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A Progressive’s Style Guide

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I write emails for a living. More specifically, I write emails asking people to take action in solidarity with workers around the world, to stand up against corporate abuses of power, and to donate to support progressive movements. This is mostly a dream. But sometimes it can get fraught.

Every day I experience how language can bring people together and build power. But language can also be divisive, dangerous, and exclusionary. A turn of phrase that I use every day as a woman in London may make no sense at all to a reader in America. Worse, I might unthinkingly use words that are downright upsetting to some people. In fact, I did.

A couple of years ago, in an email to a million people that urged fashion retailers to drop angora fur (save the bunnies!) I used the phrase ‘falling on deaf ears’. Shortly afterwards I received this email from the National Deaf Children’s Society:

“What implication lies behind this old, out dated phrase? That telling a deaf person about the plight of rabbits, they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to communicate, wouldn’t care? Deafness is not a learning disability. I just want to express my frustration and disappointment in an organisation that is clearly working for the benefit of others, without realising in their message they are stigmatising a minority. I hope you succeed massively with this campaign, I really do. But please, remember to write in an inclusive manner.”

I was schooled. I considered myself to be pretty brushed up on anti-oppressive language but here I was using an ableist phrase without a second thought.

There has been a lot of internet talk in progressive circles about the difference between ‘calling out’ and ‘calling in’. This person who flagged my mistake called me in, taking the opportunity to point out how I could do better while encouraging me in my campaign and sending me good wishes.

I wanted to continue holding myself to this standard, to keep calling myself and others in. So I got to work on a Progressive Style Guide, that would help guide fellow campaigners and writers in the progressive movement on using inclusive language.

It’s been two years in the making, existing as a public google doc for most of that time until an incredible editor, Anna Hirsch, got in touch. She had come across it on a listserv, and wanted to devote some time to making it an actual, proper thing. After much of her hard toil, it is now a challenging, educational, inspirational 38 page guide (with references!).

It’s intended to be a movement-wide resource, a guide to language that can help, not harm us in our progressive work. At the same time, we know that language is always evolving. The guide as it stands is a snapshot in time, and will become out of date fairly quickly. That’s why we’re interested in keeping it a living document and would love to hear from people who would be keen in contributing to future iterations.

In the meantime, please read, share, and commit to a shared language that continues to build power.

Written by

Principal at Align ( | Formerly Chief Product Officer at & Campaign & Culture Director at | Writing | Healing | Art

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