FacebookTwitterRedditEmail

Does Word Policing Actually Help the Left?

There’s a popular idea on the left right now that if we can only change people’s language, we can change society. Let me give you an example of what I mean from a unproductive interaction I recently had on an internet discussion group. I know — stop right there. Productive discussions generally aren’t to be had on the internet. But I think this example highlights a growing tendency amongst leftists.

Someone, let’s call her Jill, was declaiming the use of “ableist” speech, which she said included not just clearly offensive terms like “retard” or “cripple,” but words like “crazy” used in an innocuous context. I chimed in that I had a history mental illness, and didn’t find “crazy” to be offensive. If you’ve had any exposure to the online left in recent years, you can probably guess what happened next. I was quickly administered the third degree and denounced for propagating oppressive systems, in this case, stigmatization of the mentally ill.

Now, bare in mind, as a result of my disorder, I’ve been in multiple lockdown psychiatric wards, an intensive care unit, and swallowed more liquid charcoal than I care to admit. But, for Jill, none of this mattered. There was a good, forward-thinking side of this diction debate, and I was on the wrong, reactionary one. She knew so and so, who didn’t like such and such word, and thus we must all alter our vocabulary to cater to this one person, who appeared to desperately seek out offense.

At first, this made me want to bang my head against my desk. If anything was discourteous in the discussion, it was Jill’s assumption that I, and people like me, were such delicate flowers we might be thrown into an emotional tailspin by someone using a term like “crazy” in a way clearly not intended to be demeaning. But then it got me thinking. Where did this idea com from, that if we could just change people’s language, we could change society?

After all, as socialist writer Freddie deBoer reminds us, in classical Marxist theory, base determines superstructure. What this means is that for much of the left, since Marx’s death in 1883, culture, presumably including language, was influenced by the means of production and the relationship of competing classes to production, not the other way around.

So, obviously from a Marxist standpoint, you can’t fix economic inequality by demanding the rich be less snobby. Similarly, one must assume a Marxist wouldn’t believe you could end the stigmatization of mental illness by excising certain words from our vocabulary. You have to address the underlying, economic factors that create inequality and stigmatization of the mentally ill.

Now, I wouldn’t go so far as to say there is no benefit in trying to change problematic language. But I think the amount of energy the left currently places on this pursuit is wildly disproportionate. We should remember that when we focus on language we’re treating symptoms, not the disease. As deBoer points out, that seems to be a truth the modern left has forgotten.

More articles by:
bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550
Weekend Edition
April 03, 2020
Friday - Sunday
Omar Shaban
Gaza’s New Conflict: COVID-19
Rob Urie
Work, Crisis and Pandemic
John Whitlow
Slumlord Capitalism v. Global Pandemic
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Strange Things Happening Every Day
Jonathan Cook
The Bigger Picture is Hiding Behind a Virus
Paul Street
Silver Linings Amidst the Capitalist Coronavirus Crisis
Evaggelos Vallianatos
The Control of Nature
Louis Proyect
COVID-19 and the “Just-in-Time” Supply Chain: Why Hospitals Ran Out of Ventilators and Grocery Stores Ran Out of Toilet Paper
Kathleen Wallace
The Highly Contagious Idea
Kenneth Good
The Apartheid Wars: Non-Accountability and Freedom for Perpetrators.
Andrew Levine
Democracy in America: Sorry, But You Can’t Get There from Here.
Ramzy Baroud
Tunisia Leads the Way: New Report Exposes Israel’s False Democracy
David Rosen
Coronavirus and the State-of-Emergency Pandemic
Matthew Stevenson
Will Trump Cancel the Election? Will the Democrats Dump Joe?
Ron Jacobs
Seattle—Anti-Capitalist Hotbed
Michael T. Klare
Avenger Planet: Is the COVID-19 Pandemic Mother Nature’s Response to Human Transgression?
Jack Rasmus
COVID-19 and the Forgotten Working Class
Werner Lange
The Madness of More Nukes and Less Rights in Pandemic Times
J.P. Linstroth
Why a Race is Not a Virus and a Virus is Not a Race
John Feffer
We Need a Coronavirus Truce
Thomas S. Harrington
“New Corona Cases”: the Ultimate Floating Signifier
Victor Grossman
Corona and What Then?
Katie Fite
Permanent Pandemic on Public Lands: Welfare Sheep Ranchers and Their Enablers Hold the West’s Bighorns Hostage
Patrick Bond
Covid-19 Attacks the Down-and-Out in Ultra-Unequal South Africa
Eve Ottenberg
Capitalism vs. Humanity
Nicky Reid
Fear and Loathing in Coronaville Volume 2: Panic On the Streets of Tehran
Jonas Ecke
Would Dying for the Economy Help Anybody?
Jeff Mackler
Capitalism is the Virus!
Andrew Moss
Incarceration, Detention, and Covid-19
Farzana Versey
Prayers, Piffle and Privation in the Time of Pandemic
Will Solomon
In the New Dystopia
Dean Baker
The Relative Generosity of the Economic Rescue Package: Boeing vs. Public Broadcasting
Dr. Leo Lopez, III
We Need a Lot More Transparency From the CDC
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
Reflections on a Glass of Homemade Cider
Rashid Nuri
Homegrown Crisis Response: Who Grows Your Food?
Mark Luskus
Worst Case Scenario: Healthcare Workers Need Masks, ASAP
Volker Franke
The Virus That May Bring us Together
Mitchell Zimmerman
A Q & A on the GOP’s Call for Elder Sacrifice
Olfat al-Kurd
COVID-19 Could Be Catastrophic for Us: Notes From Gaza
Eileen Appelbaum - Roesmary Batt
Hospital Bailouts Begin…for Those Owned by Private Equity Firms
Nabri Ginwa
Carcinogens
Jill Richardson
Efficiency vs. Resilience
Lee Ballinger
Eddie Van Halen and the Future of Humanity
David Yearsley
Beset by Bach
Robert Koehler
Developing a Vaccine Against War
FacebookTwitterRedditEmail