The only letter I’ve ever sent to the New York Times was in the 1980s, objecting to the paper’s suddenly pestilent use of “draconian.” During Iran–Contra the complaint must have seemed trivial; the letter never saw print. Yet that seminal annoyance in my twenties marked an awakening to word-as-contagion.
Every era has its fashionable argot. Take the turn of this century, when we were eternally “on the same page” and getting “wake-up calls” while confessing “My bad!” or pronouncing ourselves “good to go.” Meanwhile, the British were christening everything in sight “brilliant” and prefacing their every sentence with “to be honest.” Alas, the Brits’ grating compulsion to denounce initiatives and bodies as “not fit for purpose” has yet to burn out. Maybe it’s time to write another letter.
Propelled by digital technology that spreads rhetorical fads like herpes, this decade’s lengthy left-wing lexicon has impressively penetrated both mainstream media and everyday speech, while carrying ideological baggage so overstuffed that it wouldn’t fit in an airplane’s overhead compartment. The idiom is persistently negative. Many of the cringe-inducers I grew up with in the 1960s conveyed enthusiasm: “Way to be!,” “Outta sight!,” “Far out!,” and “Dig that!” Subsequent generations have also latched onto effusive expressions, such as “Awesome!” and “That’s sick!” But the glossary particular to today’s left is joylessly accusatory: “fat shaming,” “victim blaming,” or “rape culture” (which indicts not only men but pretty much everything). As we said in 1970, what a drag.
Front and center in overused progressive vocabulary is, of course, “privilege.” From Lyndon Johnson onward, we’ve expressed concern for the “underprivileged.” Shining a spotlight instead on the “privileged” fosters resentment in people who feel shafted and an impotent guilt in people at whom the label is hurled. The word functions something like a rotten tomato without the mess. I myself have been decried in the Independent as “dripping with privilege,” while the writer Ariel Levy was portrayed in The New Republic as “swaddled in privilege.” This is a shape-shifting substance in which one can bathe or nestle.
Whereas a privilege can be acquired through merit—e.g., students with good grades got to go bowling with our teacher in sixth grade—privilege, sans the article, is implicitly unearned and undeserved. The designation neatly dispossesses those so stigmatized of any credit for their achievements while discounting as immaterial those hurdles an individual with a perceived leg up might still have had to overcome (an alcoholic parent, a stutter, even poverty). For privilege is a static state into which you are born, stained by original sin. Just as you can’t earn yourself into privilege, you can’t earn yourself out of it, either.
Even taken on its face, the concept is elusive. “Privilege is an unbelievably hard thing to define,” the British journalist Douglas Murray observes in The Madness of Crowds:
It is also very nearly impossible to quantify. . . . Is a person with inherited wealth but who has a natural disability more privileged or less privileged than a person without any inherited wealth who is able-bodied? Who can work this out?
Not I, although I confess I’m under-motivated.
Yet in practice, while “privileged” may also mean “straight and male,” it almost always means “white.” In The Tyranny of Virtue, the academic Robert Boyers observes that these days the label is deployed in a way that “makes it acceptable to target groups or persons not because of what they have done but because of what they are.” That sounds awfully like a workable definition of racism. Thus it’s intriguing that the P-bomb is most frequently dropped by folks of European heritage, either to convey a posturing humility (“I acknowledge my privilege”) or to demonize the Bad White People, the better to distinguish themselves as the Good White People.
Boyers himself has been shut down in his classroom at Skidmore College by a student accusation that he exercised “privilege,” which he describes as “a noise word intended to distract all of us from the substance of our discussion.” Its invocation is meant to punish its object “by making him into a representative of something he could not possibly defend himself against.” He writes, “Nothing is easier than to wield the charge of privilege and thereby to win instant approval.” In other words, it’s a cheap shot.
Sometimes the cheap shot backfires. A September Guardian editorial scorned former British prime minister David Cameron’s experience of having his disabled six-year-old son die in his arms as “privileged pain.” The attempt to deny the man the integrity of his suffering went down so poorly even with the paper’s loyal readership that the editors were forced to admit the editorial “fell far short of our standards” and to provide an amendment. Yet for the sneering dismissal ever to have seen the light of day speaks volumes. The privileged are denied even the right to anguish.
Meanwhile, it isn’t clear what an admission of privilege calls you to do, aside from cower. That tired injunction “Check your privilege” translates simply to “S.T.F.U.”—and it’s telling that “Shut the fuck up” is now a sufficiently commonplace imperative to have lodged in text-speak.
Because the left’s collective vocabulary functions as a T-shirt, the better for the like-minded to recognize one another like campers on a field trip, members of this in-group have naturally adopted a hip descriptor for themselves. In The Problem with Everything, Meghan Daum identifies “woke” as borrowed from the civil-rights movement, when the term “signaled one’s allegiance to a more general ethos of progressive righteousness.” Sadly, the resurrected buzzword has already backfired, having rapidly proved an inadvertent gift to conservative commentators, who’d wearied of their shopworn swipes at “social-justice warriors.”
In more and more commentary, the term “woke” and attendant mischievous improvisations are delivered with a smirk. The monosyllabic tag has turned out to be wonderfully adaptable for the purposes of derision. Snide variations abound: “the wokery” (mine), the “wokerati” (Lisa Simeone), “The Woke-ing Class” (Julie Bindel), or Daum’s shorthand for “NPR-listening, New Yorker–reading, Slate podcast–downloading elites”: the “wokescenti.”
The wokescenti’s biggest terminological success is surely “people of color,” whose nearly universal installation in public discourse shouldn’t reprieve the term from scrutiny. (After all, what does that make everyone else, “people of whiteness”?) While this curiously archaic construction is commendably inclusive, erstwhile “minorities” also encompassed a range of skin tones. And there’s no avoiding the absurdity that “colored people,” which the fresher phrase strains to avoid, is a dated 1950s expression that came to be construed as disrespectful. “Linguistically,” Murray notes, the distinction is “without a meaningful difference.” Yet when poor Benedict Cumberbatch appeared on Tavis Smiley in 2015 and carelessly alluded to “colored actors,” all hell broke loose: outcry, public apology (“I make no excuse for my being an idiot and know the damage is done”), the works. “Throughout this episode,” Murray reminds us, “nobody seriously claimed that Cumberbatch was a racist.” He had merely committed a “crime of language.”
The same demented theatrical deference has abruptly made the noun “slave” almost unprintable. Therefore in a long New York Times article in September about Virginia Theological Seminary’s historical complicity in slavery, we find reference to “enslaved people,” “slave labor,” “the enslaved,” victims of “involuntary servitude,” “people who were sold,” people who were “once owned,” “enslaved laborers,” “enslaved men and women,” and previous faculty who had “owned black people”—but, scrupulously, never one use, outside direct quotations, of “slave” as a noun.
These circumlocutions are meant to emphasize the fact that Africans traded like chattel were not, in their essence, slaves but human beings. Yet the logic of this prohibition taints any noun that refers to a person. If I’m a “Londoner” or a “libertarian,” is that all I am? Aren’t these words, by identifying me via a mere location or creed, reductive? Given that butchers and bakers and candlestick makers cannot, in their essence, be distilled to their professions, perhaps we should say instead “butchering people” and “baking people” and “people of candlestick making.”
Another popular substitute for the neutrally proportionate word “minorities,” “marginalized communities” conveniently assumes the conclusion: that all minorities are exiled to the social edges. Cultural “appropriation” likewise assumes the conclusion that cultural cross-fertilization equates with theft. Thus to force an antagonist of the concept to employ the term is to win while skipping the argument. Underhanded, but effective.
The premier example of this linguistic skulduggery—that is, winning an argument without the bother of actually having one—is the left’s increasingly successful imposition of the disagreeable-sounding term “cisgender.” The logic of the 1990s contrivance—“cis” being Latin for “on this side of,” as opposed to “trans,” meaning “on the other side of”—feels forced and inorganic. More crucially, to employ the adjective is to endorse the view that sex is “assigned” at birth rather than recognized as a biological fact. The word no sooner raises thorny debates regarding sex and gender than shuts them down.
Denoting, say, a woman born a woman who thinks she’s a woman, this freighted neologism deliberately peculiarizes being born a sex and placidly accepting your fate, and even suggests that there’s something a bit passive and conformist about complying with the arbitrary caprices of your mother’s doctor. Moreover, unless a discussion specifically regards transgenderism, in which case we might need to distinguish the rest of the population (“non-trans” would do nicely), we don’t really need this word, except as a banner for how gendercool we are. It’s no more necessary than words for “a dog that is not a cat,” a “lamppost that is not a fire hydrant,” or “a table that is actually a table.” Presumably, in order to mark entities that are what they appear to be, we could append “cis” to anything and everything. “Cisblue” would mean blue and not yellow. “Cisboring” would mean genuinely dull, and not secretly entertaining after all.
“Microaggression” is a perverse concoction, implying that the offense in question is so minuscule as to be invisible to the naked eye, yet also that it’s terribly important. The word cultivates hypersensitivity. The ubiquitous “transphobic,” “Islamophobic,” and “homophobic” are also eccentric, in that the reprobates so branded are not really being accused of fearfulness but hatred. (Sorry—hate. “Hatred” has gone the way of the floppy disk.) “Lived experience” is interchangeable with “experience,” save that the redundant double-barrel is pompous. The alphabet soup of “LGBTQ” continues to add letters: LGBTQIAGNC, LGBTQQIP2SAA, or even LGBTIQCAPGNGFNBA. A three-year-old bashing the keyboard would produce a more functional shorthand, and we already have a simpler locution: queer.
Rare instances of left-wing understatement, “problematic” and “troubling” are coyly nonspecific red flags for political transgression that obviate spelling out exactly what sin has been committed (thereby eliding the argument). Similarly, the all-purpose adjectival workhorse “inappropriate” presumes a shared set of social norms that in the throes of the culture wars we conspicuously lack. This euphemistic tsk-tsk projects the prim censure of a mother alarmed that her daughter’s low-cut blouse is too revealing for church. “Inappropriate” is laced with disgust, while once again skipping the argument. By conceit, the appalling nature of the misbehavior at issue is glaringly obvious to everyone, so what’s wrong with it goes without saying.
Every linguistic subset constitutes a code. But this vernacular isn’t as innocently contagious as “groovy.” In left-wing circles, neglecting to ape what has been tacitly declared as What We Say Now marks you as suspect. Conversely, weaving the proper jargon into conversation signals ingratiatingly to your political clan, “I’m one of you guys.” (Hence when mainstream media outlets embrace these terms, they brand themselves as partisan.) In today’s political climate, deployment of progressive conformist vocabulary is also defensive. It broadcasts benevolence and an elaborate, gesturing respect for others meant to keep the wolves from the door.
The whole lexicon is of a piece. Its usage advertises that one has bought into a set menu of opinions—about race, gender, climate change, abortion, tax policy, #MeToo, Trump, Brexit, Brett Kavanaugh, probably Israel, and a great deal else. Reflexive resort to this argot therefore implies not that you think the same way as others of your political disposition but that you don’t think. You have ordered the prix fixe; you’re not in the kitchen cooking dinner for yourself. “The seductions of this shorthand,” writes Daum, are that there is “no need to sort out facts or wrestle with contradictions when just using certain buzzwords” grants “automatic entry into a group of ostensibly like-minded peers.” This vocabulary is lazy.
Assumption of the left’s prescriptive patois may indicate solidarity with fellow travelers, but it also betokens the insularity and closed-mindedness of any indiscriminate embrace of fundamentalist dogma. It instantly alienates people who don’t sign up for the same set menu of views—which may sometimes be the intention. Referencing the “cis-heteronormative patriarchy” in discussions with strangers suggests either that you presume these people already agree with you on virtually everything, or that you’re only interested in talking to them if they do. Even if speaking to moderates, much less conservatives (who have their own coded lingo, such as “snowflakes,” “virtue signaling,” and “grievance culture”), you have shut down conversation.
Standardized lefty catchphrases are now routinely employed to test allegiance and to exclude people who fail the test. Boyers notes that cherished left-wing concepts like identity and inequality are now used “to label and separate the saved and the damned, the ‘woke’ and the benighted, the victim and the oppressor,” thereby “yielding not significant redress but a new wave of puritanism and a culture of suspicion.” This moral division of wheat from chaff sows confusion about the difference between “sponsoring injustice and simply living more or less modestly in an imperfect world.”
Like all new slang, the current crop has the attraction of seeming ultra-contemporary. But as quickly as these ideologically loaded expressions proliferate, they also become clichés—a problem beyond politics. When students at Cardiff University petitioned to disinvite the feminist Germaine Greer, who does not see trans women as women, because “hosting a speaker with such problematic and hateful views towards marginalized and vulnerable groups is dangerous,” they displayed not only that they could not think for themselves, but that they could not write.