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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.