When is socially-conscious language just racist euphamism?

Recently, I’ve seen a couple different variations on this meme:

The concept here is important – certain aspects of what we consider “poor grammar” in American English are actually grammatically consistent features of dialects that derive from Black communities. (Here’s a brief example of the influence of the Gullah Geechee language on modern English.) Americans raised in the school system here are generally familiar with the pedantic adherence to arbitrary grammar rules, such as the difference between “can” and “may”. As with many aspects of standardized modern education, these rules exist not only coincidentally with, but for the purpose of assimilation and establishing class markers. So, there is a valid argument to be made for abandoning strict grammar rules altogether and recognizing the fluid nature of English.

But where this meme goes into complicated socially-conscious territory is in invoking the concept of code switching. Code switching, the ability to move between communication in multiple registers based on language and culture, is a product of assimilation – people who code switch do so because their native language and culture are not generally accepted in the society in which they live, and so they have been forced by circumstance or education to adopt a second set. So, code switching is not necessarily a good thing – it has a purpose, but it also reflects inherent social inequalities. By actively encouraging code switching, as this meme does, teachers are participating in the same project of assimilation that grammar and language education have always served, they are just calling it something different. But still there are good reasons to encourage grammar education: 1) learning the mechanics of a language helps us use it more effectively and creatively, and 2) common standards across a language allow everyone speaking that language to understand one another. So where is the line between supporting diversity and maintaining common standards?

This kind of invocation of socially-conscious language without considering the implications is pretty typical throughout modern liberalism and social justice. My favorite example is the effort to rebrand the calendar designations of BC (Before Christ) and AD (Anno Domini, “in the year of the Lord”) to BCE (Before Common Era) and CE (Common Era). The difference between these terms is largely meaningless, because their usage is exactly the same. But the argument over whether or not to use them is steeped in the combination of un-self-critical adherence to “scholarly objectivity” and the debate between inclusion of diverse backgrounds and acknowledgement of Christianity in our culture. From my perspective, I think using BCE/CE is silly because it does nothing to change the idea that the Christian Gregorian calendar is considered the universal standard (just because that calendar has no basis in Christian liturgy itself doesn’t mean that its not part of Christianity). The problem here is that while I don’t think the Christian standard should be universal, I also don’t think that just relabeling fixes the problem. I made this same argument talking about the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays”.

But I have to recognize that in our political discourse, the very arguments I’m making often serve fundamentalist perspectives that want to impose a white Christian cultural standard on everyone. As usual, I find myself making a nuanced argument that isn’t easily memified. I’ve been struggling with how to articulate this idea for a while now. I’ve tried three different ways to write a post about how conservative culture uses secularism as a weapon to quash expressions of diversity, but I’m finding that it’s too big and too complex a topic to argue eloquently in a blog post.

What I’m describing is an insidious way that we enforce uniformity, by paying lip-service to an idea, either by acknowledging it without action or by giving it a hyper-specific but ultimately meaningless distinction, so that we can then continue doing what we were doing without guilt. I keep coming back to this concept of distinction without difference when liberals talk about patriotism. This particularly came up around Obama’s rhetoric, from way back in the 2004 DNC speech that launched his national career to a 2017 speech. I’ve seen it summed up the most in some form of this meme of a Teddy Roosevelt quote:

Even though the purpose of this meme is to justify the kind of criticism that the left levies on the country, especially the current administration, it’s kind of the political equivalent of “no homo“. It says, “I’m going to criticize this country because I believe it does shitty things, but don’t worry, I’m not a communist”. It reinforces the standard that you should love your country, even as it justifies criticizing it. But do you need to love your country to point out its faults? Isn’t it enough that you live in it? By inventing this distinction between patriotism and nationalism, where patriotism allows room for criticism, it removes the teeth from liberal criticisms by couching them in declarations of undying love. It’s still nationalism, it’s still devotion to the idea of a country that is itself a construct.

These are word games, rhetorical devices that encourage the status quo under the guise of challenging it. It’s a strange reversal, pretending to be revolutionary. A quiet riot. But maybe it’s a good reminder of how strong the pull of the status quo is, how difficult it really is to do things differently. Socially-conscious language is comforting but meaningless if it comes without action. These kinds of rhetorical devices help keep us feeling safe and comfortable by introducing our brains to the idea of change without actually forcing us to change. So maybe in the long run they have an impact, when we get so used to an idea that we don’t need to be convinced of it anymore. But oftentimes, these kinds of rhetorical devices don’t have an impact, they just help us hide our problems a little deeper. Rhetorical changes are useful if it means having a real conversation about what needs to change socially, but let’s not pretend that changing our vocabulary changes our society.