Gender-Neutral Language Is More Than a Word Game
Democratic speech police demand not only tolerance but endorsement of the progressive agenda.
By Jason L. Riley
Jan. 5, 2021
In his 1946 essay, “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell wrote that political language “consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” The description fits Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s new House rules on gender-neutral speech to a tee.
On Monday, the Democratic-controlled lower chamber voted along party lines to approve new official language guidelines. Words such as “himself” and “herself” are to be replaced by “themself.” Out with “father,” “mother,” “son,” “daughter,” “brother,” “sister,” “uncle,” “aunt” and other familial terms, and in with “parent,” “child,” “sibling” and so forth. An incensed Kevin McCarthy, the Republican minority leader, tweeted that the changes “are stupid,” which is true but incomplete.
Mrs. Pelosi is obviously attempting to placate the progressives in her caucus, however it’s also another example of how the political left today demands not only tolerance but endorsement. You can’t disagree respectfully, let alone agree not to agree. It’s bad enough when our colleges and universities enforce what amount to speech codes, or indulge efforts to shield students from dissenting viewpoints. Now we have lawmakers in Washington offering a kind of a federal imprimatur on limiting free expression.
The next time Republicans control the House, they can and should reverse these changes. There’s little evidence that anyone besides far-left elites is obsessed with a gender-neutral vocabulary. In recent years, Democratic activists have tried to popularize the word “Latinx” in lieu of Latino and Latina. But a Pew Research Center poll taken last year found that just 3% of Hispanics self-describe as Latinx.
Nevertheless, what the left is attempting to do here goes well beyond semantic tinkering. The goal is not simply to tell us what we can or can’t say aloud, but to redefine common words and expressions to advance a political agenda. Hence, discussions of “racial diversity” somehow omit Asian-Americans. And blacks are to be identified by their race—with an uppercase “B,” no less—when they are victims of police shootings but not when they are criminal suspects.
Robin DiAngelo, the bestselling author and “diversity training” guru, insists that black people can’t be racists, which can only be true if she’s using a definition of racism that is utterly unrecognizable to the average person. Ibram X. Kendi, a critical-race scholar, has called for the creation of a federal “Department of Anti-Racism” that “would be responsible for preclearing all local, state and federal public policies to ensure they won’t yield racial inequity, monitor those policies, investigate private racist policies when racial inequity surfaces, and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” How this is compatible with our Constitution’s free-speech protections is anyone’s guess.
Nor is it clear how policing speech advances racial equality. The civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ’60s was liberalism’s crowning achievement. How far would it have gotten without free speech? Civil-rights icons like Martin Luther King Jr. , Roy Wilkins and Thurgood Marshall didn’t try to silence their opponents. Instead, they debated them, and managed to do so successfully without mangling the English language.
Last month the New York Times ran two disturbing stories that illustrate what’s at stake in these culture wars. Both involved teenagers and use of the notorious N-word. In one story the mother of a black student objected to her son studying an August Wilson play in English class because some of the characters use the N-word. In the other story a black teenager maliciously disseminated a three-year-old, three-second Snapchat video of a white classmate using a racial slur while listening to a rap song. In the first instance, the mother’s vehement objections led to her son leaving the school, the only one he’d ever attended. In the second case, the white classmate, now college-bound, was forced to withdraw from the University of Tennessee under pressure from admission officials.
What went unmentioned in both stories is that the N-word is inescapable in black culture and regularly employed by the country’s most popular comedians and music artists. Moreover, the word is far more likely to be uttered by blacks than by whites. It’s hard to believe that the mother in the first story and the black teenager in the second one were really offended by the use of the N-word in these contexts. What’s easier to believe is that they are opportunists who were playacting for attention.
The question going forward is how long society will continue to indulge this sort of fake outrage. How long will liberals get away with telling people what pronouns they can use, and when racial slurs are and are not appropriate? If Mrs. Pelosi and the Democratic left get their way, it could be quite a while.
Appeared in the January 6, 2021, print edition.