The Atlantic unpacks (and criticizes) woke language

March 3, 2023 • 9:30 am

I don’t keep up with the politics of The Atlantic much: even though I have a subscription, I rarely get time to read it. But reader David sent me a link to the piece below, which turns out to be a trenchant critique of the verbiage of the woke, which is called “equity language”, why it keeps constantly changing, and why there’s so much concentration by “progressives” on the ideologically proper use of words. It turns out, as we all knew on some level, that the usage and constant turnover is simply a way to demonstrate one’s belief in the need to change society without actually having to do so. In other words, the obsession with language is performative. You can read the many posts on ideology and language on this site by clicking here.

Click the screenshot below to read the piece (free); it’s by George Packer, a staff writer at the magazine.

While some changes in language are clearly salubrious, most seem either unnecessary, even ludicrous.  Most of the language changes are meant to elevate “the minoritized” (that’s one of the improved words), and so the names of groups keep changing.  “Latino” has given way to “Latinx”, and that to “Latine”, while in the meantime most Hispanics don’t even know about this and never use those “progressive” terms. “Field”, as in “fieldwork,” was eliminated because of its imagined connection with enslaved persons (another neologism) working on the plantation, along with “brown bag lunch” (racist), “stand up for your rights” (it’s abelist!), “felon” (now “justice-involved person”) and yesterday I discovered that even the notion of “gun control” was considered racist.

Packer’s article gives a list of these words, shows how they change frequently, and discusses how the changes are promulgated by elite organizations and academics:

The liturgy changes without public discussion, and with a suddenness and frequency that keep the novitiate off-balance, forever trying to catch up, and feeling vaguely impious. A ban that seemed ludicrous yesterday will be unquestionable by tomorrow. The guides themselves can’t always stay current. People of color becomes standard usage until the day it is demoted, by the American Heart Association and others, for being too general. The American Cancer Society prefers marginalized to the more “victimizing” underresourced or underserved—but in the National Recreation and Park Association’s guide, marginalized now acquires “negative connotations when used in a broad way. However, it may be necessary and appropriate in context. If you do use it, avoid ‘the marginalized,’ and don’t use marginalized as an adjective.” Historically marginalized is sometimes okay; marginalized people is not. The most devoted student of the National Recreation and Park Association guide can’t possibly know when and when not to say marginalized; the instructions seem designed to make users so anxious that they can barely speak. But this confused guidance is inevitable, because with repeated use, the taint of negative meaning rubs off on even the most anodyne language, until it has to be scrubbed clean. The erasures will continue indefinitely, because the thing itself—injustice—will always exist.

Orwell would have a field day with this: in his famous 1946 essay “Politics and the English Language“,he discussed the use of euphemisms to soften hard truths:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them. Consider for instance some comfortable English professor defending Russian totalitarianism. He cannot say outright, ‘I believe in killing off your opponents when you can get good results by doing so’. Probably, therefore, he will say something like this:

While freely conceding that the Soviet régime exhibits certain features which the humanitarian may be inclined to deplore, we must, I think, agree that a certain curtailment of the right to political opposition is an unavoidable concomitant of transitional periods, and that the rigours which the Russian people have been called upon to undergo have been amply justified in the sphere of concrete achievement.

Modern euphemisms in equity language are less violent, but nevertheless, according to Packer, serve the same purpose:

The whole tendency of equity language is to blur the contours of hard, often unpleasant facts. This aversion to reality is its main appeal. Once you acquire the vocabulary, it’s actually easier to say people with limited financial resources than the poor. The first rolls off your tongue without interruption, leaves no aftertaste, arouses no emotion. The second is rudely blunt and bitter, and it might make someone angry or sad. Imprecise language is less likely to offend. Good writing—vivid imagery, strong statements—will hurt, because it’s bound to convey painful truths.

Clearly Packer has read Orwell, whose essay said this:

The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.

If you have time this weekend, do read Orwell’s essay, a classic piece that still resonates today.

One part of Packer’s essay that I like is that he translated a bit of Katherine Boo’s book Behind the Beautiful Foreversa factual account of her three years spent living in the Mumbai slums—into equity language, just as Orwell translated plain language into Newspeak above. Packer argues that Boo’s book, which he sees as a “masterpiece,” could never be published today.

For this bit. . .

The One Leg’s given name was Sita. She had fair skin, usually an asset, but the runt leg had smacked down her bride price. Her Hindu parents had taken the single offer they got: poor, unattractive, hard-working, Muslim, old—“half-dead, but who else wanted her,” as her mother had once said with a frown.

. . . would, translated into today’s equity language, go like this:

Sita was a person living with a disability. Because she lived in a system that centered whiteness while producing inequities among racial and ethnic groups, her physical appearance conferred an unearned set of privileges and benefits, but her disability lowered her status to potential partners. Her parents, who were Hindu persons, accepted a marriage proposal from a member of a community with limited financial resources, a person whose physical appearance was defined as being different from the traits of the dominant group and resulted in his being set apart for unequal treatment, a person who was considered in the dominant discourse to be “hardworking,” a Muslim person, an older person. In referring to him, Sita’s mother used language that is considered harmful by representatives of historically marginalized communities.

That’s a bit overdone, but the point is that equity language is meant to soften the hard facts by putting a more empathic face on them. The change of “slave” to “enslaved person,” for instance, is meant to emphasize that slaves were people, not chattel. Does the change improve our understanding of or empathy for these people? I don’t know, and I’m not going to die on that hill, but it certainly makes language uglier, harder to use, and, most of all, intimidates nearly all writers and speakers into using ideologically approved language.

What hill I will die on is the contention that using such language, and the concentration of effort going into not just changing it constantly but policing others into using it does nothing to improve society. Yet these very changes supposedly are aimed at changing society.

The virus has struck biology, too: one example is the drive to change the common terms for species named after “bad” people, like Audubon, to more neutral names (see here and here). “Black holes” has been termed racist language, and evolutionary biology seen as ableist. Will all this linguistic Pecksniffery create social justice and improve the lot of the disadvantaged? You’d be hard pressed to make that case. But science, like everyday language, is constantly being trawled by the Purity Police.

Packer concludes, correctly, that the name changing reflects a desire for social justice. But it winds up as a displacement behavior, like that seen in animals. A bird who is pecked at by another, for instance, may in turn peck at a leaf in frustration. It doesn’t create avian equity, but at least the victimized bird can do something. Likewise, “progressives” displace their realization that society can’t be materially changed in an easy way into language-policing, which can change something (my emphasis). Packer’s conclusion:

This huge expense of energy to purify language reveals a weakened belief in more material forms of progress. If we don’t know how to end racism, we can at least call it structural. The guides want to make the ugliness of our society disappear by linguistic fiat. Even by their own lights, they do more ill than good—not because of their absurd bans on ordinary words like congresswoman and expat, or the self-torture they require of conscientious users, but because they make it impossible to face squarely the wrongs they want to right, which is the starting point for any change. Prison does not become a less brutal place by calling someone locked up in one a person experiencing the criminal-justice system. Obesity isn’t any healthier for people with high weight. It’s hard to know who is likely to be harmed by a phrase like native New Yorker or under fire; I doubt that even the writers of the guides are truly offended. But the people in Behind the Beautiful Forevers know they’re poor; they can’t afford to wrap themselves in soft sheets of euphemism. Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.

The project of the guides is utopian, but they’re a symptom of deep pessimism. They belong to a fractured culture in which symbolic gestures are preferable to concrete actions, argument is no longer desirable, each viewpoint has its own impenetrable dialect, and only the most fluent insiders possess the power to say what is real. What I’ve described is not just a problem of the progressive left. The far right has a different vocabulary, but it, too, relies on authoritarian shibboleths to enforce orthodoxy. It will be a sign of political renewal if Americans can say maddening things to one another in a common language that doesn’t require any guide.

This is a good essay that makes a point that we’ve all known in our hearts, but makes that point as clear as water. Few of the changes suggested by the woke really eliminate offense to people (were “Latinos” offended by that term?), and almost none of them mitigate “harm.” They are there for one reason: to show the ideology and purity of the Enforcers.

I thought the Atlantic was generally pro-woke, but once in a while they publish something ideologically sensible, and this is one example.


h/t: David

40 thoughts on “The Atlantic unpacks (and criticizes) woke language

  1. Excellent.

    Orwell : “Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.”

    I wonder if the “While freely conceding that the Soviet régime …” is invented by Orwell as an example or has a source?

  2. My two targets: Trans and Phobia. My opening salvos:

    “There is no such thing as ‘trans.’ A woman cannot become a man. If you concede that, I am open to hearing about your feelings.”

    “Phobia means ‘fear of’ and I am not afraid. Additionally, I reserve the right to dislike whatever I dislike, and that is not an actionable crime, nor justification for you trying to make it one.”

    1. “… I reserve the right to dislike whatever I dislike, and that is not an actionable crime, nor justification for you trying to make it one.”

      I see that.

      I think the thrust of the ideology is that it is inhumane to regard any fellow human as, say, weird – or not your friend.

      Which clearly leads to contradiction.

        1. Bigotry is legal in America, but why proclaim your bigotry on WEIT? Jerry is a cool, even-keeled human, but he’s not a bigot. I don’t know why you think this post is an open platform for your bigotry. Stupid comment, is what I say.

  3. The “theory” behind replacing “slave” by “enslaved person” is that supposedly the language brings to prominence the personhood of the slave. But the theory has never had any empirical basis. Do users of the word “slave” have less recognition of the personhood of slaves than do users of “enslaved person”? Did Frederick Douglass, in his speech, “What to the slave is the 4th of July?” have any less recognition of the personhood of slaves than users of the currently recommended expression? The ridiculousness of the theory has been brought out in discussions by historians, including David Bright.

    1. Excellent points. What next? Will servants now be called “serving people”?

      If the sort of people who favor such euphemisms really do need to be reminded that slaves are people, they’re a scary bunch, and I want nothing to do with them or their patronizing language rules.

    1. Clearly, one must be ready to “Get started” before reading that page. I think Orwell might have had words for “get started”.

      … and shouldn’t the word “chemical” itself be subject to scrutiny? So many terrible things happened to so many people as a result of chemicals – who will speak up for them? Let me try their approach – this might be a fun game for Friday afteroon :

      [ draws card ]
      “Avoid : “American Chemical Society” ”

      [ other players ]
      “Use : _____________________”

      … on second thought, I tried writing something, but it is so awful I refrain – except for making “Society” into “Colonialist/Imperialist Club”.

    2. I know I’m over-commenting and I’ll stop if I can just write out this idea which just occurred to me :

      The ACS guidelines for “Style” strikes me as a wholesale interpretation of the written word as if nobody but the ACS are aware that words are actually instruments for personal remarks – or that readers are taking words personally if at all possible.

      The ACS’s solution : write as if you are writing a manual for an appliance – good examples of alienating and anodyne documents if ever there were any.

      How do the guidelines begin? By telling us to “get started” – we ignorant outsiders have not even begun to fathom the Deep Thoughts which produced the “style guide”.

      There is no comment section.

      OK I’ll stop!

  4. One rather tangential thought that occurred to me when reading this was also how how imprecise such language is. Are there any people out there with UNlimited financial resources? Mathematically (and economically) that seems impossible.

  5. It turns out, as we all knew on some level, that the usage and constant turnover is simply a way to demonstrate one’s belief in the need to change society without actually having to do so.

    Can we think of examples where conscious efforts to change people’s vocabulary helped better society? I think so. Eliminating the casual use of slurs (“go get me a paper from that n__ on the corner”) or exchanging terms that were insufficiently descriptive (“the men of our state value its natural resources”) were valuable historical tactics for attacking racism & sexism. And the social justice warriors who advised people were only warriors in a very metaphorical sense. “Please don’t call him a ‘cripple’, use a different word instead” isn’t likely to trigger our own sensitivities.

    People generally enjoy telling other people that they’re wrong, and we also like teaching or informing them of what’s right. The adoption of the ever-refined usage and constant turnover of Correct Words reminds me a bit of that study where biologists managed to get male birds to obsessively peck at a large red dot because it resembled a sign that a female was in heat (or something like that.) A normal response can get displaced onto something with an exaggerated form, and becomes exaggerated itself. No matter how hard we keep pecking and pecking at those bright red dots, we’re not getting anywhere. The goal is now to keep pecking.

    1. The correlation between changing words and social improvement is not causal in your examples. The changes to language were driven by changed attitudes and beliefs, not the other way around. Today’s language police try to change attitudes and belief by using language. They assume language is the cause. In this view, language is not descriptive of reality but constitutive of it. The tactic, I believe, will work as well as changing the word “policeman” to “police officer” in the 1980s worked to close the gender gap in that occuapation, which is to say it won’t work at all. But using such language functions in the maintenance of ingroup/outgroup statuses.

      1. The changes to language were driven by changed attitudes and beliefs when we look at it in retrospect. At the time, there were ppl who thought it was okay to use the n-word or call people “cripples” if it wasn’t consciously intended as an insult — and then there were others who didn’t. The last group eventually persuaded the first group to change their minds and habits by appealing to them on many levels, from courtesy to morality and, eventually, to social convention. And the small shift in attitude or awareness may have allowed for larger shifts later.

        The demands back then seemed more modest, made from common ground and without the threat of law or serious repercussions. Or at least that’s the way it seems in retrospect. The prejudice we were dealing with was greater, the change in language more significant. Getting rid of the n-word didn’t seem performative. Being told in the name of Social Justice to substitute “marginalized person” with “person who has been marginalized “ just looks like we’re being jerked around.

  6. Packer’s is a good essay. I read all of his essays and stories when they appear in the Atlantic. In general, I find the Atlantic to be pretty balanced. Their articles lean somewhat left, it seems to me, but they generally don’t tip over into wokeness and collapse onto the ground. My informal measures? I engage in far less eye-rolling when reading the Atlantic than when reading other sources, and I’m less likely to drive my wife crazy (Oops. Bad word.) by complaining about the excesses.

    1. I agree — I don’t read The Atlantic as being woke at all. I’ve seen a number of essays by Conor Friedersdorf that push back on the excesses of the social justice movement. I think the magazine is appropriately described as classically liberal, and they will run well-argued essays regardless of ideology. I think they represent well the idea of a marketplace of ideas.

  7. “Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real afflictions. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.”

    Equity language also gives the scholars who invent it a reason for being. Without the claim that they are the final arbiters of justice, those who see the problems of society for what they are, they might have to face the fact that their education was a waste of time and money.

  8. I can’t think of the exercise of pseudo intellectualism that constitutes wokeness as anything other than what has been termed “mental masturbation”.

  9. This blog has become a fast favorite – I am sad I only recently found it. Refreshing, smart & poignant.

  10. “[…] it certainly makes language uglier, harder to use, and, most of all, intimidates nearly all writers and speakers into using ideologically approved language.”
    At the same time, it can be a boon for a woke journalist or writer with nothing to say and a 3000-minimum word-count to say it in.

    1. Or the woke journalist can use ChatGBT to write their article, and it’s very likely no one will be the wiser. I find it remarkable that deep neural networks can be trained to produce reams of convincing “woke” narrative, while they cannot produce an article with real scientific insight. Scientific insight is not something you can simply scale up to with more layers to your neural networks and faster computers.

      1. In the last couple of weeks NY Times film critic A.O. Scott had a print page one article on ChatGPT. (I have yet to read it. Lately it seems that the “Activities of Daily Living” have prevented me from accomplishing the most plebian of non-chore interests.) The headline spoke of ChatGPT “eerie banality.” I wonder if ChatGPT took offense at that. Perhaps ChatGPT is not aware that First World-Problem flesh-and-blood humans expect it to entertain and elevate and inspire them. (I wonder if Mr. Scott and his ilk clean their own abodes, wash their own drawers, among other such “banal” tasks, or do they farm them out to nose-to-the-grindstone domestic types who who possess substantial “grit” and stoically press on.)

  11. “… They are there for one reason: to show the ideology and purity of the Enforcers.”

    I think there’s a profound intimidation at work too – not sure precisely what or how, but reading the ACS guide above (see AnnaKrylov’s comment), I notice in myself sort of melting – withering – a freezing – what do I say or think when what I say or think is itself on a microscope stage? It is beyond common manners, or rude vs. polite – speech is one thing – this is before speech – thought – freezing of thought. Anything you say can and will be used against you.

  12. “… symbolic gestures are preferable to concrete action…” But of course: the whole act emerged from grievance studies precincts of academia, where symbolic gestures are the main operation. Moreover, as Pluckrose and Lindsay point out in “Cynical Theories”, the act descends from our old friend postmodernism, the central tenet of which is that nothing is as real as language. Wokeism is, as they point out “applied postmodernism”.

    1. “…the central tenet of which is that nothing is as real as language.”

      A related tenet is that individual human beings are not as real and of consequence as their assigned group identity. It’s a form of mysticism, where that which cannot be seen has a reality superior to that which can, like shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave.

  13. “Because she lived in a system that centered whiteness. . . .”

    A side complaint: for some gawd-awful reason, the word “center” as a verb has become standard usage among the woke. I recently received this promotional email from the executive director of Ecotrust, an environmental organization in Portland, OR, for which, some 25 years ago, I wrote the strategic vision statement.

    “I continue to believe we have to be brave and unapologetic in centering anti-racism. . . . Our team is working in deep partnership on projects that uplift, empower, and center justice in our partners, communities, and ourselves.”

    Anti-racism is fine but has absolutely nothing to do with the mission of the organization. My reply:

    “Really? While you’re bravely ‘centering’ all this, why don’t you just change the name of the company to ‘Ecowoke’?”

  14. A number of years ago, I saw a psychologist who kept insisting that I needed to see myself as the “survivor” of a certain unfortunate event and not the “victim” (even though I hadn’t used the latter myself) so that I would be empowered to overcome the challenges presented. What she didn’t do was give me any assistance, ideas, skills or otherwise to help with the challenges.

    Ironically, I recently read that “survivor” is now taboo as it supposedly reduces a person to this one label, although I am pretty sure I wouldn’t have felt like that about it myself.

  15. Not quite on topic, but a good subscription service for those interested is Apple’s “News” app. I think it’s $10 Australian dollars per month and I’m currently subscribed to The Atlantic, National Geographic, Times of London, Sports Illustrated, Time, Popular Mechanics, WSJ, and a few others. Far more than I can read in a month. Might be worth checking out.

  16. I know a person with physical disabilities who lives in a rent subsidized apartment. The apartments were meant for elderly on fixed incomes and people with physical or mental disabilities. These are people who have difficult lives. For some reason the charitable organization started taking in drug addicts. (He thinks the Provincial BC govt. had something to do with it.) And the place was turned upside down. The crackheads were not
    (Sociology101) ‘societal marginalized powerless victims without a voice’ (\Sociology101)
    They were predators, and the apartment building was their hunting ground. And don’t dare tell any of the people in that building otherwise. They finally got rid of the lunatics but it took
    a lot of time and effort. When he was describing the things these idiots were doing I said they sounded like juvenile delinquents. And that’s what they were, 30, 40, 50, 60 year old juvenile delinquents. They never grew up, because in our baby-sitter society they don’t have to grow up. But sure, marginalized victims of society.

  17. Ironically, “justice-involved person” let me wonder at first if it means lawyers and judges. Turned out it means the opposite. QED?

  18. Packer has always seemed a smart, reasonable writer to me. This piece should be required reading for every American.

    But man, oh, man — wait, that’s sexist. Let me rephrase, But penis-haver, oh, penis-haver … wait, that’s centering genitals when we *all* know that genitals have nothing to do with sex. Oh dear … But person, oh, person (will that do?), Packer is going to have the hypersensitive wingnuts on his a**.

    I mean, writing “Obesity isn’t any healthier for people with high weight” is just so colonialist and white supremacist. EVERYone knows that being a person of size is not only just as healthy as any other body conformation, but it’s BETTER! And if you are not attracted to persons of size, you are a sizeist bigot.

  19. “Clearly Packer has read Orwell, whose essay said this:

    ‘The inflated style is itself a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outlines and covering up all the details.'”

    From my modest experience reading Orwell, in one essay he clearly much preferred Anglo-Saxon to Latin-derived words. (I assume that he had a similar disdain for Greek.) I wonder what motivated that preference. Simply that he was English? Was/Is Anglo-Saxon vocabulary sufficient to satisfy the naming/descriptive requirements of STEM?

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