Trouble With the Language Police

Trouble With the Language Police March 28, 2023

I was in church for the first time in a month or so recently and noticed a couple of seemingly minor but very important changes that have been made in very familiar liturgical texts by the new priest-in-charge who has been in place for just a few months. For instance, the Lord’s Prayer:

Praise God from whom all blessings flow, Praise Him God all creatures here below, Praise Him God above ye heavenly hosts, Praise Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

And also a minor change in the Sanctus during the eucharistic celebration:

Holy, holy, holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory. Heaven and earth are full of your glory. Hosanna in the highest. Blessed is He the One who comes in the name of the Lord. Hosanna in the highest.

I like it. Even the slightest movement toward inclusion and away from the notion that divinity and maleness go hand in hand is welcome. Yet I know just how challenging even the slightest language changes can be; I suspect that our priest has received more than one complaint.

Philosophers love words. We love to dissect them, analyze them, write insufferably boring and inscrutable articles and books about them, and talk among ourselves in a code that only the most inside of the insiders understand. But beneath their PhDs and pretension, philosophers are on to something. Words matter. A lot. As Ludwig Wittgenstein—perhaps the greatest philosopher of the twentieth century—wrote, “the limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Our words shape our world. And if we want to change our world, we might want to consider paying close attention to our words—and changing them.

I first encountered both the difficult and liberating aspects of changing my words and language when writing my master’s thesis more than thirty-five years ago. I grew up in a world where language was entirely skewed in the direction of maleness—pronouns, examples, collective nouns for all human beings, God—everything I thought and talked about came packaged in gender-exclusive language, as if one half of the human race wasn’t worth mentioning. The Bible that I grew up reading and memorizing was soaked through and through with patriarchal language.

During the 60s many voices began pointing out both how pervasive and offensive sexist language was; I also noted that many people, including most of the people I knew, were not inclined to change their speech habits. Not because they didn’t think that feminists and others had a point, but because they were used to using sexist language and they perceived that it would be difficult to change their language default setting.

During my early adulthood I worked on changing my own speech patterns away from sexist toward inclusive; in the late eighties, as I tackled the task of writing a master’s thesis, I decided that I would make a conscious and concerted effort to write the 100+ page document using entirely gender-inclusive language. And it was very difficult to pull off. Not only did it require my becoming entirely conscious of my own sexist language habits, but the primary texts from ancient philosophy that were at the heart of my thesis were written by males who used exclusively male-oriented discourse.

My new writing vocabulary and style seemed forced and stilted at times, but I attributed that to the difficulty of breaking bad habits and establishing better new ones. Over the subsequent years, using gender-inclusive language has become so natural and habitual to me that hearing or reading sexist, male-oriented language screeches like nails on a chalkboard. One of my regular classroom missions is to make students aware of how important it is to use gender-inclusive language. When some students—both male and female—don’t see the moral reasons behind my mission and resist it, I sell it to them practically by assuring them that gender-inclusive language is a standard expectation in business communication. Try getting a good job without gender-inclusive language in your skill set.

But despite my commitment to language inclusion and, perhaps, to progressive “wokeness” in general, I still unexpectedly ran afoul of the language police a couple of weeks ago. It began innocently enough. A Facebook acquaintance (we’ve never actually met) whose posts I generally enjoy shared a meme that said something along the lines of “Listening to an audiobook and reading a hard copy book are the same thing. Those of you who think otherwise are just wrong.” My acquaintance commented favorably, saying “I will die on this hill!”

By the time I stumbled across the post, a relatively long comment thread had already developed which included, as far as I could tell, nothing but complete support for audiobooks and disdain for anyone who might disagree with the sentiment. Unfortunately my inner contrarian kicked in and I commented as follows:

Listening to an audiobook and reading a hard copy book are not the same activity.

I inserted the smiley face because I had a suspicion that my comment might be taken too seriously.

My suspicion was correct—within short order numerous commenters, including my acquaintance who posted originally, let me know that my comment was just about as welcome in this conversation as a fart in church. Quickly I was accused of being “ableist” because my implied preference for reading hard copy books lessens the value of those who, because of disability, must listen to books. Others pointed out that listening to audiobooks and reading hard copy books really are the same activity, since apparently the same area of the brain lights up regardless of through which sense portals the book enters the brain.

I don’t advise continuing such conversations. Once it has been decided that you are a dreaded “ist” of some sort, all subsequent attempts at defending oneself are merely further evidence that one is not only that kind of “ist” but probably also a violator of any number of other possible standards and boundaries. Eventually in response to the latest “ablesplaining” comment from a person with whom I have exchanged many positive posts and comments over the years, my frustrations finally surfaced. “___, I have no interest in conforming my language to the fear that someone, somewhere might possibly be offended by something. Life’s too short.” I then deleted my post and the entire subsequent conversation.

It’s a minor example of an important issue. In the latest issue of The Atlantic, George Packer takes on what he calls “equity language” in a short article titled “The Moral Case Against Euphemism.” Arguing that “banning words won’t make the world more just,” Packer admits that “the rationale for equity language guides is hard to fault. The seek a world without oppression and injustice.”

The problem is that since such a world continually proves to either be extraordinarily difficult or (more probably) impossible to achieve, the language police (my phrase, not Packer’s) “want to make the ugliness of our society disappear by linguistic fiat.” Attempts to purify language reveal “a weakened belief in more material forms of progress.” If we can’t eliminate racism or achieve an equitable society in reality, perhaps we can at least enforce from the top down a language that sounds as if we have achieved it. But equity language does nothing to address the real inequities in society. “Equity language doesn’t fool anyone who lives with real affliction. It’s meant to spare only the feelings of those who use it.”

Although the demands of “equity language” are usually attributed to the progressive, left side of things, all sides have their language police, both in politics and religion. The only reason to pay attention to and seek to change one’s language is to align one’s words with the world one hopes for. If language does not lead to action, then it is just a bunch of words. And words are cheap.

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