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.