The Language of Liberals

Photo Credit: Carolyn Tiry, “(Self) Censored”

In the two weeks since the election, we progressives have flown ourselves into a shitstorm of psychoanalysis, delving into the Democratic mind to try to dissect what went wrong and what we should do about it. Do we wear the safety pin or not? Do we call all Trump voters racists? Can we somehow pull off a nationwide book club discussion about “Hillbilly Elegy?”

We should be regrouping, contacting congressional representatives to oppose Trump’s horrifying cabinet and staff picks, and encouraging every damn voter in Louisiana to support Foster Campbell in his runoff election on Dec. 10. Instead, we are as caught up as ever in our performance as good progressives. And at the center of that performance is our language.

I recently attended a meetup for the organization Showing Up for Racial Justice. The event was informal, a couple dozen folks gathered on a rainy Sunday at Starbucks to talk about what the election results meant for people of color. (It doesn’t get much more Seattle than that.) We discussed a series of thought-provoking questions and talked about what we each could do in response to the election.

One woman in particular–an educated, successful professional–seemed new to these types of conversations but said she was eager to listen and learn. When we talked about “reckoning with white privilege,” she asked how to talk to white people put off by that phrase, people who feel like they haven’t gotten any breaks just because they’re white. Rather than digging into that question, someone cautioned her that her question could be quite “triggering to a person of color.” (SURJ organizes white people working for racial justice, so the group was all white.)

Later someone mentioned the importance of “centering the narratives of marginalized communities,” and I saw the woman roll her eyes. When another person talked about the “traumatizing impacts of systems of oppression,” I think she started wondering what she was going to have for dinner.

It’s not that these ideas aren’t important. They are crucial. But the way we talk about them really sucks sometimes.

The War of Words

In the past two weeks, we’ve declared that we need to talk to the people in our lives who may not agree with us. But before we can do that, we have to learn to speak a common language again.

The language of liberals has evolved, broadening to be more inclusive, adapting to be more sensitive to the diverse perspectives in our movement. Activists and academics have shaped a specialized vocabulary for talking about complex ideas like white privilege and systemic racism. But in the process, we’ve created a language virtually unrecognizable to many people in our country.

How many other people like the woman I met at Starbucks are out there? She was willing to give up several hours of her weekend to learn more about racial justice, and instead, I suspect, she felt shut down by the conversation and annoyed at our extravagant linguistic performance. I’ve seen the same play out in conversations among friends and family, and online discussions are rife with language policing.

While we’ve focused on winning the war of words, we’ve lost the war of ideas. We’ve lost sight of the message we’re trying to convey with our carefully crafted vocabularies. And we’ve undoubtedly lost potential new supporters who could get behind our ideas but are either too turned off by our jargon to stick around or too worried about sounding uninformed to open their mouths.

The Silencing Power of Political Correctness

My criticism relates primarily to the fact that we fall back on lingo-heavy language that feels meaningless or precocious to newcomers, but that problem cannot be entirely separated from our desire to avoid offense during difficult conversations. Much of the language we have adopted allows us to either talk around conversational landmines (saying “implicit bias” or “systems of oppression” rather than “racism”) or to specifically call out offensive comments or actions (“microagressions” or “triggering language”).  

In this election, conservatives glommed onto a candidate who mocked our tendencies toward politically correct language, eggshell-walking more concerned with keeping everyone happy than with actually listening to each other. While Trump and his most fervent supporters have taken that un-PC view to abhorrent and dangerous extremes, perhaps there’s a kernel within that critique that could help us welcome in more people rather than scaring them off.

Yes, there is value in expressing ourselves in a way that respects other people, honors their experiences, and avoids causing them pain. But how can we do that without alienating newcomers?

Yes, there is a time and place for sensitive discussions with ground rules, intentions, and group agreements. But how can we shape our language to both move us forward and make room for those newer to these ideas?

Yes, we should be aware of the impact our words have. But how can we create safe spaces for people to learn without worrying about saying the “wrong thing” and maintain safe spaces for those who have been marginalized and silenced throughout our history?

I’ve been on both sides of this. I’ve asked the dumb questions and said the unintentionally offensive things (Exhibit A: this entire post, probably). And I’ve used the eye-roll-inducing wonky phrases that could be much, much plainer (Exhibit B: one paragraph ago, where I talked about creating “safe spaces for those who have been marginalized”).

White Folks, We Need to Talk

Part of the answer to this conundrum lies in white people talking to other white people. We need to authentically talk and listen to one another, rather than signaling that newcomers should sit in self-imposed censorship until they’ve learned the right lingo and can confidently speak up without saying something unintentionally racist. We need to answer their questions and discuss their ideas rather than berating their word choices.

But we need to do this away from people of color, so that they are not dragged through the messy process that often unfolds when a white person begins to reckon with their own privilege and, even messier, their own racism.

Sometimes that happens through organizations like SURJ, but it primarily plays out in our daily lives, in one-on-one situations, maybe even with family around the holidays. What might productive conversations involve?

  • Stripping out the jargon, which is not the same as dumbing down the ideas.
  • Being open to questions and challenges, rather than dogmatically gasping, “You can’t say that.”
  • Being mindful of who we’re talking to and whether our message is getting through.
  • Not throwing up our hands when our message isn’t heard, but digging deeper to find a place of common language and understanding.
  • Admitting our own struggles with understanding how racism and privilege have shaped our lives and sharing our experiences of learning more about these issues.

I don’t think that’s the whole answer, because we can’t just have separate conversations happening on opposite ends of our movement. We can’t prioritize the needs of (mostly) white people who are trying to get up to speed on these ideas to the detriment of people of color, or we’ll have failed everyone. So, I don’t have all the answers, but I want to open up the question for all of us to consider. What do productive discussions about race with white people look like to you?

Freeing Speech

I believe as much as anyone else that our words matter, that our intent matters, and that the impact our words have on others matters. And that’s exactly why I don’t want us stifle to our discussions out of fear. That’s why I’m putting this topic out there, with possibly offensive framing or wrong-headed logic, because I don’t want my own fear to hold me back from an important conversation. Am I missing the mark? Tell it to me straight.

Our liberal language may not be what lost us this election, but at a moment when we have the opportunity to welcome many new people into crucial discussions about race and justice, we should be careful not to choose our words too carefully.

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