The Paradox of Inclusive Language

When using inclusive words is a marker of wokeness, does it becomes a means of excluding the un-woke?

Julian Baggini
Jan 15 · 5 min read
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Back in the 1990s I was not as aware as I am now about the importance of pronouns. When talking about an indeterminate third person I would always say “he”, as I had been taught to do all my life, only using “she” if I was referring to a stereotypically female role, such as a nurse.

Woke youth today would be appalled by this, and even now I’m somewhat surprised and embarrassed to realise how late I was to the party. But I’m pretty sure it was only when I was a postgrad that I heard lecturers use “she” deliberately in such contexts, and even then most didn’t. I wasn’t a late learner, I was just a product of my times.

Around this time, while I was doing a temporary job as a part-time researcher, my academic project head once pulled me up on such a linguistic slip. She accused me of being a “book feminist”, which she explained meant a person who was signed up to feminist principles in theory, while still being a misogynist in practice. Note that this was based in nothing I’d done, only a word I had used. This, it seemed, was my mask slipping.

I was extremely annoyed by this. It seemed to me the opposite was the case. I didn’t know what the book said I should do, and hence my language was sloppy. Meanwhile, numerous male academics who used “she” correctly were sexually harassing attractive female students and being praised as paragons of equality.

Ever since this incident I’ve been aware that it can be true both that we should reform language because it really matters, and that you should not be too quick to judge people on the basis of whether they are using the optimal lexicon.

So I’ve got some sympathy for Tom Slater’s argument that use of inclusive language has actually become a new way of creating in-groups and out-groups. Writing in Spiked, he argued that talking the “right” way has become less about including everyone than it has about excluding “deplorables”.

Such exclusion isn’t trivial since many members of excluded groups are themselves excluded by such language. Slater cites as an example the term “Latinx”, which is intended to replaced the gendered Latino/a. According to the Pew Research Center, says Slater, “only 23 per cent of Hispanic Americans have even heard of the word ‘Latinx’, and only three per cent use it to describe themselves.” Standing up for the marginalised seems to mean talking about them in a language they don’t use themselves and don’t even understand.

Slater’s argument belongs to a family of complaints about woke self-righteousness and the horrors of virtue-signalling. Like most such arguments, it contains a kernel of truth but uses it as a stick to beat people whose cause is fundamentally just.

Take virtue-signalling in general. It is undoubtedly true that many people say and do things to signal their own decency rather than out of of any genuine inner goodness. But it’s also true that many people do and say the right thing with sincerity. Unless you can see into the soul of the speaker, to accuse everyone who appears to act well of virtue-signalling is no more than a cynical denial that anyone is truly good. Or maybe it’s a way to undermine the cause itself without seeming to attack it. Either way, it sends a message that people shouldn’t behave well, because that would make you a shallow virtue-signaller.

Good causes have always attracted the messianic and the self-righteous. They have also been very powerful at creating in- and out-groups. Name any emotive cause — Palestine, trans rights, anti-semitism, socialism — and you won’t have to go far to find people whose love of the cause creates a hatred of anyone they perceive not to be part of it. But that does not make any of these causes unworthy of support. It should simply make us wary of becoming too convinced of our moral superiority.

We see the same combination of opportunity and threat with inclusive language. Words do matter and we should take the opportunities to reform our lexicon to be as inclusive as possible. We can do that in two ways. The first is to come down like a ton of bricks on anyone who isn’t up to speed, condemning them as agents of oppression. The other is to try to slowly and gently persuade, all the while being prepared to accept that some of our suggested reforms aren’t such a good idea after all. For instance, those who proposed avoiding gendered terms like nephew and niece were just too zealous. (And remember many of these horror stories are myths, such as the story that loony left councils had banned the singing of Baa Baa Black Sheep.)

Nor is it fatal for the project of reforming language that many of the people these revised terms refer to don’t use them. For decades, only the most committed feminists used the title “Ms”, and most women couldn’t even pronounce it. Although there were some who would shout at sisters who still used Miss or Mrs, most feminists accepted that they were pioneering a social change that would take years to bring about. The same is true of Latinx. At the moment, a minority of people to whom the term refers use it, but I very much doubt these in the vanguard are shouting at the majority of their fellow Latinxs who don’t.

The argument that inclusive language can exclude is a valuable warning against unwarranted militancy in linguistic reform. But Slater and other critics of all-things woke are mistaken if they think it is an argument against the reform of language altogether. Inclusive language can exclude if used badly, but exclusive language excludes by necessity.

This article is part of a series on Modern Paradoxes

Julian Baggini is a writer and philosopher. His latest book is The Godless Gospel: Was Jesus a Great Moral Teacher? (Affiliate link)

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