Content warning: This post is about harmful language and it contains words that are used to dehumanize people. Please take caution.
In April 2023, the Atlantic published a 2,500-word opinion piece complaining about language equity style guides. The attack on these guides is misleading, wrong, and harmful. It continually misrepresents the style guides. It shows a misunderstanding of the content and the point of them. It refuses to accept others and expresses contempt for anything that doesn’t fit the author’s narrow and outdated idea of language. And it gives fuel to the fascists in their culture war.
Equity style guides are written to address and remedy the ways that language has been used to marginalize people in society. The guides come from healthcare providers, universities, and non-profits. Their aim is to help writers use non-harmful language related to diversity, equity, race, sexual orientation, gender, ability and more. They are seen by smart and competent writers as a welcome resource to assist them in discussing people who are members of communities that they do not belong to. But to the Atlantic, these guides are an attack on the moral sensibilities of the powerful groups in society. Rather than listen to the advice in the guides and reflect on their own choices of language use, the Atlantic decides to write them off with disdain as mere lists of euphemisms.
Misleading and misrepresentative
The author of the piece, George Packer, misleads his readers in several ways. He starts off by claiming “the Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy” and says that the guides call the latter two words insulting. He accuses the guides of trying to “cleanse” language. The Atlantic piece names several language equity guides and lists diversity value proposition and arbitrary status hierarchies as examples of their supposed crimes against the English language. It tries to fault the guides as ineffectual by stating “obesity isn’t any healthier for people with high weight”. The misrepresentation doesn’t stop there, though. The author also puts words into the mouths of the authors of the guides, claiming that the San Francisco Board of Supervisors’ suggestion to use justice-involved person instead of felon shows that they are making an ideological claim that laws, courts and prisons are illegitimate. And finally, the Atlantic piece claims that it is “hard to know who is likely to be harmed by a phrase like native New Yorker or under fire” and that the “most devoted student […] can’t possibly know when and when not to say marginalized”.
In reality, the guides are nothing like this and the misrepresentation of them makes me wonder if the author even read the guides that apparently offended him so much. For example, the Sierra Club’s guide explicitly discourages “stand in solidarity” and using Americans “generically for a group” for several reasons besides citizenship. The Atlantic is lying by omission. None of the guides say that blind or crazy are “insulting”. The author made that up. And none of the guides use the word “cleanse” in describing their goals and purposes. In fact, the word “cleanse” does not appear in any of the guides. And those supposedly scary terms – diversity value proposition and arbitrary status hierarchies – do not show up in any of the guides either. Did the author make them up? Maybe. I guess we are supposed to be upset about things in some Atlantic editor’s imagination?
The misrepresentation is sometimes even more basic than this though. The author claims that the Sierra Club’s guide tries to cleanse the word migrant with “no explanation” but in the very first instance of migrant, the guide literally explains that we should “be aware of the ways in which terms like ‘migrant’ and ‘ex-pat’ are selectively applied to describe different groups and avoid similar bias in [our] choice of terms.” And the Sierra Club’s guide links both of those terms to news articles which further explain why they are problematic.
People on the SF Board of Supervisors were interviewed about their suggestion of justice-involved person and they did not make any ideological claims. The Board specifically said that these suggestions were proposed in order to remove the social stigma that comes from being labeled a felon. Even Fox News reported a member of the Board saying, “We want them ultimately to become contributing citizens, and referring to them as felons is like a scarlet letter that they can never get away from.” That doesn’t sound like the words of someone who thinks that laws, courts and prisons are illegitimate. But the Atlantic wants you to think that.
In more selective reporting, the Atlantic piece casually fails to mention that none of the guides claim that obesity is healthier for people with high weight. The guides explain exactly who could be harmed by the terms native New Yorker or under fire. The Sierra Club explicitly says that the former is an example of cultural appropriation akin to terms like powwow and spirit animal, while the latter is an example of people “using violent war metaphors that sound commonplace but mean something very different to people who have experienced war”. As for marginalized, the National Recreation and Park Association’s guide writes that authors should “Avoid this term in general when describing people” and “Don’t say ‘marginalized people’”. This is not difficult. The Atlantic is lying to readers and they are hoping we don’t check them on it.
If all this misrepresentation weren’t enough, the Atlantic reveals its hand by saying:
Once you have embarked on this expedition, you can’t stop at Oriental or thug, because that would leave far too much evil at large. So you take off in hot pursuit of gentrification and legal resident, food stamps and gun control, until the last sin is hunted down and made right—which can never happen in a fallen world.
This is too much. Once again, none of the guides “hunt down” or proscribe the use of gentrification. Instead, the one guide that does mention its usage says “The term can be loaded and may not be understood by all audiences. Define the word and its ramifications if you use it. This may be difficult to explain succinctly, but the context is important.” The whole reason terms like gentrification and food stamps appear in the guide is because they have been politically loaded. The United States had a war on poverty – and poverty won. Because instead of doing something about poverty, right wing and conservative blowhards turned poor people into a pejorative. The same thing is happening today with gun control and pronouns being weaponized by the far right. Why can’t the Atlantic and George Packer understand this? Or do they really just want to say Oriental?
Misunderstanding and wrong
The second major problem with the Atlantic piece is that the author misunderstands both how style guides work and the point of them. The author says that the guides “are sometimes exactly the same” with “nearly identical language,” that most of the guides use the same sources, that they cite each other, and that they are “put together by highly specialized teams of insiders”. The Atlantic does not seem to understand much about language though, as evidenced by the author’s complaint that no one debated or had a public discussion of the terms in the guides, and that recommendations from the guides “haven’t emerged organically from the shifting linguistic habits of large numbers of people”. He worries that using a word discussed in the guides “is evidence of ignorance at best or, at worst, a determination to offend.” On the other hand, the author sees the helpful advice offered by the guides as a chore, saying that the guides show him that he has work to do and that following them requires “self-torture”.
Style guides are prescriptivist by their very nature. That’s merely how they are written. Reference works in the same field are highly likely to cite similar sources and be written in similar styles. Think about every dictionary definition you’ve ever read and how it has sounded like every other dictionary definition that you’ve ever read. Or think about how Wikipedia reads awfully like (surprise!) an encyclopedia. So the complaints about this are supposed to shock us, but they fall flat upon a microsecond of consideration. The language equity guides are of course written by “highly specialized teams of insiders” – that’s simply how professional publications work. They are written by experts. No one wants a style guide written by amateurs. Surely the editors at the Atlantic know this. The Atlantic certainly has an internal style guide. I’ll bet you a Coke that it was it written by highly specialized teams of insiders (aka “editors”) at the Atlantic. Because duh. And for what it’s worth, there’s no linguistic law saying that language change has to be organic and from below. Change from above happens all the time and it is also organic. That’s how English got so many words and grammar from French.
But the Atlantic also misunderstands the fact that language change does not happen with a debate (Let’s disregard how it would be difficult to think of a change which happened both organically and with a debate, or what a debate about language change would even look like). What’s even more important is how the author is suggesting that we ask racists and sexists what they think of racist and sexist language. I would venture to guess that they are all for it and that they don’t want it to change. That is exactly why we don’t hold a debate over terms that dehumanize people.
The author, George Packer, who is also a staff writer at the Atlantic, is in his sixties and yet he acts like he is now learning that words can hurt and offend people. Kids learn this in kindergarten. We have to assume that both the author and the editors at the Atlantic have thought long and hard about language. And none of that thinking has led them into other careers, but now that there are guides which suggest that they think about using more equitable language, all of a sudden it’s torture. And they want us to take them seriously?
But by far the worst misunderstanding is how the piece repeatedly refers to the terms in the guides as “euphemisms”. A euphemism is a word or phrase used in place of another which carries a social taboo. Importantly, the euphemistic word still refers to the same object in the real world. So bathroom is a euphemism for toilet, but the room is still a toilet. The “special military operation” in Ukraine is still an invasion. And no matter how many euphemisms we use for our body parts, they remain our body parts. Notice that toilet is not a dehumanizing way of referring to the bathroom. By the Atlantic’s logic, however, the words in these guides are euphemisms, and so people are reducible to the words that the guides offer alternatives for. Prepare yourself for the next few sentences. Because according to the Atlantic, a transgender person is still really just a tranny and an Asian person is still really an Oriental. The former terms are merely euphemisms for the latter ones to the Atlantic. I challenge the author and the editors to tell us about another term the guides recommend using: Black people.
Because the author of the Atlantic piece doesn’t understand the language equity guides (which is honestly shocking), he thinks they do not need to exist. He says, “assembling preapproved phrases from a handbook […] has no moral value.” And he can’t see what’s right in front of him. White people literally need a handbook in how to not be racist. Straight people literally need a handbook in how to not be anti-gay. People with privilege cannot practice equity unless it is spelled out for them in a guidebook. If the Atlantic wants to be upset about something related to the language equity guides, they should be upset that this is what it has come to.
Fueling the fascists
The most dangerous part about Packer’s screed is how it carries water for fascists and their propaganda. The misrepresentation of the guides and misleading claims about them leads directly into fueling fascist ideas. When one of the equity guides points out that words like urban and vibrant “may subtly evoke and reinforce racial stereotypes,” the author complains that the guide is clear-cutting a “whole national park” of words. Comparing racist terms to a national park helps no one except racists. George Packer and the editors of the Atlantic should be ashamed of themselves.
The Atlantic piece resorts to the same fear mongering that we see on right wing media. He says that the equity guides are “handed down in communiqués written by obscure ‘experts’ who purport to speak for vaguely defined ‘communities’”. The scare quotes around the words “experts” and “communities” are meant to make us believe that these are not real. It makes it seem like the authors of the style guides can’t be experts, nor can the people described by them be communities. This is how fascist ideology works: if these communities of marginalized people do not exist, then we don’t have to care about them; if the authors of the guides are not seen as experts, then we do not have to listen to them.
While the article tries to weasel out of outright promotion of racist and sexist terms, the complaints in it belie its true intentions. The author says that it is polite to address people as they request, but spends 2,500 words moaning against guides designed specifically to explain how to do this. He claims that context always matters, but completely misses the context in every one of the guides and pretends that their advice applies to all linguistic situations at all times. And he lets himself off the hook by saying “it isn’t the job of writers to present people as they want to be presented; writers owe allegiance to their readers, and the truth.” It simply does not occur to the author or the editors that their readers could be people who are marginalized or people who have been incarcerated. Because the author is writing for cis rich white people and he just cannot accept equitable language. Instead of admitting this, we’re given some facile allegiance to “the truth”.
The Atlantic piece serves the interests of fascists in other ways as well. It tries to shift the blame from writers who refuse to follow the equity guides to the authors of the equity guides themselves. It calls the guides a “huge expense of energy to purify language” that prove the authors do not believe in “more material forms of progress”. He seems to take offense at the knowledge offered by the guides and mocks their precision, saying “If we don’t know how to end racism, we can at least call it structural.” There is a group of people in society who do not believe in progress and it’s not the ones writing language equity guides. It’s the people that want you to go on saying Oriental and the poor and cripple. Recognizing that racism is structural is part of the process of ending it; denying that recognition serves the interests of fascists. Missing the point of the guides completely, Packer claims that “Good writing will hurt, because it’s bound to convey painful truths.” This is pathetic. There is nothing inherently good or truthful about words such as retarded and mongoloid and shemale and whore and Squaw. These words are dehumanizing. They are slurs. It’s despicable for the Atlantic to defend their use as “good writing”.
Neither the author nor the editors really care about conveying truth in writing – at least not in this diatribe. They question “What are diversity, equity, and inclusion but abstractions with uncertain meanings whose repetition creates an artificial consensus and muddies clear thought?” – as if the guides do not explicitly provide clear and distinct definitions of these terms. But remember the scare quotes around “experts” and “communities” because they show that the Atlantic thinks that the authors of the guides should not be allowed to provide definitions of these terms. No, only George Packer – a white man in his 60s – can tell us what these terms truly mean. The article was always going to be about whitesplaining these terms to us, it just took him several hundred words to get around to admitting as much.
If there was any doubt that the Atlantic piece supports fascists in US society, it manages to outright praise them (while slyly refusing to actually name them). The author admires the “public criticism” that caused Stanford University to refine its internal equity guide, but conveniently fails to mention that the public which criticized Stanford for their equity guide included the Daily Mail, the Stanford Review (the student paper started by Peter Thiel), a Fox News contributor, and Adam Baldwin, a libertarian who is credited with starting the misogynistic harassment campaign Gamergate. I suppose we can now add George Packer and the Atlantic to that list of public critics. I hope they’re happy.
In the end, we see a resort to the same tropes that come up in right wing and fascist talking points. The author claims that the guides represent a culture in which “argument is no longer desirable”. This is the end of the piece and the point at which we are given that tired old “just asking questions” rhetoric currently popular with racists and bigots online and in the media. The author is correct here though: We are not arguing over human rights. We are not questioning human rights. And we’re fighting back when we see people try to do so.