Wednesday, June 12, 2024

Learning how to talk

I was a graduate student fifty years ago when I first heard a faculty member speak of being "politically correct," a little self-consciously, a little ironically, a little redolent of liberal smugness. And it was not long before "politically correct" became a slur in our endless culture wars. 

Acceptance of changes in language, particularly changes in the way that people are identified, comes slowly. I remember the resistance in newspapers to using Ms. as an honorific for women, and the bewailing when gay became acceptable for homosexual over "the loss of that fine old word." 

And yet the world is as it is, and so are the people in it, particularly those who have long been marginalized or ignored and who have come to insist on their place in the sun, even if some are not comfortable with acknowledging them.

Charting a course to navigate in such a world makes Karen Yin's The Conscious Style Guide (Little, Brown Spark, $32) a book for our times. Ms. Yin, an experienced writer and editor, maintains the website, from which some of the material in her book is taken, and that website has been a forum for exploring how we should talk to and about other people. 

The key to conscious style is paying attention. Language keeps changing, as do the preferences of individuals and groups. Gender identity is complex and fluid, so sussing out people's personal pronouns becomes advisable. The terms Native, Native American, American Indian, and Indigenous American are all current, so the person's or group's preference should be consulted. Offensive terms for Blacks, Asians, women, gays, and people with disabilities are to be avoided, but some words previously thought to be slurs can become acceptable. (Ms. Yin writes, "As someone named, Karen, I fully support the use of the Karen archetype" of bigot. It is a slur, but "right now, it does more good than harm." 

So this is not a rule book. It is a book asking you to think and make informed judgments. She says you must consider the content of a word or sentence or article, its basic meaning; its context, the surrounding historical and cultural circumstances that influence meaning; its consequence, how it will be understood; its complexity, the possibility that, like Karen, it can be both insulting and useful; its compassion, its recognition of the humanity of a marginalized group. 

The core of the book is the section called "Practice," which considers dozens of categories for conscious language. You will find material on the thorny issues of sex and gender, racial identity and ethnicity, and all the other hot-button issues, shunning dogmatism and exploring nuances and sensitivities. 

One section rises from the casual and inappropriate use of medical terminology to suggest that serious mental illnesses are routine: Instead of OCD, consider exacting or meticulous. Instead of ADHD, consider distracted. instead of have PTSD, consider am distressed. ... Instead of crazy, nuts, hysterical, bonkers, psychotic, consider wild, unpredictable, confusing, scary." 

And she offers alternatives to climate change denier and anti-vaxxer, terms that just get people's backs up. There is a section on how to persuade people to adopt conscious language. 

But let me get to the heart of it. 

To adopt conscious style when we speak and write is to work to accord everyone, everyone, the dignity and respect that white men have considered their due. 


  1. I would be interested in hearing some polite, “won’t-hurt-their-feelings” terms for “climate change denier“ and “anti-vaxxer”.

  2. I was just going to ask the same thing. I guess I can see someone taking "anti-vaxxer" as problematic, if only because it is formulated as a snappy abbreviation and some genuine slurs follow a similar format. But "climate change denier" is sober, neutral, and accurate. If someone is offended by being described this way, this says something about them, but not the person so describing them.

  3. I think "denier" has a slightly pejorative tone. Maybe "climate-change skeptic," though it has a different meaning. This might be a case where a specific explanation is needed for the person being written about, rather than a catch-all phrase.

  4. John, this is so important. Thanks.