Why Woke Language Backfires






After years of pushing for changes in our language—and therefore our thought—I am ready to slap (politically incorrect: resort to violence) the next man, woman, or child (politically incorrect: excludes the nonbinary) who suggests a change. I am also furious (a person living with anger) because my annoyance is making me feel far more conservative and reactionary than I thought I was.

Why such resistance, a shrink might ask. Because so many of the suggested substitutions cut off connection. Take mental illness, which is now supposed to be a “mental health condition.” (Never mind that “illness” suggests the possibility of recovery, while a “condition” feels like something you are stuck with. Never mind that someone tormented by the auditory hallucinations of paranoid schizophrenia probably does not think it a form of mental health.) The new woke guidelines suggest that we not use the word “depressing” because it appropriates a disability, and we not use “crazy,” I guess because it sounds dismissive or implies that someone is out of control. But as we now know, the symptoms of mental illnesses are only the extreme end of a continuum we all share. We have all felt depressed or irrationally afraid or a little crazy. We all know enough math to imagine an exponential increase of those feelings. And so, we can at least begin to empathize. When you take away the commonsense words, though, a steel barrier drops down between health and illness.

The same is true for other disabilities. We have all been “paralyzed with fear.” We remember that temporary sliver of helplessness, and we can use that knowledge to imagine the frustration of permanent paralysis. Yet the new guidelines tell us that we may no longer use “paralyzed with fear”; nor can we speak of “standing up for” someone’s rights, because not everyone can stand. True, they cannot. But if you have ever watched an elder struggle to their feet for the national anthem, you know the power of that impulse. It is wired into us by biology and conditioned by culture; it is the posture we take instinctively to defend or honor. And the impulse is still there, part of our shared humanity, even when our muscles cannot obey. Do we want it to atrophy? I know no one with a disability who would wish to destroy, negate, or erase the ability they lack.

Living creatures have never, ever, been equally able or equally privileged. It is beautiful when language treats differences with respect and inequity with outrage. But to take away all analogies and metaphors that cannot apply universally is to suck power from our language and fill it with air.

If you want to understand how it feels to be old or infirm or poor, there are games that dim your eyesight, restrict your movement, trap you in a bureaucratic maze. Yes, the experience is limited, temporary, gamed, and over in an hour—but people emerge humbled nonetheless. At least, they used to. No doubt those games are now verboten. It is seen as dangerously presumptive to suggest a link between a brief taste of an experience and a lifelong struggle. And if that link is made in order to trivialize the struggle, it is abhorrent. But we are so worried about appropriating one another’s experience, culture, or identity that we forget appropriation can also be a way to connect and imagine and empathize. Circumscribe a “condition” with its own special vocabulary, and you close off understanding.

A side point: the rules may be new, shiny with virtue, but their application remains corrosively unfair. An editor chastened me for describing the skin color of someone I was writing about. I have never been chastened for calling someone “fair,” “pale,” or even the unflattering “pasty.” So it is only all the other skin colors we cannot describe? Meaning we are still privileging Whiteness as a norm?

“The homeless” was once intended as a sort of Beatitude, a reminder of the need to care. The phrase has definitely become pejorative (our fault, not theirs). But substituting “the unhoused” only shifts the connotation from pathos to warehouse indifference, as though these are people no one bothered to place on a shelf. Why not follow the good new rule of using “people with” language, and simply speak of people without homes? Are we so eager to distance ourselves that we grab for any “the X” construction that sorts people into a separate group? The same is true when the well-intended speak of “a justice-involved person” to avoid “a felon”—why not just say “a person with a felony conviction”? Sam Kriss cut through wokeness by redefining it as an etiquette, not a belief system. Polite, perhaps, but more interested in surface display than in soul.

Too often, we throw away words instead of cleaning up the mess that corrupted them. Now we are told that “battle” and “minefield,” used figuratively, disrespect veterans. No, we disrespect veterans. If we took better care of them and gave them lifelong security and our profound gratitude, it would become a compliment to borrow their vocabulary. “Underserved” is now said to be “victimizing,” but I am not yet sure why, because it points the finger at society rather than assume the individual is at fault. And if we cannot speak of someone being “poor,” do we blind ourselves to the effects of poverty?

George Packer wrote a scathing critique of the new language guides for The Atlantic. “Good writing—vivid imagery, strong statements—will hurt,” he reminds us, “because it’s bound to convey painful truths.” We cannot erase our mistakes by prettying up our words (or blanding them into euphemism). “The erasures will continue indefinitely because the thing itself—injustice—will always exist,” Packer warns. “Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.”

Also, I fear, to serve as a weapon against anyone who does not read the manual. If this is our notion of inclusivity, we are doomed.


Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.