The ever-changing language of the left and the never ending pursuit of power

The explosion of new words and phrases, from BIPOC to Latinx to systemic racism, is no accident or organic development.  The goal is to change the terms of the debate and advance progressive policies, controlling the language to reorganize the world around intersectionality, Critical Race Theory, and other leftist goals straight out of George Orwell’s worst nightmares.

BIPOC.  Person of Color.  Latinx.  AAPI.  Equity.  White privilege.  Anti-racism.  Critical Race Theory.  If it seems like we’re living in a brave new world of language, or at least an explosion of language previously confined to academia into the common culture, that’s because we are.  The left is engaged in a battle over the very words we use to describe both our history and the current state of racial affairs, and they’re not shy about the reasons why.  “You can’t change what you can’t name,” explained Cathy Albisa, the vice president of institutional and sectoral change at the racial justice nonprofit Race Forward.  Ms. Albisa was speaking to the New York Times for a recent feature, ‘BIPOC or POC? Equity or Equality? The Debate Over Language on the Left.”  Amy Harmon writes, “Americans have always wrestled with language when it comes to describing race, with phrases and vocabulary changing to meet the struggles and values of the moment. But especially in the wake of protests for social justice in the summer of 2020, there is a heightened attention to this language, say scholars and activists, as some on the left try to advance changes in the culture through words.”

Nor is this intentional desire to change the lexicon limited to race relations.  Transgender activists are also pushing new words and phrases.  For example, “Latinx” is a gender neutral term meant to replace the more common Latino and Latina, signifying male or female gender.  Pronouns such as “they” or “them” which were previously used to describe groups of people, now refer to a single person, like the royal “we” of days gone by.  The word women itself is facing intense scrutiny, replaced in some circles by “people who menstruate” or “menstruating persons.”  Pregnant women are likewise “birthing parents” or “pregnant people.” Even inanimate objects are subject to this new trend, with some referring to libraries as “sites of violence” to, according to the New York Times, “reflect biases in how their rare books are curated.”

Modifiers on existing terms are also a prevalent focus, such as the addition of the word “structural” or “systemic” in front of “racism.”  The goal here is to broaden “acceptance of the idea that racism is not just personal prejudice but a set of disadvantages that start with the average white child being born into families that are wealthier than others, and extend to laws related to housing and voting, bank-lending policies and education systems.”  Many believe it’s working, activist Ibram X. Kendi claimed that “Compared to 18 months ago, the term ‘systemic racism’ is being used across the board, whether people are talking about it or denying its existence.” 

There are other progressives who are concerned about this new trend for various reasons.  “I really believed America was having a reckoning when it came to race,” explained Emma Blackson, a black graduate student in epidemiology who expresses her disillusionment on Twitter. “So far it’s been a lot of words.”  Kelsey O’Donnell, a self-described progressive from Chicago, said, “I’m exhausted by the constant need to be wary or you’ll instantly be labeled racist or anti-trans.”  Stephen Paisley of Ithaca, NY said he cringed when he heard a library described as a “site of violence” as mentioned earlier.  He believes that language shouldn’t “guilt people into action,” but rather focus on our shared humanity because “white people, too, suffer from living in a society in which racial injustices and inequities persist.”

Some progressives also worry that much of this is “top down language reform,” as described by Nicole Holliday, a linguist at the University of Pennsylvania.  For example, the term “BIPOC” trended over social media last year to describe Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color.  Language scholars, however, say that few actual black or indigenous people use it even though champions of the word believe it emphasizes “the severity of racial injustice on Black and Indigenous people.”  This was supported by an Ipso poll that found twice as many white Democrats felt “very favorably” toward the phrase compared to non-whites the term actually describes.  Meera Deo, a sociologist and professor at Southwestern Law School also believes it is “confusing” and “misleading.”  Some people think it means “bisexual people of color,” others wonder if Latinos and Asians are included in “people of color.”

Lucia Martel-Dow, an immigration lawyer in Marin County has similar concerns.  She has no problem with people using the term “Latinx,” but wonders if it has become a substitute for action.  “You can say ‘Latinx’ all day,” she explained, “but if you’re not doing the work, I don’t care.”  Nancy McDonald Ladd, a white senior minister at a Unitarian Church in Bethesda, MD, however, believes there is more to it than the “just virtue-signalling.”  “It’s this deep-seated anxiety about failing,” she said of her mostly progressive and white congregation. “So they’re reaching, we are reaching, reaching, reaching for the perfect language.”  It could well be a combination of the two. A recent survey suggests that language, talk, and a self-centered approach to their own views and feelings might be more important to white progressives than action.  Jennifer Chudy, a political scientist at Wellesley College, found that white Americans who reports the highest level of concern about racial discrimination also ranked “listening to people of color” and “educating themselves about racism” over “choosing to live in a racially diverse community,” “bringing racial issues to the attention of elected officials,” or even voting.  

Similarly, Summer Wilkie, a member of the Cherokee nation, responded to the recent trend of “land acknowledgements,” that is beginning a speech or event by acknowledging the land you are standing on was stolen from native people, with a recent essay driving this point home.  “Until action is taken to identify and empower Indigenous people, accurate history is taught, and land-based justice is carried out, a land acknowledgement statement feels mostly empty and alienating.’’  Others worry that it’s worse than that, claiming that conservatives have successfully turned this new language of the “woke” into a pejorative and are cultivating a cultural backlash, using it to pass new laws that restrict how teachers can discuss racial topics.  “Symbolic progress placates people who are pushing for change, and it also invites backlash from those who want to maintain the status quo,” said Dr. Deo. “So you might end up worse off than where you started.”

Ultimately, scholars appear to agree that the fights over language are a proxy for the underlying cultural questions.  “Some of these terms will endure, and some will not,” said Viet Thanh Nguyen, a professor of English, American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California. “But in the period where terms are new, we are still undergoing a political struggle whose resolution is not yet determined, so the words themselves become the site of conflict.”  There is some truth to this, but also a more insidious purpose in my opinion:  The explosion of new terms largely aligns with the goals of the progressive movement, and is designed to steer debate in favor of ever more progressive schemes.  To a large extent, this isn’t about racism or disadvantaged groups at all.  It’s about power.  Progressives want it and they aren’t afraid to use language itself to get it.

Let me start with an example of the opposite.  The Times article offers an anecdote from Rashad Robinson, the president of Color of Change, a racial justice organization.  Ms. Robinson says, “Saying something like, ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank,’ instead of saying, ‘Banks are less likely to give loans to Black people,’ might feel like it’s just me wording it differently, but ‘Black people are less likely to get a loan from the bank’ makes people ask themselves, ‘What’s wrong with Black people? Let’s get them financial literacy programs.’ The other way is saying, ‘What’s wrong with the banks?’”  She added, “When you’ve been on the margin, being able to claim a language and a narrative and a set of words to express yourself is incredibly important.”  This is undoubtedly true.  Words matter and how words are strung together affects the meaning.  We should be careful how we phrase things to ensure the messages we want to communicate are clear, but this is not what most of these new words are about.

Instead, consider BIPOC, Black, Indigenous (and) People of Color, or simply more broadly People of Color.  This term is not more precise or descriptive, but rather less. Previously, we used “minorities” to represent the various ethnic groups and differentiate them from the white majority. Each minority then had a further descriptor, Asian-American, African-American, etc., representing their unique ethnic group. BIPOC replaces all of these individual identities with a blanket term precisely because the progressive movement realized that each individual minority group protecting their own interests didn’t do enough to consolidate their power.  If Asians saw themselves distinct from Latinos and blacks, they might vote differently from one another and dilute their impact.  The concept of “intersectionality” was invented to connect all minority groups together, claiming they are variously subject to different systems of oppression and are, therefore, all united in their oppression.  The terms BIPOC and People of Color now serve to combine what remain distinct groups, each with their own concerns.

Putting this another way, the challenges faced by an Asian-American are radically different from those faced by an African-American.  At times, they can be diametrically opposed, like when it comes to support for merit based admission and promotion policies for example.  Asian-Americans benefit from these policies, more so even than white Americans, but proponents of racial justice largely want to do away with them in favor of an equity agenda.  Progressives feared competing minority groups would cancel out their votes over issues like this, and therefore a mechanism to unite all groups against the white majority was needed.  These new terms exploding into common usage are designed to address that need throughout our culture, a new spin on the old Marxist slogan workers of the world unite. The same is true of the ever expanding LGTBQ.  A lesbian woman has different needs and concerns than a transgender woman, as we see in their own squabbles with each other.  Putting them all under one banner, in my opinion, is a clumsy attempt to unite them all together to consolidate power.  One group, one vote, the bigger the group, the bigger the vote.

Likewise, the use of “structural” and “systemic” are meant to expand the meaning of racism.  After passage of the landmark Civil Rights Act, it was widely accepted that our laws had been made race neutral and that eradicating racism was a battle for hearts and minds, putting such a high price on an individual’s racism that they would be afraid to act on it, and focusing on the benefits of diversity and acceptance for fair minded people to better embrace those of different ethnic backgrounds.  At the time, no one believed that removing racism from the structure of the US government and public life meant that outcomes between groups would magically become equal.  Today, the fact that outcomes are not equal is used as evidence that racism is still “systemic” whatever the laws say, and hence combatting racism is no longer about what lies in someone’s heart.  It’s about passing progressive’s preferred policies and spending a lot of money on their priorities. Equity being the word of the moment.

George Orwell once wrote, “What is above all needed is to let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around. In prose, the worst thing you can do with words is to surrender to them,” and “if thought corrupts language, language can also corrupt thought.”  That is precisely what is occurring here.  This trend towards new terms obscures the meaning of the old ones, connecting disparate groups for political purposes and changing the meaning of words to advance a progressive agenda.  The only difference between Orwell’s time and ours:  The progressive left is literally bragging about it.  You will accept their new language, or you will be shamed, which of course is also part of the plan.

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