As part of America’s culture wars, the Right loves to go bananas over banalities, like the fact that, last week, Hasbro made Mr. Potato Head gender-neutral by dropping the “Mr.” To them, gender-neutral toys or bathrooms are a slippery slope to emasculation and the imposition of some sort of ill-defined and vague tyranny. (In truth, I doubt they are actually offended. Culture wars are good for generating outrage, and outrage generates donations and attention.)
At the same time, those of us on the Left expend a lot of energy correcting the language and names we use. When I started Capital Good Fund, for instance, the term for those who were no longer incarcerated was ex-con or ex-felon; then it became ex-offender; and now it is returning citizen. Alas, while we have succeeded in changing the terminology, very little meaningful criminal justice reform has taken place during this period.
I take no issue with using just language. It is offensive to Native Americans to have a football team named after a racial slur; changing the name is a no-brainer. The problem is that we act as though changing the language changes the injustice. It does not, just as putting up a Black Lives Matter yard can’t, itself, redress slavery, Jim Crow, or mass incarceration.
There is a known phenomenon wherein people who recycle feel that, in recycling, they’ve done more-or-less all they need to protect the environment; or when, after installing energy-efficient light bulbs, users become less likely to turn them off when not in the room. The risk, in other words, is that if we focus our efforts on using “correct” language, we fail to do that which actually corrects injustices.
We are not, after all, going to recycle our way out of climate change; or gender-neutral-bathroom our way out of violence against LGBTQ communities; or Black-Lives-Matter-sign our way to a world in which Black people don’t get shot while jogging or buying skittles. Language matters–as a poet, I feel that profoundly. Structural change matters more.
Of course we should not use racial slurs. Of course we should be mindful of how our words impact marginalized communities. But that is easy compared to the hard work of passing legislation, pressuring corporate America, and steering capital toward equity. Bumper stickers and shouting on social media make us feel good, but they don’t do anything for people and the planet. It’s time to go beyond words to action.
What got me thinking about this was when I learned that, nowadays, we don’t ask kids to sit “Indian style” but instead use terms like “Criss-Cross Apple Sauce.” (At least, that’s what the videos my two-year-old watches say.) Again, there is nothing wrong with such a change. But we should not feel good about ourselves over such a triviality when Native communities continue to experience oppression, disinvestment, disproportionate rates of COVID-19 death, and the ongoing abrogation of treaties with the U.S. government.
In short, let’s correct the injustice before–or at least concurrent with–correcting our language. Otherwise we play into the hands of those who want to use these topics to distract, gin up anger, and prevent real action.