One of the quirks of people on the leftish end of the political spectrum is that we pay a lot of attention to language, especially to the words we use when we’re talking about a group of people. It’s a quirk that folks on the right know how to exploit. Let me explain…

A couple years ago, I worked on a project to make Loomio more accessible for people who are blind. I learned that there’s a big difference between saying “people who are blind” and “blind people”. Maybe it doesn’t make any difference to you, but for some folks, “people who are blind” emphasises the person and names one of their attributes, whereas “blind people” sounds like you’re reducing a whole group of complex people down to one attribute. There are many examples like this, whether it’s about people’s abilities, gender, ethnicity, whatever: I try to say “women” instead of “ladies”, “y’all” instead of “guys”, the list goes on.

Unfortunately, being careful with your language can backfire in many different ways. From a political strategy perspective, it’s an easy quirk to exploit.

When we take care with the words that we use, I would call that “being considerate”, but people have gotten a lot of mileage by relabelling “being considerate” as “political correctness” (here’s a browser extension to switch it back). These days, “special snowflake” is an even more effective political insult, exploiting the same dynamic. Essentially, the claim is that we’re “overly sensitive” (whatever that means), and we pay too much attention to words when there are much more important things to focus on. Rationally, it’s a dumb argument, but it’s very effective, partly due to this thing called “shame”. (I can feel ashamed when someone asks me to be more considerate with my language, so it’s a lot easier for me to dismiss them with a veiled insult rather than confront how my behaviour might be causing harm.)

When you’re in a community that puts a high value on using the “right” words for everything, a kind of local dialect can emerge. This can make your group unwelcoming to newcomers, who will feel embarrassed about saying the wrong thing. Again, from a political strategy perspective, that’s counter-productive if you’re trying to recruit people who don’t already know the lingo. The dialect can create internal problems too, as people inside your group gain status simply by using the right words for things (virtue signalling).

So all of this is just a disclaimer: while I take care of the language I use, I don’t spend a lot of time policing other people. Peter Block says “all transformation is linguistic”, which is a phrase worth meditating on. I think word choice is incredibly important, and also I think it’s usually not useful for me to tell people what words they should or shouldn’t use. So with all that introduction, I’m going to tell you about a word that really bugs me: America.

Wherever I go, I meet people who say “America” when they mean “the United States of America”. How many articles have you read about “North America” where the author clearly forgot about Mexico? I do it too: here’s a story I wrote a couple months ago where I’m talking about “US Americans”, but the word I used was “Americans”. Now I’m reading The Open Veins of Latin America, it’s got me paying more attention, due to passages like this:

“Along the way we have even lost the right to call ourselves Americans, although the Haitians and the Cubans appeared in history as new people a century before the Mayflower pilgrims settled on the Plymouth coast. For the world today, America is just the United States; the region we inhabit is a sub-America, a second-class America of nebulous identity.”

Eduardo Galeano in The Open Veins of Latin America

It might take a little effort to train myself to stop saying “Americans” when I mean “US Americans”, but the lexical effort is symbolic of my intention to grow a different perspective.

The word choice is a little a reminder, a note to self: there’s no such place as America. I’m in the Americas. Plural.

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2 Comments Make America Plural Again: The Paradox of Choosing Your Words Carefully

  1. AvatarEric Schechter

    I often use the term “USers” instead of “Americans.” Note the careful choice of which letters are capitalized. I pronounce it “you ess urs.” Admittedly, it’s a sort of inside joke, both in mocking people of the USA for trying to take over the word “American,” and mocking people of the USA for being too materialist in the worst senses of the word.

  2. AvatarPaul Mulligan

    Bravo! Your points about how we liberal-leaning folks use language is spot-on. I too, try to be very conscious of my own speech, but don’t police others. Thank you for the insightful article.

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