Now I’m not sure that the word “tribe” in my title is an Approved Progressive Left Term®, but I can’t think of a better one for the nonce. And if that word were erased by the woke, according to this new article by Matthew Yglesias on his Substack site, I wouldn’t have much reason to complain. According to Yglesias, beefing about language changes, like the recent elimination of the word “field” and suggested replacement with “practicum” by the School of Social Work at USC, is going after low-hanging fruit, “one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics”. Does that make me and my fellow beefers “reactionaries”? Read by clicking the headline, and subscribe if you read regularly:
Yglesias, whose work I’m not that familiar with, was inspired by reading a John le Carré novel, A Murder of Quality. The novel apparently involves a British family who comes into money but isn’t of upper-class origin, and so has to learn proper upper-class British manners, like peeling an apple and then quartering it before eating it. This makes no sense to me, but that’s the point: this way of eating signals one’s membership in the club, which is necessary (along with money) to settle onself in the right circles.
Yglesias touts his familiarity with tribal language and behavior by touting his street cred, which, it turns out, is rich-people’s street cred. The guy has gone to all the ritzy and upper-class schools:
I went to a private high school called Dalton in New York which, at the time I attended, was known as a “progressive” school in the sense of its pedagogical philosophy. That was in contrast to a more “conservative” place like Grace Church School where I went for K-8.
But these days, both institutions have become progressive in a political sense. On its website, Dalton has an extensive statement about the school’s commitment to “equity and inclusion” that seems on its face at odds with the basic reality of being a school that charges $57,970 per year in tuition.
And yet not only the schools I attended in New York, but Georgetown Day and Sidwell Friends here in D.C., BBN in Boston, Harvard Westlake in LA, and other major Fancy-Pants Prep Schools that I’m familiar with have gone all-in on DEI rhetoric.
Remember Dalton? Read my 2020 post about it here.
But then he asks the topic question:
The obvious question about this is why would exclusive institutions, the primary purpose of which is to provide additional advantages in life to academically talented students with rich parents, be so invested in an ostensibly egalitarian ideology?
Good question. The parents, of course did push back against this ideology, which is what my post is about.
Then Yglesias went to Harvard, and there he learned another trick of the elite: how to tie a bow tie before attending a black-tie dinner:
One of the things I learned at Harvard was how to tie a bow tie. The university, as a deliberately retro move, hosted a lot of black-tie events. Kirkland House had an annual formal dance, and I believe the other houses did, too. But there were many other black-tie events linked to the arts — if you had a friend who was in a play, you might get invited to a black-tie premiere.
I think contemporary university administrators would struggle a little bit to explain why there are black-tie events on campus. But I can tell you that I went to more than one per year, every year, for the four years that I was a student and exactly one since graduating.
And the penny dropped vis-à-vis Carré’s book: these complex language changes, like “practicum” (or “Latinx”, which nearly all Hispanics refuse to use), are actually inegalitarian: they setss the users and speakers apart from the hoi polloi.
Today things are different, and one thing you’d learn in a fancy American school is why you shouldn’t talk about the economic underdevelopment of Africa like this. You’d learn better etiquette. Or at least different etiquette — etiquette that will differentiate you from less sophisticated people who might run around saying offensive things about poverty in the Global South. For instance, a person without a proper education might refer to the countries in question as “the third world” without having read Marc Silver’s January 2021 NPR piece about why this is offensive. But to Bright’s point, speaking differently doesn’t actually change anything.
And that, perhaps, is a big part of the appeal.
In the USC case, and others like it, Yglesias notes that the ostensible motivation for changing words is to be “more inclusive”. And that is the case. “Latinx”, for example, was confected by non-“Latinx” people to erase the supposed misogyny of “Latino” (a male form) and “Latinos” (a general plural which also happens to mean “a group of men”). If you use the neutral “Latinx,” you’re showing that you’re an in-the-know progressive.
Yglesias has a point, though it’s not novel to argue that signs of wokeness are purely performative and accomplish no meaningful social change. Yglesias goes a step further, though, and argues that terms like “practicum” (and I’d add “Latinx” or “global South” here) actually foster inequality by buttressing tribalism.
Now I’m not sure that the terms are intended to buttress inequality, though fostering tribalism is probably a major part of their genesis. But I doubt that they do increase inequality—any more than using woke language reduces inequality. What I object to, I guess, is how he takes people like me to task—people who beef about the constant turnover of language (my bolding below):
Language is arbitrary and always changing, so personally I find “getting mad at language change” to be one of the lowest forms of reactionary politics. At the same time, it’s worth just applying a little bit of common sense to the question of who is and isn’t included by saying “practicum” instead of “field.” Highly educated people and white-collar workers who spend a lot of time bored at the office staring at computer screens and reading articles are well positioned to have large and flexible vocabularies. We are used to learning new words and learning how to use them.
I am quite fluent in why we don’t characterize non-white people as “minorities” anymore, and even why affirmatively characterizing them as “people of color” is in favor rather than saying “non-white,” which tends to center whiteness. I know what it means to “center” something. I know that URM stands for under-represented minorities, and that we tend not to spell it out because “minorities” is out of favor. I also know what URM means (not Asians) and how URM is distinguished from BIPOC. I don’t talk about third-world countries.
I know these things in large part for the same reason I know how to tie a bow tie. And while everyone knows about Skull & Bones, I also know about Scroll & Key and can tell you which school has eating clubs. But while there may be merit to cultivating a set of esoteric practices for the sake of maintaining a national (or these days, increasingly, global) elite class that can recognize its fellow members, that’s like saying (à la John Rawls) that there may be reasons for even egalitarians to support a certain amount of inequality.
These elite institutions and codes of manners are not egalitarian, not just because manners are insufficient but because their purpose is to be inegalitarian. Changing “field” into “practicum” doesn’t include more people — it’s a new means of excluding people whose information is out of date.
But when I think of it, I’m not mad at language change just because I am a conservative who doesn’t like change. I’m mad at changes like “field” to “practicum” because it’s pompous, unnecessary and stupid given the ubiquity of the word “field” in other contexts, and above all because it’s purely performative. And I guess that’s not so different from what Yglesias thinks. The difference is that he also believes that these languages changes palpably decrease inclusiveness, and thus do the opposite of what the users claim to want. And there I think he’s wrong. The language changes, regardless of their motivation, don’t change anything about society.