerful elites to do things they wouldn’t otherwise do. I think political activists should speak clearly and plainly, in ways that demonstrate how reasonable our demands are and how ridiculous the status quo is.
This isn’t as easy as it sounds. It takes years of practice. And the stakes are high.
I’m not worried that these Equity Language Guides are evidence of cancel culture run amok. But I’m a little worried that they will tend to make political advocates’ language more impenetrable.
Write well. Speak in ways that connect with and move your audience. Communicate clearly, vividly, and with purpose. Yes, evaluate how language is changing. Don’t needlessly offend or pick fights over changing language norms. But your North Star should be winning worthwhile fights. Don’t make the work of social change harder than it already is.