Monday, June 2, 2014

On the "activist language merry-go-round," Stephen Pinker's "euphemism treadmill," and "political correctness" more generally

A couple weeks ago, I published a fairly lengthy essay called A Personal History of the “T-word” (and some more general reflections on language and activism). The first half discusses shifting attitudes regarding the word "tranny" that I have witnessed over my last decade-plus of being involved in trans communities. The second half (and in my opinion, the most important part) of the essay more generally discusses how language within trans communities remains in a perpetual state of flux, where virtually every word associated with transgender people and experiences is eventually deemed by some people to be problematic, and new terms are constantly being proposed to take their place. I referred to this phenomenon as the "activist language merry-go-round."

I go on to make the case that the "activist language merry-go-round" is fueled by stigma: Trans people are stigmatized in our culture, and this stigma latches onto the words that are used to describe us and our experiences. As a result, many activists may feel compelled to focus on changing language (i.e., swapping out "bad" words with new words that feel more neutral or empowering). However, so long as trans people remain stigmatized, these newer terms will eventually become tainted by that stigma, and there will be even further calls for newer and supposedly better replacement terms. I argue that there are no magical "perfect words" that will make everyone happy. And the "activist language merry-go-round" will not stop until trans people are no longer stigmatized, at which point there will be no compelling need to replace existing trans-related terms.

After posting the piece to my blog, one of the commenters mentioned similarities between my "activist language merry-go-round" concept and what cognitive scientist/linguist/author Steven Pinker once called the "euphemism treadmill." I had not heard his term before, but a little bit of google-searching led me to this 1994 article[PDF link] in which Pinker offers numerous examples of this phenomenon over the last century. It seems clear that we are describing the same trend, and I completely agree with his assertion: "give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name."

While I believe that we are discussing the same phenomenon, I disagree with certain aspects of his framing of the issue. I want to discuss these differences of perspective here, not because I enjoy critiquing twenty-year-old Steven Pinker essays (I certainly have better things to do with my time), but because the shortcomings of his essay extend more generally to complaints about linguistic "political correctness" that are commonly made to this day (e.g., as can be seen in current debates regarding the word "tranny").

For one thing, Pinker seems to put his emphasis on the pointlessness of replacing tainted words with "euphemisms"--a term that critics of "political correctness" often associate with words that they believe are less direct and clear in meaning, and which are meant to appease people who are "too sensitive" about a particular issue. While he doesn't explicitly say so in the article, the overall thrust of his argument seems to be that we should simply stop doing this. He primarily talks about how the "euphemism treadmill" makes life difficult for well-intentioned people who have trouble keeping up with all the latest correct terminology, while saying virtually nothing about how marginalized groups themselves feel about living with labels that have become tainted over time.

I also get the impression from other things Pinker has said (e.g., this interview here) that he is primarily concerned with how "political correctness" in language can thwart political dissent in society. His focus is reminiscent of George Orwell's thesis in 1984: Censoring certain words, or making certain ideas taboo, can be a way of controlling people and what is imaginable and politically possible. While I agree that limiting or eliminating language can sometimes lead to serious negative consequences (as I discuss below), he doesn't talk at all about how the *existence* of certain words (particularly those that have become slurs in the public eye) can also be used to wield power over others, especially marginalized populations.

The other major difference between Pinker's take and my own is that he seems to view this as a top-down phenomenon. He begins his article with the (then recent) writers' guidelines issued by the LA Times that "bans or restricts some 150 words or phrases." He talks about "the arbiters of the changing linguistic fashions," as though somewhere in some ivory tower there exists a handful of elite powerful people who are deciding what words we are allowed to use and which ones we should avoid. He says, "Using the latest term for a minority often shows not sensitivity but subscribing to the right magazines or going to the right cocktail parties."

As someone who is not a member of a minority or marginalized group himself, it makes sense that Pinker would *experience* this as a top-down phenomenon, one that seemingly originates in college administration or newspaper & magazine editorial offices who unilaterally decree what language is acceptable and what is not. Notably, framing this as a top-down phenomenon gives credence to his fears of an Orwellian-like attempt by the powers-that-be to control people and thwart political dissent.

What Pinker (and others who frame "political correctness" as a primarily top-down phenomenon) fail to realize is that college administration and newspaper/magazine editorial offices are almost never asserting unilateral power over what language can be used to describe and discuss minorities and marginalized groups. Rather, they are merely responding to a bottom-up movement wherein a critical mass of members of a particular marginalized group have raised objections to certain words that they feel are tainted or outright slurs. And these marginalized individuals are not "exerting control" over the public at large (as they are not in any kind of position of power), but rather they are pushing against the way in which society relentlessly uses certain words to control (e.g., subdue, undermine, ridicule, demonize) them.

So to summarize, Steven Pinker's "euphemism treadmill" imagines a top-down phenomenon, and is primarily concerned with how the elimination of words (supposedly driven by the powers-that-be) complicates the lives of well-intentioned members of the dominant/majority group and ultimately thwarts political dissent. In contrast, my "activist language merry-go-round" (more accurately, I believe) describes a bottom-up phenomenon wherein marginalized populations are pushing back against the stigma that they face, and which (for understandable reasons) leads them to try to eliminate those words that are associated with that stigma. Pinker seems to only be concerned with the potential negative consequences of eliminating words, whereas my model recognizes both the power of words (e.g., the way in which slurs can be used to delegitimize and destroy people) as well as the power inherent in limiting words (e.g., when we try to eliminate words that have played a crucial role in certain marginalized individuals' activism or identity).

I am not especially concerned with how changes in trans-related language will impact the cisgender majority. Typically, dominant majorities tend to overreact when marginalized minorities attempt to transform the language that is commonly associated with them. But I do have concerns about how such word-elimination strategies can negatively impact our own communities. As I allude to in my original piece, some activists have attempted to eliminate the words "transsexual" and "bisexual" in recent years. Both of these words play crucial roles in my own activism and identity. So when some transgender- and/or bisexual-umbrella activists insist that these words are inherently "bad" for some reason or another, they are in a sense undermining my (and other people's) identity and activism. In other words, word-elimination strategies often alienate or invalidate members of our own communities, particularly those of different generations, classes, ethnicities, subcommunities, experiences, etc. And as stated above, they also fail to address the underlying stigma that drives the "activist language merry-go-round" in the first place.

I believe that we, as activists, should be suspicious of word-elimination-strategies. Not because they inconvenience Steven Pinker and others in the dominant majority, nor because they will lead to some kind of Orwellian dystopian future. Rather, we should be concerned with the ways in which word-elimination-strategies often deny the diversity of perspectives and experiences within our own communities (as I detailed in the original piece). And rather than simply eliminate words, we should focus the lion's share of our effort on eliminating the stigma that often lies beneath those words and gives them power in the first place.

[note: If you appreciate this essay and want to see more like it, please check out my Patreon page]


  1. btw, a preemptive comment by the author: Some people who have only read this piece and not the original piece may assume that I am advocating for the continual usage of the so-called T-word. I am not in anyway making that case, and I refer you to the original piece (links above) where I clearly explain my position on that particular word. Having said that, I do believe that it is useful for us as activists to be aware of the activist language merry-go-round more generally (as it extends to virtually all trans-related language), and to consider the potential negative consequences that word-elimination strategies can have within our own communities.

  2. I agree that "word elimination" across the board is almost always bad, but I see this as a straw person. What this began with was a *very* problematic TV segment using problematic language by someone with a history of using problematic language in a callous and insensitive way. Very quickly this became an argument about whether anybody can ever say 'tranny' ever. Of course, striking a word from our lexicon is impossible. But I think it *is* fair for people to be aware that 'tranny' is a problematic word, and that we should be mindful of when, where, and how w use it. I would day the same about 'transsexual'. If you were to use it in your writing to describe someone who has undergone gender transition medically, I see that as unobjectionable. If a lawmaker starts talking about transsexuals demanding 'special rights', I will both insist that this position is wrong on substance, and that the term the community uses to describe itself is 'transgender'.

    1. A lot of what you bring up here is discussed in my original piece, so I encourage you (and other folks who are concerned about the word "tranny") to read what I have written there, as it is more thoughtful & thorough than anything I could say in a few sentence reply here.

      But I have to say that I completely disagree with you that the subject of *this* post (the activist language merry-go-round) is merely a "straw man" in some greater debate about the T-word. I think it is the reverse: as I discuss in the original piece, a desire to purge the T-word is but one of countless instances of trans activists arguing that we should eliminate certain words and/or forward new & better ones.

      Many folks in the community are focused like a laser on the T-word debate. That is fine if that's where their interests or concerns are. Personally, I am not especially concerned with that one particular word. What I am interested and concerned about is activist language more generally, how it evolves, and what the effects of this are on the marginalized community in question.

      If some people are disinterested in this broader discussion of language (which I discuss here & in the second half of the original piece), than so be it. But I do reject the premise that my more general discussion about language is *really* all about the T-word (because it is not), or that I should shelve such broader analyses of language because it undermines a community-wide unified movement to purge the T-word (because I don't think that it does, and on top of that, I do not believe that we, as a community, are unified with regards to our view of the word).

      btw, I am not saying that you have implied either of these things. But others have made such claims, so I wanted to nip such arguments in the bud in this comment thread.

  3. Fascinating article. As some who, like Steven Pinker, is not a member of a minority group, I wonder whether it is imaginable that the word "tranny" might one day be reclaimed and transformed into a positive term of endearment and empowerment, similar to the word "nigger" in the black community. Two asides: I'm not convinced that the adoption of a pejorative as a tool for the persecuted community is as empowering as it looks, and for all I know this has been mooted and tried with the word "tranny". I'm happy to be corrected if necessary.

    Thinking about your examination of dropping 'bad' words and adopting new ones, perhaps this comparison will not seem entirely inappropriate: Disabled people in the UK used to suffer mercilessly from the use of the insult "spastic" in the 1980s, which was derived from the name of the disability charity The Spastics Society. (I'm sure you'll appreciate that I don't bring this up because I consider transgenderism to be similar to mental or physical disability.) The charity changed its name in 1994 to Scope, and following this - though it's not the only factor of course - the term, though it remains an insult, is used far less and is widely understood to be potentially deeply wounding by able-bodied people who hitherto didn't see the harm, or did but didn't care (in the latter case, the victory is arguably greater, because it signals that they've come to see disabled people as... well... people).

    I'd suggest that this is a clear example, or semi-example, of swapping a 'bad' word out affecting some tangible, genuine change. Disabled people don't exactly refer to each other as "scopey" these days but I don't think anyone could argue the societal change would have been anything like as dramatic had the word "spastic" not been dropped. It remains a powerful insult, so it's not an instance of reclaiming, but as I've said, I doubt the positivity of reclaiming. What happened was the word was discarded amongst a great deal of publicity and increasing awareness of disability, and the new word was allowed to quietly go about its business representing the charity without picking up any negative connotations. Maybe this is key. If societal change doesn't accompany a deliberate change in terminology strongly enough, then palpable change is unachievable.

    A lot of the above is thinking out loud, and I'm receptive to anybody who wants to tell me exactly how and why I'm totally mistaken. Thank you for the thought-provoking article.

    (Incidentally, a fabulous way I heard some years ago and have used since to refer to able-bodied people is "not-yet-disabled". Changes your perspective, doesn't it?)

    (Oh, one final thing. The mad genius Douglas Hofstadter wrote an essay in 1985 about terminology, and while it's fantastic it's only of somewhat tangential interest here, but if you haven't read it before, follow this link. I'm sure you'll like it.

    1. A lot of the points you bring up fall under the when-to-reclaim-versus-when-not-to-reclaim conundrum. I discuss that in the original piece, and I found the following essay elucidating the multiplicity of perspectives that invariably occur in reclaiming debates was especially useful:

      also regarding "tranny," it has a complex history & was used positively by trans people (apparently both as a community created word, then later as a reclaimed word after mainstream society became aware of it) in the past. That does not mean that we *should* reclaim it, but we shouldn't ignore that complex history either. I discuss all this in the original piece (which I again encourage people to read, links above).

  4. As ever JS, you hit the nail on the head and since the nail keeps moving - nice shot. As you suggest, the reason we invent new words is to ensure we can be referred to without the baggage of stigma, but no sooner has a shiney new word appeared then those who mean us harm, use it in a defamatory way. Shelf life for a new word must be around 18mths before haters use it to beat us: no wonder the merry-go-round keeps twirling out new ones.

    The only comparison that springs to mind are PC words to refer to disability: both mental and physical. I help out with physical 'less-able bodied' people and feel I walk a tight-rope of causing offence to one group over another, but the comparison stops there. The correct terms for 'physically restricted' people are largely a top-down courtesy, manufactured by human resource professionals for their PR. People in wheel chairs are not subject to the continual harrassment and violence *trannies* face. Yes, it is the source of the stigma that needs to be stemmed, but in the meantime we trans* folk will continue to duck words besmirched by the invective of the ignorant and the hateful. The merry-go-round is unlikely to stop anytime soon we'd better get used to the ride and see it just as symptom of greater malaise.

  5. I'm middle aged, so to me its PC War II. I will read the first piece, so I'll limit myself here to this one. Just like the first war, there is the ignorance of majority men mostly, who get defensive and pick apart articles, now hashtags, and defend language we take issue with. On our sides, we get trapped having to defend why we take issue with them taking issue. We're caught on the merry go round and not even going for the brass ring. The ring represents the education and engagement we should being doing when encountering bad language. So, instead we allow ourselves to lose control of the narrative and let really bad people (like Bush I in the first war) mock and isolate us. The ignorant who we should all be educating shut down because now we are the "other", the " thin skinned", the loony left,...

    At this point in the war, ridiculous straw men are built: the Hop on Pop causes patricide meme must have been created by the "men's rights" movement. I guarantee they will build more just to bait us all. Those who take the bait lose any authority to speak so picking the battles to fight is important.

    I've watched the t word battle spill into the larger LGbt media as a trans ally. I am in listening mode because its my job to be learning. Really, I've seen a lot of dirty laundry exposed by reading the back and forth from trans writers. Yep, there are race and class issues which is probably a good idea to air. Finger pointing hurts, but it can be a teachable moment.

    The problems are from a group of cis gay writers who have a history of GGGG. I've been around the block enough times to know their histories of attacking trans people. Now they don't have to be overtly transphobic, they can just attack by mocking. I've read a paragraph to half of a number of these hit pieces. Because now its my job, I try to teach by bringing up historical examples of these writers bad and hateful language and or their past in blocking trans issues or their activity in throwing those of us on the outside under buses.

    Hope this makes sense. I can ramble on.

  6. Thank-you Julia, it very much relates to my own experiences within trans activism. I'm very much in favour of everyone articulating their individual experiences instead of using one word shortcuts. Although transsexual an "outdated" label according to psychiatry, I share your ownership of the word as a label beyond it.

  7. As an amateur linguist and someone only beginning to explore trans activism, I want to thank you for providing this "food for thought," if you will. I am not very well read
    with regards to these subjects, but the theory you present here seems to be in accordance with other linguistic phenomena, most notably with Derek Bickerton's hypothesis about the formation of Creole languages. He asserts that Creoles form based in the communication of the oppressed community (often enslaved workers), and also that non-marginalized groups only assume that Creoles begin their formation in the language of the non-oppressed communities because they appear in, as you say, "official" institutions such as newspapers. I look forward to exploring more aspects of language in the context of marginalized groups in the future. Thank you again!