The Washington Post
Sierra Club’s language guide doesn’t offend — or persuade
It would be easy to sit back and idly ridicule the Sierra Club’s “Equity Language Guide,” the latest attempt among leftist institutions to contort the English lexicon into something that can’t hurt anyone’s feelings.
I won’t, for the same reason the Sierra Club objects to canned hunting: There’s nothing noble about taking down easy prey just for the sport of it.
There is, however, a substantive argument to be made that the new language of social justice is bound to become an exercise in self-sabotage, namely because it contradicts the other thing that leftists are always telling us they care so much about: science.
The Sierra Club’s 27-page language guide, which George Packer dissected in the Atlantic last week, sits atop a pile of other recent handbooks that seek to forcibly modernize speech through a series of Maoist dictates. I wrote about the American Medical Association’s valiant effort in 2021.
Here, again, the left cautions against using “manmade” and “you guys” and “migrant,” replacing them with “humancaused” and “y’all” and “person seeking citizenship.” You can’t say someone is a “native New Yorker” because apparently context doesn’t matter if a word just sounds ugly on its own.
Many of these old terms should be retired on the basis that they’re bad writing anyway, but the left isn’t after cleaner prose. The actual goal is to make writing a kind of performance, something people use to signal that they are better and more compassionate than those who insist on writing without an equity guide.
In his excellent Atlantic piece, Packer makes what he calls the “moral case against equity language” — essentially, that language stripped of its imagery and specificity renders its subjects remote, which in many cases makes it harder for us to sympathize with the very people whose feelings the Sierra Club is trying to protect.
I agree — but there’s a strategic case to be made as well. Language calibrated not to offend is pretty much guaranteed not to persuade anybody of anything, either.
This is not a right-wing idea. Until recently, it was a centerpiece of leftist thought. Almost 20 years ago, I wrote a New York Times Magazine cover story about the linguist George Lakoff, who had written a book called “Don’t Think of an Elephant!” (If you’re old enough to have voted for John F. Kerry, you’ll probably find a copy on your bookshelf.)
In the process, Lakoff became the most influential academic in the Democratic Party. The party’s congressional leaders at the time, most notably Nancy Pelosi, invited him to address their members and used his advice to craft their opposition to President George W. Bush’s plan to privatize Social Security.
Lakoff, a now-retired Berkeley professor who pioneered the connections between language and brain activity, argued that humans — a category that includes most voters — process arguments principally through the use of metaphors that are hardwired into our synapses.
So, for instance, we refer to relationships in terms of journeys — “we’ve come to the end of the road” and so on — because that metaphor is imprinted on our brains. Making an argument about a relationship in more clinical terms wouldn’t have the same effect because the brain isn’t conditioned to hear it.
The ideas Lakoff popularized fit neatly into a modern theory of brain science known as “embodied cognition.” I’m not exactly Bill Nye the Science Guy (having failed high school physics), but the basic idea is that all aspects of cognition — sensory function, motor skills, abstract thought — are deeply interwoven. Certain metaphors and images have become so embedded in our circuitry that they automatically trigger a visceral response.
Let’s look at how this applies to, say, the section of the Sierra Club’s guide that deals with ableism. We’re not supposed to say that legislators are “blind” or “deaf ” to an idea because that could be hurtful to those who lack sight or hearing. We’re not supposed to say we “stand” with someone or that a politician is “paralyzed by fear” because not everyone has movement.
The pragmatic problem for an advocacy group is that metaphors such as these exist for a reason: We process them physically. When you tell me that you “stand” with someone, my brain simulates the act of standing and formulates an emotional response.
If, on the other hand, you tell me to “be in solidarity” (which is the Sierra Club’s preferred replacement), it stimulates nothing. I’m likely to deflect it as a bunch of political blather.
The Sierra Club and all the other language cops out there might consider the implications of this before they go cleansing their arguments of any image that might exclude somebody. Their primary job isn’t to show off their virtue and sensitivity. It’s to convince people who don’t already agree with them that their cause — in this case, protecting the environment — is worth supporting.
The school of embodied cognition tells us that it may be hard to do both things at once. And if your zeal for social justice gets in the way of persuading the public, that’s a human-caused failure for sure.