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Understand ‘Language Policing’

As support for Black Lives Matter recedes, a reactionary tendency decries the spread of “wokeness” throughout society. The thinking goes: opposing police brutality is OK, but it’s crossing the line to address the racist legacies of education, healthcare, and everyday language and ideologies. Such an overstep, some say, is language policing or cancel culture run amok. In reality, uncovering problematic institutions, unquestioned beliefs, or racist words isn’t language policing — it’s a sign of a functioning society. 

For instance, thinking about health equity means addressing the societal factors that affect health. When the ARD spoke with Jamaal Henderson from ACT UP Philly, they told us that it’s much harder to kick addiction or treat chronic health conditions when you’re living on the street or shuffled between shelters. Those with less money have less access to life-sustaining care and greater exposure to life-threatening risks. In the United States, the richest 1% lives 14% longer than the poorest 1%. 

TAKE ACTION

Understand terms like BIPOC, Latinx, people-first language, and LGBTQ and queer.

Consider: how have the words we use for culture, science, technology, and politics changed over your lifetime? What stories do we tell ourselves about people of different races and nationalities, genders and sexualities, and levels of wealth? How can you encourage people in your life to shift some of the narratives they may believe?

Of course, people don’t become billionaires because of their exceptional health. Our health is affected by the resources we have, the healthcare we access, the quality of our surroundings, and the conditions of our day-to-day lives. All are determined in part by things like your class, race, gender, ability, and sexuality. 

Since societal factors affect health, the American Medical Association published a guide (AMA) to help physicians understand health equity. Doctors are asked to consider person-first language (“people with COVID” as opposed to “COVID cases”), specifically identify the population they’re working with (perhaps “people who use wheelchairs” instead of “the disabled”), and to consider the stories they tell themselves about their patients. Healthcare workers are encouraged to look at the factors that not only hurt the health of individual patients but of communities in the aggregate (AMA, pg. 26). 

An article soon appeared denouncing the AMA guide as full of “specious reasoning, questionable assumptions, and dubious judgments.” “Advancing Health Equity” isn’t really about improving health by understanding its social determinants, the author claims. Instead, its goal is supposedly to “get doctors talking like ideologues of the social-justice left,” through “counterproductive language policing” (The Atlantic). 

However, the AMA guide isn’t language policing. For starters, it isn’t a set of rules for how doctors must speak to patients. It’s an educational resource offered by a professional association to its members to assist in “curricular and professional development activities” (AMA, pg. 27). It helps practitioners consider patients as full humans, not just cases to be solved. And the guide makes an important point: context and audience matter. Though rejecting racist words isn’t language policing, familiarity with terminology isn’t a substitute for relationships and care. We don’t build social justice by trying to outsmart one another, but we must reject conservative attempts to brand critical thinking and progressive practice as “nonsense” (The Atlantic). 

The attack on “Advancing Health Equity” was published at The Atlantic, known for being a “bastion of liberal ideas” (The New Republic). Denouncements of “social justice” overreach have recently appeared in a number of liberal-leaning publications (N.Y. Times, CNN, CNN, MSNBC). Such criticism nonetheless fits in comfortably with right-wing condemnations of “wokeness” as totalitarian, un-American, or a sequel to China’s Cultural Revolution (spiked, National Review, RT). 

But language and concepts change all the time. There were several years when people earnestly talked about an “Information Superhighway” known as the “World Wide Web.” If you talked about surfing the Information Superhighway today, you’d be roundly mocked. If you worked in marketing and insisted on using the term in ad copy, you’d eventually be fired. But nobody would say you’re oppressed. Changing words only seem to evoke violent pushback when the dignity of oppressed people is at stake. 

It’s true that changing our terminology won’t make oppression go away. Some people, unfortunately, think that knowing up-to-date words is a substitute for action. Others believe that lording their knowledge of certain terms over those with less awareness is a way to show off their anti-oppression bona fides. 

But there’s a clear connection between the words and narratives we use and even extreme cases of racial oppression like police murders: who is a “victim,” a “criminal,” a “thug,” or a “hero.” Refining our understanding of the world isn’t a totalitarian conspiracy.  Rethinking racist words isn’t language policing — it’s the very least we can do to those within and beyond our communities.

KEY TAKEAWAYS

Both liberal and conservative outlets denounce “woke” language as “language policing.” 

Language evolves over time, but it becomes controversial when politicized.

Thinking through the narratives and words we use is crucial, though by itself insufficient, for positive social change. 

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