How to NOT change the world…

I am liberal.

If you do not consider yourself liberal, you can stop reading now. This isn’t for you.

Ok, now that it is just us liberals, I need to rant about a trend that seems to be intensifying within progressive circles.

We have adopted a dangerous fixation on language.

Now, don’t get me wrong, I do think that language matters. To some degree, language shapes perception.

NOTE: I don’t think it matters as much as we want it to. “Better” language doesn’t change the underlying systems of injustice and oppression. It just renames them.

That isn’t my biggest issue with our fixation on language, though.

I absolutely despair when we weaponize language against potential allies.

We prowl social media looking for language sins, so we can howl at another’s transgression:

  • “In talking about gay rights, you missed one of the letters, so you are homophobic.”
  • “When you are talking about people from Latin America, make sure you put an X at the end, or you are sexist.”
  • “You used the phrase ‘homeless individuals’ instead of ‘individuals experiencing homelessness,’ so you hate poor people.”

This last one is especially frustrating to me.

A recent article on homelessness included this choice line:

“If you use the term ‘homeless people’ instead of ‘individuals experiencing homelessness’ then you are part of the problem.” 

I can’t think of a better way to ensure that well-meaning people never have another conversation about homelessness. A whole group of potential allies opts out of the cause for fear of a verbal misstep.

That isn’t how you change the world.

That is how you chase people away from one of the most important issues facing our world today.

How you actually change the world.

Changing the world is hard, but it is not complicated.

There are two basic steps:

  • Step 1: Recruit lots of people to the issue you care about.
  • Step 2: Organize those people around specific structural changes.

We can’t change the world if we are chasing away all our potential allies.

So, next time someone uses the wrong word:

  • Use the occasion to engage them on the issue. Show your passion for the cause.
  • Explain why you use the language that you do. 
  • Do NOT shame them for their linguistic misstep.

Thank you for letting me rant!



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