Reparative Semantics? Or Gobbledygook?

Do last year's words belong to last year's language?

Responding to yesterday’s news of the passing of Harrison Smith, perhaps the last living offspring of an enslaved American, OTB regular Michael Reynolds objected to the phrase “enslaved American.”

‘Enslaved Americans.’ Jesus Christ. Six syllables is just so much better than one.

Definition of ‘enslaved American’? Slave. Translation in our heads? Slave. Is there a point to this circumlocution? We already know from context that we are talking about slaves in America as opposed to slaves in, say, Rome. Or are those ‘enslaved Romans?’ Except, wait, Roman citizens were by definition not slaves, and their slaves came from many countries. I mean, a Greek slave would not have wanted to be called an enslaved Roman, would he? How would an ethnic Duala from west Africa wish to be labeled? As an American?

I don’t think ‘enslaved American’ cuts it. Too simplistic, not nearly precise enough, or wordy enough. How about ‘enslaved person whose ancestors may have belonged to any of a number of ethnic groups within Africa and were denied true American citizenship?’

Can people just stop fucking with the language to hoist themselves up on a pedagogical pedestal?

Even though I’ve begrudgingly adopted “enslaved person” and its variants, I’m highly sympathetic to that position. Michael and I agree that, most of the time, changing familiar words for clunkier ones in an effort to change attitudes fails. At least in the short term.

So, for example, while I eventually adopted “African American,” because that seemed to have become the preferred language, I quickly and happily returned to “Black” when it came back into vogue a couple years back. That latter not only rolls off the tongue more easily but is simply more useful.

When the movement to adopt “African American” was underway, Star Trek: Voyager had just launched and I was bemused as to how we should describe Tim Russ’s Tuvok character. “Black Vulcan” was easy. “African American Vulcan” makes no sense. Nor, even, does “African Vulcan.”

Still, I’m less cynical about these rhetorical shifts than I used to be. Aside from getting used to the idea that we should try to call people what they want to be called, there is something to the notion of baggage being associated with certain words.

A recent interview by Chicago economist and Freakonomics co-author Steven Levitt with the documentary filmmaker Ken Burns on the former’s podcast sheds some light on this issue. The latter’s most recent project was on “The U.S. and the Holocaust.” In discussing the process, Burns explains,

In our script, there isn’t a word that hasn’t been considered or say, “Yep, that works.” If you don’t say, “Nazi occupied Poland,” you have insulted the Poles, who had no control over what was taking place in their now occupied country. If you start referring to the final solution or extermination in certain ways, you don’t do justice to individual agency. If you call the concentration camps, “where people were gassed,” you’ve made a mistake. They were never gassed in concentration camps. They were gassed only in Nazi-occupied Polish killing centers in the places like Treblinka and Auschwitz and Sobibor and Belzec and Chelmno. Just being aware of language and how incredibly precise it must be as we try to take the temperature of all the scholarship.

Obviously, this matters more on a highly sensitive subject and on a project that is going to be seen by many as a definitive work on that subject. Ordinary conversational speech can’t and shouldn’t be held to that standard.

But, yes, words matter. It was the Nazi occupiers, not the Poles, who were responsible for the atrocities at Auschwitz and Treblinka.

As to slave versus enslaved person, Katy Waldman had a solid explainer for Slate on the topic back in 2015.

Slave remains the more popular and widespread term. Yet, in the ’90s, an era that saw sensitivities to language increase, especially in academia, enslaved person supplanted it as the “superior” phrasing. The heightened delicacy of enslaved person—the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second—was seen to do important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations. As one academic posted on a humanities and social sciences message board, “Slave is reductive and static and does not accurately reflect reality. Enslaved individuals are … complex human beings.” To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation: “Doesn’t emphasizing the personhood of people held as slaves allow us to escape the legacy of slavery, and free historians to better describe the past?” Or, as the writer Andi Cumbo-Floyd eloquently put it: “We carry them forward as people, not the property that they were in that time.”

Advocates for enslaved person claim that slave imagines slavery as an internal or even metaphysical condition, not an imposed and arbitrary one. Whereas enslaved person makes clear that the status is involuntary, and—as one grad student argued on the message board—dynamic. “Slavery,” he wrote, “is … a process. It’s constantly being negotiated. … For slaveholders, maintaining slavery legally, socially, and culturally is a constant struggle. And the reverse is true, of course, for slaves.”

But others disagree. Historian Eric Foner thinks substituting two words where one will do is needlessly obfuscating. “I was taught long ago by my mentor Richard Hofstadter that it is always better to use as few words as possible in conveying an idea,” he emailed. “Slave is a familiar word and if it was good enough for Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists who fought to end the system, it is good enough for me.”

Foner’s stance is not quite expressive economy uber alles. Rather, “I do not think that slave suggests that this is the essence of a person’s being,” he clarified. “It is a condition in which people find themselves and that severely limits their opportunities and options, but it does not mean, as some claim, that the word means they are nothing but slaves. Slaves are human beings and can be husbands, wives (in fact if not in law), fathers and mothers, members of religious groups, skilled craftsmen. … All people have multiple identities, including slaves.”

Yet, if Foner questions whether slave does what its detractors say it does, still others favor the word precisely because it seems to blot out the complex skein of roles that constitutes a person. For this faction, enslavement “pervades and conditions all other identities, either chosen or given.” To suggest anything else flies in the face of empirical fact—it “implies a degree of autonomy that was simply never there.” More, sugarcoating the language of historical recall wastes an opportunity to reinforce slavery’s inhumanity, to hammer home the brutishness of the perpetrators’ worldview by forcing readers to inhabit it. (One thing the slave and enslaved person camps can agree on? The term slaveholder is far too kind. “That terminology is a gift,” historian Joshua Rothman told me. “They are thieves of others’ humanity. Man stealers. Vampires.”)

All of which raises a host of questions. Is it more accurate to emphasize people’s agency within the crushing institution of slavery, or to drill down into the system’s demeaning horror? And accuracy aside, what’s the more responsible route for a historian?

Peer through the keyhole of the terminology debate, and you’ll glimpse a bigger argument being hashed out. If you sing the inventiveness and resiliency of enslaved communities—men and women who resisted, or educated themselves; who became fully actualized humans and created a rich culture—you risk implying that slavery wasn’t that degrading. You insult the experience of the victims and almost apologize for the system. On the other hand, stripping enslaved people of agency would seem to reenact the evil of taking them captive in the first place. “There’s a long history of people arguing over the ‘degradation’ issue and using it to justify paternalistic treatment,” said Rebecca Onion, co-host of Slate Academy’s History of American Slavery. “After the war, people said, ‘exslaves can’t take care of themselves so we need to do it for them.’ “

For those not familiar with his work, Foner is not some retrograde Lost Cause sympathizer. He’s arguably the foremost historian of the Reconstruction era. He won the Bancroft Prize in 1989 for his book Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution – 1863-1877 and his 2010 book The Fiery Trial: Abraham Lincoln and American Slavery won the Pulitzer Prize, the Lincoln Prize, and the Bancroft Prize. I’m currently working through his most recent book, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution.

In an undated article, then-Dartmouth postdoc Nicholas Rinehart adds,

History happens on the internet, and so does historiography. In recent years, scholars and lay commentators alike have advocated an alternative vocabulary for describing the historical violence of racial slavery. We should substitute “enslavement” for “slavery”; “enslaved person” for “slave”; “enslaver” for “slave owner” or “slaveholder”; “slave labor camp” for “plantation”; “freedom-seeking” or “self-emancipated” for “fugitive.” These arguments have been advanced by public history and educational organizationsgovernmental agencies, and scholarly organizations—all aiming to address (and perhaps redress) the legacies of Atlantic slavery by centering questions of language. From this perspective, the oft-cited “power” or “importance” of language resides precisely in its capacity to inflict or alleviate harm. But this all-too-neat categorization of right and wrong, good and bad terms and phrases actually underestimates the power of language by insisting upon its moral and semantic stability. Language is far too dynamic and slippery a medium to serve as foundation for such broad normative claims. This move to revise our collective historical vocabulary, moreover, introduces as many complications as it seeks to resolve. In what follows, then, I aim merely to question the assumptions that undergird arguments for what I call reparative semantics and, in so doing, illuminate some of the historiographical problems that arise in the process.

First, we should endeavor to understand the arguments for reparative semantics on their own terms. The preference for “enslaved person” over “slave,” for example, is most often framed as a question of humanity or personhood. The phrase “enslaved person,” that is, supposedly acknowledges or restores the full humanity of the enslaved, whereas the term “slave” is objectifying, commodifying, or dehumanizing. “Slave” evacuates the personhood of historical subjects, signifying instead a totalizing identity altogether outside the realm of the human. In this sense, the phrase “enslaved person” is meant to stake a quasi-metaphysical claim: Those who were enslaved were not merely “slaves,” they were fully complex persons victimized by the institution of slavery. “Enslaved person” recognizes the complete humanity of the enslaved by detaching it from slave status. (It is worth noting that similar developments are taking place with respect to non-English languages. In Spanish, for example, esclavo might be replaced by esclavizado; in Portuguese, escravo by escravizado. Some speakers of French, meanwhile, have adopted the neologism esclavasigé.)

The preference for “enslaver” over “slave owner” or “slaveholder” works in similar ways. The former intends to emphasize the violent practices and processes that constituted racial slavery while deemphasizing the seeming neutrality of identity markers like “owner” or “master.” The latter terms, that is, function as little more than historiographical euphemisms obscuring the mundane forms of brutality to which the enslaved were subjected. This focus on historical process likewise bolsters the argument for using “enslavement” in the place of “slavery”—where one highlights how individual historical actors promulgated racial slavery and its attendant ideologies, the other suggests a kind of transhistorical phenomenon that operates of its own accord. Phrases like “freedom-seeking” or “self-emancipated” individuals, moreover, stress the agency of the enslaved where “fugitive” assumes the perspective of slaveholding legal regimes. Finally, the use of “slave labor camp” aims to supplant “plantation,” tinged as it is by a certain nostalgia for the “moonlight and magnolias” paternalism of the Old South.

As we can see, these are perfectly legitimate reasons to abandon one terminology for another. Still, I think the above arguments should give us pause. This is not to take issue with the use of terms like “enslavement,” “enslaved person,” or “enslaver”—all of which I use periodically in my own scholarship—but rather to question the normative argument that this language produces a more rigorous, righteous, or politically efficacious approach to the historiography of slavery.

Let’s consider the phrase “enslaved person.” First, there is the issue of the presumed equation of “slave” with an “identity.” I would be surprised if any scholar or student of slavery considered “identity” an appropriate term to describe what was in fact a legal status and social condition. Proponents of reparative semantics advocate a turn away from the term “slave” as a marker of identity, though it remains unclear whether anyone has made such an assertion in the first place. Second, suggesting that those enslaved in the African diaspora were not in fact “slaves” easily slips into a kind of social constructivism whereby “slavery” did not happen at all. That is, the argument goes, it is impossible truly to make any person a “slave” because their essential humanity cannot be extinguished: People are not “slaves,” they can only be “enslaved.” (This rhetoric seems especially risky at a time when myths of Irish or white “slavery” persist online and new conspiracy theories spread unabated—for example, that the Middle Passage never occurred because people of African descent are indigenous to North America.) Removing “slave” from our historical terminology implies that slavery is ultimately a state of being rather than a matter of law or social practice. In other words, “slave” is an ontological condition rather than the outcome of observable social and legal processes by which persons come to assume or inherit the status of “slave.” One could certainly make the former claim, but it would not be a historical one. Arguing that people cannot be “slaves” renders ever more difficult the task of understanding how that history itself unfolded.

I tend to agree with Foner and Rinehart on the merits. I’m not at all convinced that slave strips people, who are in any case long dead, of their humanity or their agency. Still, I agree with Burns and others that the words themselves impact how we frame these issues. “Enslaved person” puts the emphasis on the wrong that was done to the individual, rather than his or her status.

There’s a growing shift toward the latter sentiment and I’m willing to accommodate it, at least in writing. It’ll be a much harder and therefore slower switch conversationally.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.

Comments

  1. Franklin says:

    Good post, with good arguments by people who have thought long and hard about it. Which is to say, not the majority of the populace, who can be thoughtful about a particular issue without being overly concerned with the “perfect” language to use.

    Speaking of perfect, if the emphasis is supposed to be first on the real personhood of this subject matter, why is the word “person” not first? It should be “person who was enslaved” instead of “enslaved person.” See, we can play this stupid game all day, or we can address actual issues.

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  2. MarkedMan says:

    I don’t have much of an opinion on this specific issue one way or another, but I think in general these types of discussions and explorations on the meanings of words are useful in helping us think through our underlying assumptions. Like James, I suspect that simply exchanging this word for that has no long term ability to alter the prejudices we have, but I think the process of thinking about the exchange can add insight to those with good intentions. Of course, for those who cling to their prejudices the new word quickly takes the place of the old one in their headspace. Nonetheless I think that the exercise challenges enough people that it benefits us as a whole, as it helps us work through what it takes to evolve our society to one that more truly reflects our ideals.

    I suspect what Michael is reacting to is the fact that, inevitably, the purity police will latch onto these language changes and use them to puff themselves up as the judge and jury of all around them. But these types of people exist in all societies and in all groups within those societies, and they are going to latch onto something. We shouldn’t abandon things that are useful simply because some people will inevitably make a mockery of it. Best to ignore them.

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  3. MarkedMan says:

    @MarkedMan: FWIW, I got an error when i posted the above and it said it didn’t accept the post which, obviously, it did. Anyone else get that?

  4. Mimai says:

    James, I appreciate the thoughtfulness of your post.

    Re the discussion yesterday, I found it troubling* that a post in honor of Mr. Smith got quickly hijacked by this (and adjacent) issue. Cognitive-emotional habits are powerful. Hmmm…

    As to the language, I too sometimes find it annoying and frustrating to be asked to change, yet again. Especially when I have just gotten used to the previous change.

    I sometimes react with resistance. “This is ridiculous word play.” “Who made you the arbiter of our language?” On my better days, I try to understand the reasoning behind the suggested changes.

    Sometimes, this reasoning make sense to me, and I try to adapt accordingly.

    Sometimes, this reasoning does not make sense to me, and I don’t adopt the new terminology.

    Sometimes, despite my own preferences, I adopt the new terminology because it doesn’t effing matter. It’s not a fight I want to have. It’s not a friction I want to add.

    Who is my audience? Brown undergrads**? Public policy officials? People with relevant lived experience***? Scientists?

    What are my goals? Change hearts/minds? Change systems? Make a personal connection? Communicate results?

    What terminology will best help me achieve my goals? Use that terminology.

    More broadly, @MarkedMan makes an excellent point about language and underlying assumptions. On this point, despite my sometimes annoyance, I actually find this to be a fun (and enlightening) exercise. What are my assumptions? Oh, wow, that’s interesting…I just learned something about myself. ymmv

    *heh
    **That one’s for you MR.
    ***Sorry, not sorry, for the lack of trigger warning.

  5. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Not gonna weigh in on the particulars of this debate as I am happy to accommodate myself. I do want to share something regarding this:

    I’m not at all convinced that slave strips people, who are in any case long dead, of their humanity or their agency. Still, I agree with Burns and others that the words themselves impact how we frame these issues. “Enslaved person” puts the emphasis on the wrong that was done to the individual, rather than his or her status.

    This past spring I made a trip to the Whitney Plantation (highly recommended) just north of NOLA. They have a wall of testimonials from slaves. They made a point of naming every slave they quoted and had extensive lists of names. For the most part, just first names, a few with a second, I don’t recall any with a last name. Sometimes with a year of birth. A lot of times not. Sometimes their occupation.

    It was the naming that stuck out. It drove home the fact that these were human beings with hopes, dreams, fears, pain, loss, not just “slaves.” Property. Chattel.

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  6. Michael Reynolds says:

    Repeating the point I’ve made before, colored, negro, black, afro-American, African-American and Black with a capital ‘b’ and still George Floyd ended up choked to death on a Minneapolis street. Whatever changes we made in terminology, no change seemed to take effect in reality.

    Or, let’s look at: womyn. The attempt to replace the word women because, see, women should not include men. Because reasons. And yet, Dobbs. Maybe if more people had said womyn instead of women, a difference not actually audible, we’d still have choice?

    And of course there’s Latino, Latina and the mellifluous, Latinx, which strongly implied that the romance language convention of gendering nouns was offensive, and the Anglo preference for non-gendered nouns is good and right. Accomplishing what, exactly? I suspect it engendered (heh) a return to Hispanic. All four words mean what, exactly? People whose native language is Spanish. And causing what effect in the real world? Aside from confusion?

    Can someone explain why the ‘discovery’ that a tiny percentage of humanity does not fit neatly into the categories male or female, demanded new, gender-free terms? All the transgender people I know (including my daughter) refer to themselves as men or women, male or female, so what is accomplished by insisting on terms that deny the very thing transgender people want, which is to be accepted as and referred to as, men or women, male or female?

    Indians is a bit of a different case as it was always an error and led to confusion. Do you mean American Indian or India Indian? But Native American is a bit odd as the Huron and the Cherokee et al were hardly Native Americans prior to Europeans coining the term, American. Indigenous Americans doesn’t help? Calling a Sioux a Red man, is the exact parallel to Black or White man, but Red is derogatory and Black or White is not, because. . .?

    Oriental became Asian, why? Oriental used to refer to people of the near-east (largely Turks and Arabs) then migrated east to mean Indians (you know, Indians from India, not Chippewa) and now refers to . . . um. . . anyone? Can anyone explain why Chinese, Japanese, Koreans and Vietnamese, are all one group? What kind of taxonomy combines roughly 60% of the human race in one category?

    While we’re at it, why are some groups geographical, as in, Europeans, and others are language-based, as in Latina/o/x? Are Spanish people (from Spain) Latino? Hispanic? What of the Portuguese and Brazilians? Should they be Portina/o/x? How do the Black and indigenous populations of Brazil feel about that?

    The entire project makes no damn sense, there’s no logic to it and no consistency. Indeed all of these terms, the old ones and the newly-minted ones, are inaccurate, lumping people into groups that have nothing in common, based on a shifting set of criteria, none of which have any goddamn basis in science. Whites are not white, and Swedes are not Sicilians, and Hispanics are people who speak Spanish except not residents of Spain, and I’m pretty sure that Kazakhs do not think they belong in the same silo as Thais.

    I could go on. And on. But as a White man with roots in the Orient (Ashkenazi) and a largely European cultural patrimony, living in previously Latino (?) California, and before that Indian not from India land, I don’t think I’m in a position to reach any firm conclusion other than that I am an Angeleno, a suspiciously Hispanic word.

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  7. Michael and I agree that, most of the time, changing familiar words for clunkier ones in an effort to change attitudes fails. At least in the short term.

    I think the bolded part is important for these debates, and is the reason I generally find MR’s digressions on these topics to be overwrought and to miss the point. I think this is clearly true when we can clearly see that the terms used in society on a number of topics have shifted for the better over time, but that it is never the case that such changes are immediate.

    I do no have a firmly established opinion on the topic in the very well-presented OP, but I can certainly understand the point of what is being attempted. I can fully accept a stylistic critique that “slave” is shorter and easier to say and read than “enslaved person” (and the idea that using fewer words when possible tends to be best) but the debate is not simple about syntax.

    Indeed, as I always note in these debates with MR, and to the title of this post, words have power and I always find it kind of odd that a person who makes a living writing doesn’t concede that point a bit more than he does.

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  8. @Michael Reynolds:

    Repeating the point I’ve made before, colored, negro, black, afro-American, African-American and Black with a capital ‘b’ and still George Floyd ended up choked to death on a Minneapolis street

    This is both true and almost entirely irrelevant.

    The fact that millions of Americans are talked to and about more respectfully in 2022 than they were in 1952 is important and your posturing on this always feels like doubling-down because you don’t ever like to lose an argument (or, for that matter, give ground in one) than because you don’t understand that it does, in fact, matter that we don’t run around calling Black people “coloreds.”

    It is the strawiest of straw men to state that since linguistic changes didn’t stop George Flloyd’s death that none of this matters. It borders on the absurd as an argument, to be honest.

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  9. Jay L Gischer says:

    You know I really appreciate the sentiment that “If it was good enough for Frederick Douglass, its good enough for me”.

    It’s really tempting to make an issue such as this – what words to use to describe another person – about you and your own power. I feel I see that happening on either side of this, actually. No really, using “enslaved persons” feels very, very white to me. In more of a guilt atonement sort of way than a domineering way, but then it can become domineering.

    Or maybe those who resist (and I’m in that camp, see the lead quote), feel a bit guilty and want to assert their own right.

    Having gone through all of that in my head (and I’ve done this repeatedly), where I arrive is “what do they want to be called?” Or, in this case “what did they want to be called?” I can’t imagine any of them referring to themselves or others as “enslaved persons”.

    I think a better way to emphasize the actual human qualities of slaves would be to quote them and describe them doing human things – which is a thing that’s possible.

    But my larger point is maybe I want to use words that take the focus off of myself and any assertion of righteousness I might want to make via my choice of words.

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  10. @Michael Reynolds: As to the rest of your post: yes, humanity is complicated and it is highly unlikely that a given term will accurately capture the reality of history, migratory patterns, or, really, logic.

    None of that changes the political and social importance of certain labels and why they change over time.

    The entire project makes no damn sense, there’s no logic to it and no consistency.

    This is because, at least in part, you are just randomly choosing examples.

    But there is an obvious consistent core to a lot this this: trying to disentangle the role European colonials affected the way the world has carved up (e.g., why was the Orient called the Orient? The word means east. East for whom?). The whole notion that white Europeans were inherently superior to persons of other hues led to a lot of worded labeling.

    Obviously, “Indian” to describe indigenous persons at the time of the European “discovery” (a loaded term) of the “new” world (a loaded term) is the direct result of colonialism. But, somewhat to your point, “American” is also a term that derives from colonialism.

    Most of this is about power and attempts to right past wrongs. Some of it may well be unhelpful, but goodness, surely you understand all of this?

    BTW: the notion that well, things are the way they are now, so can’t we just leave them that way is usually the domain of older white dudes (of which I am one, lest I be accused of casting aspersions) who refuse to understand how we got where we are and why.

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  11. @Michael Reynolds: One more thought: you are an Angelo because a European power conquered most of the hemisphere, wiping out a huge percentage of the existing residents and replaced the pre-existing language with their own.

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  12. wr says:

    @Michael Reynolds: “Oriental became Asian, why?”

    Well, this one’s easy, although it really doesn’t have anything to do with the rest of the paragraph that follows. Oriental became Asian because Asia is only Oriental — that is, in the East — from the perspective of those in the West. So all these people — and yes, it’s a ridiculously large grouping, as you go on to complain — were being defined only in the context of how they were situated in relation to London, as if their own existence had meaning only as far as it affected others.

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  13. @Jay L Gischer:

    You know I really appreciate the sentiment that “If it was good enough for Frederick Douglass, its good enough for me”.

    Actually, that leaped out at me: because I expect there was a lot of language that Douglass used that we might not be comfortable with today and so I don’t find the sentiment, in and of itself, to be all that helpful.

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  14. @wr: Yup!!

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  15. Chip Daniels says:

    I don’t have a strong opinion about this, but I notice that there is no commonly used opposite of “slave”.
    We don’t call the non-slaves “frees”, we don’t start an article about a 19th century American like, “Samuel Clemons, a free, used the pen name Mark Twain…”

    It seems a bit like how we who are in the majority always think of ourselves as the default, unmarked category while everyone who isn’t needs a modifying adjective.

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  16. wr says:

    I was really going back and forth on the arguments in the OP, until I came across the suggestion we rename plantations “slave labor camps.” Of all the changes discussed, this one feels like it has real force. It strips away all the romance and mythology of the plantations and describes their actual purpose.

    Of course this is one change that will never happen in the South — it’s really going to cut into tourist dollars if people have start planning “slave labor camp weddings.”

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  17. Jay L Gischer says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: You know, that’s fair. I stand by my larger point though – I will seek to use language that A) the people being described are comfortable with and B) does not draw undue attention to myself.

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  18. Andy says:

    Excellent post and some excellent responses so far, especially from MR, Jay, and Marked Man.

    As Marked Man says, thinking about these things is a useful exercise.

    But ultimately I come down as a skeptic of this semantic change because I think it rests on faulty assumptions:

    The heightened delicacy of enslaved person—the men and women it describes are humans first, commodities second—was seen to do important work: restoring identity, reversing a cascade of institutional denials and obliterations.

    The assumption here is that when people hear the word slave, they think of commodities first. What is the evidence for this? What is the evidence that the word “slave” focuses on the commodity aspect and not the human aspect? After all, we have a specific term for commodified slavery – chattel slavery.

    We have an education system that teaches us the meanings and understandings of words. And anyone who has gone through that system in America understands that “slave” means a “person who was or is enslaved.” The theory that Americans do not understand this (and especially academics) is at best unsupported and, at worst, absurd.

    And I find this rich coming from an academic space:

    To reduce the people involved to a nonhuman noun was to reproduce the violence of slavery on a linguistic level; to dispense with it amounted to a form of emancipation

    We reduce people to nonhuman nouns all the time – white, black, brown, “of color,” Republican, Democrat, evangelical, American, actor, writer, botanist, athiest, etc. If nonhuman nouns are a problem, then why aren’t they a problem in the millions of other instances where they are used?

    We don’t need to say “Republican person” or “person who is Republican.” Or “person who practices botany.” For me to state that I am white is no different from me stating that I’m a white person, or a person who is white.

    So this whole enterprise rests on a faulty assumption that “slave” and “slavery” are understood in ways that aren’t actually true.

    And I think Jay makes an important point here:

    It’s really tempting to make an issue such as this – what words to use to describe another person – about you and your own power. I feel I see that happening on either side of this, actually. No really, using “enslaved persons” feels very, very white to me. In more of a guilt atonement sort of way than a domineering way, but then it can become domineering.

    Steven also makes the point that language is about power – well, one might argue that changing language in this way is exactly that – it’s about power as much as anything else. It will certainly be used to enforce in-group norms just like these attempts to change language have done everywhere else. Creating new language always separates people into an in-group and out-groups.

    And that is what will happen here – whether intentional or not – if this becomes normalized in academia or beyond.

    This happens everywhere and isn’t confined to word choice but also the way people speak and their mannerisms. Recall how politicians tend to adopt “church speak” when addressing black congregations.

    And note how everyone here knows what I mean when I wrote “black congregations.” I did not have to spell out that these are black people who are likely the descendants of slaves (enslaved people), who practice Christianity in a particular culturally American way.

    All that aside, I will backtrack a little. “Enslaved person” does work better in some instances, but not because it has a different meaning than “slave” but because it simply flows better. And I’m not saying that it’s a term that shouldn’t be used, and if some people prefer that term, then I have no complaints. But where I draw the line is when people will inevitably try to force others to adopt a term that they’ve created. Insisting that people who use the word “slave” instead of “enslave person” are dehumanizing others – when there is no evidence that is actually true – is where I draw the line.

    Now, over time, the norms and meanings of language does change, and we all should change with it. For example, Negro was acceptable for many years, but its meaning changed over time and now it no longer is. But that is an emergent process that takes place among all speakers of the language and can’t and shouldn’t be dictated from academia.

    4
  19. Gustopher says:

    @Steven L. Taylor: I would go a step further — the awkward clunkiness around “enslaved people” is actually good.

    We are so used to the word “slave” that it has lost a lot of its power and meaning. We read the word, think briefly of Gone With The Wind and move on.

    Sometimes people need to be smacked upside the head to remind them of what they know.

    4
  20. Gustopher says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Hispanics are people who speak Spanish except not residents of Spain

    I’m 80% sure you’re wrong about that exclusion of Spain, and Oxford dictionary mostly agrees with me, depending on how much stress you want to put on the especially clause “relating to Spain or to Spanish-speaking countries, especially those of Latin America.”

    Hispanic also misses Brazilians. And indigenous people.

    And defines people by the colonizer part of their dna while they generally have a very mixed heritage.

    Latino/a/x has its own problems, but “from Latin America” is pretty straightforward.

    Also, using “Hispanic” makes you sound like a government form or a really old person.

    3
  21. Mu Yixiao says:

    I shouldn’t wade into this, but… t’hell with it.

    Aside from getting used to the idea that we should try to call people what they want to be called

    How many slaves prefer to be referred to as an “enslaved person”?

    This isn’t about trying to refer to people by their preferred terms, it’s about elite academics deciding how we should refer to people. Take, for example, “latinx”[1]:

    Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx, while 68 percent call themselves “Hispanic” and 21 percent favored “Latino” or “Latina” to describe their ethnic background, according to the survey from Bendixen & Amandi International, a top Democratic firm specializing in Latino outreach.
    [emphasis added]

    I would also point out that there is a factual difference between “enslaver” and “slave owner”. “Enslaving” is a transformative act–it changes a free person into an enslaved person. That was done by Africans in Africa. The slave owners in the US maintained the state of slavery, but did not initiate it[2]. To insist that white people did the enslaving completely ignores the primary influence of Africans in the economy of slavery (those slave ships weren’t sailing from Raleigh to Atlanta, after all).

    I used to work for a major metropolitan school district. Part of my duties was to handle the W9 forms. These are an IRS tax form that businesses must file to report payments to vendors. Schools have a lot of W9s on file (I estimated we had over 15,000).

    Our W9 form included an optional “Historically Underutilized Business” (HUB) survey. I was the one to answer questions about how to fill out the W9–including the HUB info. This was gathered to insure that the district wasn’t discriminatory in it’s business relationships.

    One day I get a call from what is, quite obviously, a black woman from the south. She had questions about the HUB survey, so I explained the reasons behind it (she agreed it was worth filling out), and then started walking through the questions.

    Me: Are you a woman? (I said with a “it’s obvious”, joking tone)
    Her: Heh heh. Yes I am.
    Me: Okay, check the box.

    Me: Are you African-American?
    Her: I don’t know no “African-American”. What you mean “African-American”? You mean black?
    Me: Yes. African-American.
    Her: I don’t know no “African-American”. You mean black? Why don’t you just say black?
    Me: Yes. Black. But the government requires me to say “African-American”.
    Her: Pfft. I’m black!
    Me: Then you just check that box, and we’ll both know what it means.
    Her: Ppfft. “African-American”. Whatever.

    I had neighbors in one apartment building, who I’d chat with all the time, that flat-out referred to themselves as “fags”, and referred to the hallway above the garages as “Dyke Alley”.

    A major slogan of the civil rights movement for homosexuals[3] was “We’re here. We’re queer. Get used to it”. Until that point, “queer” was a pejorative.

    A couple years ago a band made up of all Asian performers won the right, in court, to trademark their band name: The Slants.

    Every single time I see an insistence on using a new term to describe a group of people–because it better represents their struggles–it doesn’t come from those people. It usually comes from a bunch of very privileged white people who either work in academia or make a living from writing books about how we’re all bad people and need to do what they say to become good people.

    So… When the person I work with–who has a manly figure, and chest hair–wants to be called Samantha and referred to with female pronouns, I have zero problem[4]. When someone says “We must all use this new term that I have decided is the only correct one”…?

    No.

    =========
    [1] Forever, in my head, pronounced “laTINKS”

    [2] We’ll set aside the issue of being born into slavery for now, as it gets into philosophical territory rather than legal.

    [3] To use the antiquated academic term

    [4] Though… when wearing the babydoll tops, I really want to tell her to shave her chest. But that’s on me.

    4
  22. Mu Yixiao says:

    @Gustopher:

    “from Latin America” is pretty straightforward.

    Why not just “South American”?

    We use African, European, Asian, South-east Asian, Middle Eastern, Scandinavian, Slavic, Eastern European, Mediterranean, etc.

    Why are people from South America defined by their (imposed) language, rather than where they (or their ancestors) come from?

    3
  23. Gustopher says:

    @Mu Yixiao: We group South and Central America. We call that Latin America. So it is a broad geographic reference.

    Yes, there are problems. It’s not perfect, and few people there speak Latin (although Catholicism is pretty strong there…)

    Only 2 percent of those polled refer to themselves as Latinx

    Which 2 percent? It’s the young queers. Latino and Latinx are basically different communities with overlap.

    1
  24. Mu Yixiao says:

    And, one minor point before I head out to enjoy a lovely day:

    words have power

    No. They don’t.

    Word provide leverage in promoting ideas. The ideas have power.

    Take, for example, “The N Word” {insert thunderous sound-effect}. A word SO terrible, it can not be spoken, lest the wrath of the Gods be loosed upon the Earth!

    Except… it’s used all the time in popular music. And within the black community to refer to each other–in both friendly and disparaging ways. And, of course, it’s utterly innocuous in the other 17,000 languages currently used in the world.

    Bitch

    Used by a dog breeder, it’s a neutral descriptive of a female of the species.

    Used by a Harley rider, it’s an affectionate term for his wife or girlfriend*

    Said to my mother… Even as a frail 90-year-old, I would rather not imagine the fury that would be unleashed upon me.

    Ideas have power.
    Words have leverage.

    And this is what all the academics pushing “appropriate language” fail to understand. And what Michael Reynolds understands quite well.

    ========
    * “Riding bitch” refers to sitting behind the driver of a motorcycle, and is a playful insult between friends. If you need to give a friend a ride (e.g., home because he’s had too much to drink), he’s “riding bitch”–riding where [my] girlfriend/wife/random woman usually rides.

    5
  25. Mister Bluster says:

    …who practice Christianity in a particular culturally American way.

    You mean Like this?

    And now people, and now people when I woke up this morning I heard a disturbing sound. I said when I woke up this morning I heard a disturbing sound. What I heard was the jingle-jangle of thousand lost souls…

    (the only sermon that I’ve paid any attention to in the last 40+ years.

    2
  26. JKB says:

    Very naive scholarship in this new language. You’d think they would at least try to encompass reality such as the white women who voluntarily became slaves when they married African slaves. Yes, some marriages were forced on indentured white women, but not all. Such as the well documented case of Elenor “Irish Nell” Butler in 1680s Maryland. The court record is deep with eye-witness testimony that when questioned about becoming a slave by Lord Baltimore, she declared she’s rather marry Charles than the lordship himself. So she married and was a slave as long as she was married and her progeny were slaves. It was the latter suing for emancipation in the 1780s that created the record. But Maryland also had a law enslaving Englishwomen who married a black slave for the duration of the marriage.

    Irish Nell became a slave, although not much changed for her except her indenture no long ended. But who enslaved her? Not her husband’s owner. Did she enslave herself? Or did the colony of Maryland enslave her? Since she didn’t move how did the farm/plantation, etc. she worked at as an indentured servant suddenly become a slave labor camp?

    Scholarly work is suppose to clarify not obfuscate.

    In the historical time, “slave” was a condition. A white women marrying a slave took on the condition of her husband.

    For context of the time. In modern times, minor child status is a condition that governs the relations between the child and others.

    From Bouvier’s Law Dictionary, Revised 6th Ed (1856):

    CONDITION, persons. The situation in civil society which creates certain relations between the individual, to whom it is applied, and one or more others, from which mutual rights and obligations arise. Thus the situation arising from marriage gives rise to the conditions of husband and wife that of paternity to the conditions of father and child.

    1
  27. Andy says:

    @Gustopher:

    We are so used to the word “slave” that it has lost a lot of its power and meaning. We read the word, think briefly of Gone With The Wind and move on.

    and

    Also, using “Hispanic” makes you sound like a government form or a really old person.

    I’d put it the other way around. Referencing Gone With The Wind makes one sound like a really old person – Hispanic, in contrast, is by far the most preferred term favored by actual Hispanics.

    Which 2 percent? It’s the young queers. Latino and Latinx are basically different communities with overlap.

    The same poll found that around 40% of Hispanics found “LatinX” to be an offensive term.

    2
  28. Kurtz says:

    @Jay L Gischer:

    No really, using “enslaved persons” feels very, very white to me.

    I think this sentiment may make the point for a critical theorist.

    These arguments are about interacting social systems–how those manifest in individual behaviors and attitudes.

    An example of a POC explaining the basis for these changes.

    2
  29. Mimai says:

    What is the evidence that these language changes are initiated by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are driven by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are enforced by “academics”?

    These are honest questions — I truly don’t know. I do know that contemporary changes to the English language are largely driven by women, especially young women. And this occurs outside of the academy. Which is not to say that “academics” sit on the sidelines. Yes, they write about and attend to these issues as well. I just wonder how central a role they play in the broader culture.

    I also suspect that when people bemoan the “language police” et al., they are referring to twitter and other social media platforms. I’ve never been a twitter user, so take this with a grain of salt, but my sense is that the epic pile-ons and cancellings over language use are not driven by “academics.”

    3
  30. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mu Yixiao:

    Why not just “South American”?

    Because “Latin American” covers a larger geographic territory by including Mexico, the Central American countries, and various islands in the Carribean Sea and parts of the North Atlantic (as in the part above the equator, not the part around Greenland, Iceland, and the Canadian Maritimes)? Just a suggestion, you understand. Perceive the world whatever way you want. Make “North America” and “actual America” two additional separate regions for all I care.

    1
  31. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @JKB: “Scholarly work is suppose to clarify not obfuscate.”

    You have no idea of how ironic that is in the context of you saying it, do you? I almost couldn’t write my comment because I was laughing so hard.

    5
  32. dazedandconfused says:

    I agree with Michael and would cite Hemingway and an example of the best writing can be simplest. Can anyone imagine Earnest opting for “enslaved person”? Yet who could say Hemingway wasn’t unable to get a message across?

    At least “slave” is gender-neutral…

    3
  33. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Andy: And I would guess that a significant portion of that 40% also find young Latino queers offensive. Maybe the two factors are related and further refinement of how we label people is called for.

    2
  34. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Kurtz: You keep posting stuff like that and you’re going to derail perfectly good post-modernist deconstructions of the changes people are trying to evoke in language. People will start to think that maybe these questions can’t be reduced to “the progs are just virtue signaling.”

    Keep up the good work!

    3
  35. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Mimai: “my sense is that the epic pile-ons and cancellings over language use are not driven by ‘academics’.”

    NOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOOO! [head exploding emoji]

    2
  36. Kurtz says:

    @Mimai:

    What is the evidence that these language changes are initiated by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are driven by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are enforced by “academics”?

    You are in a thread wherein a professional writer who has helped plenty of kids get through tough times by way of his written words arguing that language doesn’t matter.

    We are beyond evidence here.

    5
  37. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker: ding! ding! ding!

    I’d go one step further though… since Latinx has been embraced mostly by the young, queer Latinos*, calling a random Latino “Latinx” is almost akin to calling them queer.

    Lots of people who are vaguely mostly ok with queers existing don’t want to be called queer.

    I don’t think 40% of Latinos actively hate the gays. But, a bit uncomfortable? I’d believe that.

    ——
    *: Particularly the genderqueer group. The “manly gays” eh…

    2
  38. Gustopher says:

    @Kurtz: If fairness to MR, he’s often clear that the same word can be used in both kind and hurtful ways — basically that words don’t have power, the thoughts behind them do, and the same word in different contexts can have different thoughts behind them.

    And that’s not wrong. (I would argue that some words get tied so closely to certain thoughts that it is nearly impossible to not evoke that thought)

    And then his crusty irritation at anyone two steps to the left kicks in.

    Plus he really wanted to use “nigger” in a book. He claims it was for historical accuracy*, but there’s such a long tradition of white men trying to justifiably use the n-word that it’s basically impossible to tell what is historical accuracy, latent bigotry, obvious bigotry, and the intellectual exercise where you get to finally figure out how to get away with the ultimate linguistic taboo**.

    ——
    *: if the book was being sent back in time, to when the readers had a different relationship with the word, I think this would make more sense. Modern readers are going to have a different view of the word, so modern writing should likely adapt.

    **: my use above was aiming at threading the needle to find an appropriate moment to use it, because trying to find the exception to any rule is basically in my nature.

    2
  39. Andy says:

    @Mimai:

    What is the evidence that these language changes are initiated by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are driven by “academics”?
    What is the evidence that they are enforced by “academics”?

    The discussion referenced multiple times in OP specifically talks about this debate in academia (such as professional historians) regarding changing these terms for academic and educational purposes.

    Or, if you want to look at a more obvious example, there is critical race theory and related frameworks, which certainly began in academia before spreading more widely.

    @Kurtz:

    You are in a thread wherein a professional writer who has helped plenty of kids get through tough times by way of his written words arguing that language doesn’t matter.

    Michael can speak for himself, but he has not said that language doesn’t matter. I understand his argument boil down to the notion that creating new, more complicated words for things we already have words for is dumb.

    @Gustopher:

    calling a random Latino “Latinx” is almost akin to calling them queer.

    Lots of people who are vaguely mostly ok with queers existing don’t want to be called queer.

    The term isn’t meant to only apply to queer Latinos. It’s intended to be a replacement for Hispanic and Latino/Latina generally, and that is how it’s commonly used today. See this very recent example from NPR.

    1
  40. Gustopher says:

    @Just nutha ignint cracker:

    Make “North America” and “actual America” two additional separate regions for all I care.

    Gringomerica and Americo de verdad!

  41. Gustopher says:

    @Andy: But the Latinos who use Latinx are the young, queer and queer-friendly Latinos.

    NPR is violating the general rule of “call people what they want to be called.”

    1
  42. Gustopher says:

    @Mimai:

    I also suspect that when people bemoan the “language police” et al., they are referring to twitter and other social media platforms. I’ve never been a twitter user, so take this with a grain of salt, but my sense is that the epic pile-ons and cancellings over language use are not driven by “academics.”

    Today my Twitter feed has people complaining about a new Taylor Swift video where she steps on a scale and it reads “fat”.

    Apparently this is fatphobic and bad. (I mean, it’s clearly fatphobic… she’s showing a fear of being fat, but is it bad? I mean, it’s bad that she has to live in a society where being fat would ruin her career and that she fears it, but is it bad that she publicly acknowledges that fear? I think she has even had an eating disorder at some point, and is acknowledging that…)

    Anyway, some people just want to be offended. It makes them feel powerful and important.

    4
  43. Kurtz says:

    @Andy: @Gustopher:

    I want to be clear that I’m not demonizing MR here. I respect him and his opinion. I should also admit that I did not read the post from yesterday, nor the thread it spawned. But looking at the passage James quoted in OP, it is tough to read it as anything other than dismissive.

    ‘Enslaved Americans.’ Jesus Christ. Six syllables is just so much better than one.

    Definition of ‘enslaved American’? Slave. Translation in our heads? Slave. Is there a point to this circumlocution?

    [. . .]

    Can people just stop fucking with the language to hoist themselves up on a pedagogical pedestal?

    The first passage reduces the issue to linguistic economy. On face, that is an error.

    He then argues he reads it as “slave” in his head and implies that everyone else reads it that way as well. See my reply to Jay L Gischer above, it fits here.

    He rhetorically asks whether there is a point to this circumlocution. (Couldn’t he have used fewer syllables here?) Further, yes, if he bothered to do the work on it, he could easily find explanations through a simple Google search.

    His last line takes a different route, but is equally, if not more, dismissive. He seems to be arguing that the only reason why someone would replace “slave” with a phrase containing more syllables is mere self-aggrandizement. (see above, it’s clear that isn’t the case here.)

    And even worse, “fucking with the language” is silly given the nature of language. It is not static. It never has been. It never will be. He knows that.

    I’m going to stop now, because I could easily get rather insulting about it. And I don’t want to do that, because I think Michael is a good dude and would rather accept the difference in views than be petty and mean.

    5
  44. Andy says:

    @Kurtz:

    He then argues he reads it as “slave” in his head and implies that everyone else reads it that way as well. See my reply to Jay L Gischer above, it fits here.

    While I’m quite sure that not everyone in a country of 330 million people reads “slave” or any word in exactly the same way, “slave” has a common meaning and definition here, and the meaning of the word is literally “a person who is enslaved.”

    I don’t see the point of using the definition of a word in place of the word itself.

    The essay you link to by Briggette Hylton (a person I have not heard of before) says this (emphasis added):

    I know these preferred phrases can be clumsy and, well, wordy, but they strike me as just more accurate and necessary. They should strike you this way, too.

    Since I was a child, the word “slave” has always rubbed me the wrong way. As a student, I remember thinking how wrong it was that the enslaved people in the textbooks I was required to read were referred to almost exclusively as “slaves” and not as people—even if I could not articulate why when I was younger.

    Except slaves are, by definition, people!

    As previously noted, we use a whole lot of words that everyone understands to refer to people, that don’t use the words “people” or “person.” These words developed so that we could relay a precise meaning with a single word instead of multiple words. This is how language works.

    Here’s another word – prisoner, which also is a word that everyone understands to mean “imprisoned person.” Here, at least, there are people in America who are currently prisoners (ie. people experiencing imprisonment) – maybe someone has surveyed them to see what they think?

    Regardless, like slave, it’s unclear what, exactly, would this change would accomplish in the real world.

    3
  45. Just nutha ignint cracker says:

    @Gustopher: I like it! Let’s go with that!

    1
  46. wr says:

    @Mu Yixiao: “Every single time I see an insistence on using a new term to describe a group of people–because it better represents their struggles–it doesn’t come from those people”

    And yet, your two examples directly preceding this statement — queers and Slants — directly contradict what you’re saying.

    3
  47. wr says:

    @Mu Yixiao: “I would also point out that there is a factual difference between “enslaver” and “slave owner”. “Enslaving” is a transformative act–it changes a free person into an enslaved person. That was done by Africans in Africa. The slave owners in the US maintained the state of slavery, but did not initiate it[2]. To insist that white people did the enslaving completely ignores the primary influence of Africans in the economy of slavery (those slave ships weren’t sailing from Raleigh to Atlanta, after all).”

    Thank God you are here to absolve upstanding, God-fearing white folks for any blame in the slave trade. After all, they only bought and sold and raped and murdered people they insisted they owned. It was those no-good Blacks who did the real harm!

    3
  48. wr says:

    @dazedandconfused: “I agree with Michael and would cite Hemingway and an example of the best writing can be simplest”

    Hemingway is great. So is Shakespeare. So is Conrad. Just because Hemingway wrote in simple declarative sentences and was also a great writer does not mean that great writing is to be defined as writing in simple declarative sentences. It’s like those people who go from “Elmore Leonard is great” to “Elmore Leonard is the definition of greatness and anything else is just bad.”

    1
  49. dazedandconfused says:

    @wr:

    “Can be” shouldn’t be confused with “must be”.

  50. Mimai says:

    @Andy:

    You are, of course, correct to note that this specific article, referred to academics. This example is relevant to my first question about the initiators. And I guess am just hoping (in vain I suspect) for evidence beyond this article. Especially because I see this charge — “woke academics are igniting/stoking all these cultural flames” — a lot.

    You also bring up critical theories as “a more obvious example.” I’m not so sure. Seems to me that theorists, ahem, people who theorize — focus more on ideas than on language dictates, much less policing. But that to just be my perception.

    All that said, I remain skeptical (and open) that “academics” are the problem* here. Of course, I could be biased. No doubt am.

    *To the extent that there is a problem.

  51. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    It is the strawiest of straw men to state that since linguistic changes didn’t stop George Flloyd’s death that none of this matters. It borders on the absurd as an argument, to be honest.

    Baloney. Why make semantic changes that have absolutely no effect in the real world? Why indeed make any ‘change’ when no change actually occurs? What does it matter if I call a tangerine a satsuma? Does it alter the taste or nutritional content? You must say tangerine! Otherwise. . . um. . . nothing. Otherwise nothing. No effect.

    I have no patience with empty gestures, with self-congratulatory virtue signaling, with the auto-inflation of intellectuals who’ve evidently run out of useful things to do but have a crying need to be seen as doing something, even when their something is nothing.

    Passenger: Captain, we’re heading for an iceberg!
    Captain: Actually, glacial mass is the preferred term.
    Passenger: Well, I am relieved.

    2
  52. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    Indeed, as I always note in these debates with MR, and to the title of this post, words have power and I always find it kind of odd that a person who makes a living writing doesn’t concede that point a bit more than he does.

    So on the one hand you angrily deny that changing word choice should be expected to have any real world effect. And on the other, words have power. Power, but with no effect. Thanks for that clarification, professor.

    2
  53. Michael Reynolds says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:
    One other thing: no, words do not have power, that’s imprecise, just a cliché. Ideas have power. Words are tools we use to express ideas. The power is in the idea. It’s not the tool, it’s what we do with it. Which is why the slave does not give a fuck what you call him, he just wants to be free. If the power was in the word then we could have no words that have double meanings. We would not have words that mean radically different things depending on context.

    See, that’s the thing I know cuz I are a writer and not a perfessor.

    2
  54. @Michael Reynolds: So, basically, guns don’t kill people, people kill people and so gun control is irrelevant.

    1
  55. @Michael Reynolds: Not baloney at all. Your argument is,. literally, since George Floyd was killed that proves that language doesn’t matter.

    It’s a straw man full stop.

    1
  56. @Michael Reynolds:

    See, that’s the thing I know cuz I are a writer and not a perfessor.

    If you are taking my calling you a “writer” as some kind of insult, you are rather mistaken. I hold your craft in the highest of esteem. I respect you as well.

    Which is why the slave does not give a fuck what you call him, he just wants to be free.

    Well, indeed.

    But that’s not the argument, now it is? The argument is how language might get broader society to think about slavery and American history. It is clearly not about how people from the past might have wanted to be described.

    2
  57. James Joyner says:

    @Michael Reynolds:

    Why make semantic changes that have absolutely no effect in the real world? Why indeed make any ‘change’ when no change actually occurs?

    So, what if semantic change ultimately does have a real-world effect?

    The fact that we now refer to George Floyd as a “Black man” rather than a “nigger” didn’t save his life. That much is true. That doesn’t mean the semantic change doesn’t matter.

    I agree with you that, at whatever moment we decided “nigger” was verboten, racists who stopped using that word and substituted “colored” or “Black” or whatever didn’t stop hating Blacks. But, over time, it led to real normative change. Most white folks now think of Black folks as real human beings, worthy of equal treatment under our laws and being treated as fully human.

    Fifty years ago, were there somehow a video of Derek Chauvin slowly choking the life out of Floyd, polite society would likely still have been horrified. But they’d have dismissed it as, “Well, he was just a nigger, after all.” Instead, a police officer was not only charged with murder but unanimously convicted by a jury that had six white members.

    The idea that a change must be rejected unless it constitutes a full and perfect solution has long been recognized as a logical fallacy.

    1
  58. Andy says:

    @Mimai:

    The purpose of academia and universities is, ostensibly, to generate new ideas. Some of those ideas are going to be good, and some of them are going to be bad. Some of them will have use in the real world outside of a university setting, while others will not.

    I have no problem with academia, I only have a problem with some of the ideas it generates, especially when they are portrayed as necessary for society at large to adopt on the basis of thin evidence, and that failure to adopt them suggests the person who refuses is morally suspect. This debate about slave vs enslaved person fits that for me. There is precious little evidence that changing the word “slave” to something else will have any real effect, but like other language changes that come from elite spaces, it will be used to separate the right-thinking from the wrong-thinking.

    You also bring up critical theories as “a more obvious example.” I’m not so sure. Seems to me that theorists, ahem, people who theorize — focus more on ideas than on language dictates, much less policing. But that to just be my perception.

    Critical Theory and CRT are obvious examples because they have existed in the university, academic, and elite spaces for a very long time (I remember learning about Critical Theory in college in the late 1980’s.) As analytical methods for academics and students to abstract and deconstruct ideas, it’s fine.

    What I object to is the attempted operationalization of these ideas outside of academia. I have the same objection to Marxism, which is related to CR and CRT – it’s an interesting and useful frame for abstract thinking about ideas, but it’s a disaster when people try to apply it.

    That’s where I put a lot of these attempts to change language that come out of elite spaces.

  59. Andy says:

    @Steven L. Taylor:

    The argument is how language might get broader society to think about slavery and American history. It is clearly not about how people from the past might have wanted to be described.

    So it’s an attempt at social engineering. Thanks for clearing that up.

    @James Joyner:

    I agree with you that, at whatever moment we decided “nigger” was verboten, racists who stopped using that word and substituted “colored” or “Black” or whatever didn’t stop hating Blacks. But, over time, it led to real normative change. Most white folks now think of Black folks as real human beings, worthy of equal treatment under our laws and being treated as fully human.

    What’s the evidence that changing words or language caused this change in attitude among whites, as opposed to more obvious explanations with much more evidentiary support? Why doesn’t the causality work the other way around – that changes in attitudes among whites are what caused the change in how we perceive certain words?

    The entire basis of the argument that changing words changes society hinges on the idea that elites deciding to alter the meaning of words and then enforcing their use through social opprobrium will trickle down to the rest of society and change attitudes and values. I don’t see any evidence for this theory, but if you have some, please present it.

    And the new post on the word retarded is a case in point. The mentally disabled have had lots of words used to describe them over a long period of time, and those words have, over time, changed their meaning and context. Retarded used to be the kind, medically appropriate, politically correct alternative to words like moron, imbecile, and others that were also considered appropriate in their day. Retarded changed from a word that was meant to be non-judgmental like “mentally disabled” is currently, to a word that can’t even be mentioned in news reporting. What is the evidence that these changes in how words are perceived and interpreted over time actually resulted in changed attitudes toward the mentally disabled?

    And what if the pattern continues and “mentally disabled” becomes a pejorative to be replaced by something else? Today’s terms of modernity and enlightenment can easily become unspeakable in short order.

  60. Mimai says:

    @Andy:
    Thanks for your characteristically thoughtful response. This would be a fun conversation to extend in person, as we likely have some convergent and divergent perspectives that would make for interesting word play. Alas, I am not so invested to pursue this further in written form. So I’ll let this be the end of it. For now. Cheers.

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