Melissa Harris-Perry: This is The Takeaway. I'm Melissa Harris-Perry in for Tanzina Vega. Listen you all, can we talk? I mean really talk. Now, the answer to that question depends on whether we share the same language. These days, it can be hard to feel that we do. For example, "Brah, you're killing it," could be the highest phrase or a troubling trigger.
John McWhorter: Wait. Did you say trigger?
Melissa: Yes, like the triggers of victims of violence experience.
John: Victims? Don't you mean survivors?
Melissa: Yes, okay, survivors, but listen, killing it is just something a lot of people of color say.
John: Wait. People of what?
Melissa: [chuckles] See what I mean? Again, can we talk? I'm joined now by John McWhorter, a contributing writer at The Atlantic, who also teaches linguistics at Columbia University, hosts the podcast Lexicon Valley, and is the author of Nine Nasty Words: English in the Gutter Then, Now and Always. Welcome, John.
John: Thank you, Melissa. I'm happy to be here.
Melissa: I'm so thrilled to talk with you. You've recently authored a piece in The Atlantic. It was about this oppressive language list published by the Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center at Brandeis. To be clear, it wasn't an institutional rule or mandate, but you did see it as a sign of the times. Talk to me about that.
John: We're in a time when we're often told that policing language is part of making the world better, that policing language is part of a concerned progressive agenda. That sort of thing is argued so passionately that it's easy to forget that it's really just a proposition. Of course, language can nudge thought along to an extent. It makes perfect sense to me that we might call all people who are heroic heroes instead of having a word like heroine, or calling all people who act actors instead of having an idea that an actress is something different, but there comes a point when somebody who has a hammer sees everything as a nail.
We're at a point where we're told that we have to watch what seems like every third thing we say. That opening audio montage really expressed it better than I can. I really think that we need to do a thought experiment. Think about a real progressive who had ideals that I think most of us would agree with. Think about Emma Goldman and think about the things that she was doing. I imagine presenting to Emma Goldman something like that list of terms that you're not supposed to use from Brandeis or, in general, taking Emma Goldman into our times and showing her the way we urge one another to police our language, she would think it was utterly ridiculous. She would say, "Honey, forget it."
We're supposed to be out in the world doing real things, helping people who need help. This business of policing the way people express themselves and hearing obscure resonances in terms and pretending to be hurt by things has nothing to do with putting food in anybody's mouth. I think, frankly, she wasn't from another time and primitive and unenlightened. I think she was right. We're taking things a little bit too seriously, these days.
Melissa: Could it be a bit of a both-and? What I love, whenever I talk with you or listen to you talk about language, is your sense that language is living, that words do go out of favor because we have collectively decided that we're not going to use them. Apparently, adverbs now. [chuckles] They also come into being. For me, it's part of the joy and creativity of Black folk has to do with the ways that we have shaped and molded multiple languages, but certainly the English language, and created new words. Might it be that in fact some words we get policed out just not by the rules of institutions?
John: Yes. I think that we need to consider that when we change words, often, we're just postponing what's going to be the same problem. For example, Negro. That changes to Black and that was fine. It meant that Negro had accreted certain negative associations in the eyes of many, and so we were going to replace that with a more positive term, Black, and also take Black back from the idea that there's something wrong with something being Black as opposed to white, dirty as opposed to clean.
Then 25 years later, African American comes in, the idea being that Black has negative associations, African American expresses who we are better. Now we seem to be in a time when African American is going out of style. I suppose the idea is that it has negative associations with it, stereotypes that we need a new term to encourage a new way of seeing us. It seems like we're going back to Black except the idea is that it's with a capital letter. It seems to me that really, we need to work on the associations rather than thinking so much about the terminology. This is not just a Black thing, this is an Anglophone leftist culture issue these days that I think we might need to reconsider.
Melissa: Sure. It's interesting as you talk about Negro, Afro American, African American Black. For me as a writer, whether it is times when I'm actually being productive enough to write several thousand words in a week, or whether I'm grading and reading tens of thousands of words, I just always want more words. I want to have as many words as possible to say all the possible things.
I might want to use Negro if I'm talking about a specific time period. Then Afro American if I'm talking about folks who are actually engaged in thinking of themselves in those terms. Is there a way that we can introduce, rather than policing, a way to think about how we can use all the words in language but in ways that are purposely not meant to harm?
John: I think, yes, we can do that. We can be more vigilant than, say, Emma Goldman may have been about whether or not words can harm, but not to the point that what we're really doing is playing a little game that you can almost imagine kids playing in the backseat of the car in the '70s and '80s before there was an internet, where you come up with labored ways that words might be hurtful, such as looking up that rule of thumb may have, although it didn't, come from an idea that a British man was allowed to hurt his wife with something as long as it wasn't as broad as a thumb.
Somebody at Brandeis actually looked that up, found that actually rather silly story, and decided that we should stop saying rule of thumb. That's taking it too far. When you take these things too far, what happens is, as you're implying, your stanching creativity. It gets to the point where we can't use the full resources of our language. For example, I too read student's papers. I too write a lot every week. We can't do that because there's almost always a way that you can come up with a way that words are hurtful.
For example, the Brandeis document says, "Don't say crazy because that's not polite to people who have that mental problem for real. Say bananas." You know what's next. It's going to be that, "You can't use bananas because it's dismissive and it also is probably not respectful of people who make their living picking bananas." That's literally something somebody might come up with. There's always something. We're taking it too far. Yes, what it means is that you end up stanching our basic human creativity. That's especially the fact when people are being artistic, when people are expressing their subculture, when people are just being human. This is an inhuman way of treating the gift of language.
Melissa: I want to leave room just for the one possibility that there may be words that we individually make a choice not to use. For me, no contribution is ever seminal, it's always ovarian. [chuckles] I get, John, the ways in which that's silly. I wouldn't ever take it away from other folks. It's a valuable word. It's just not one that MHP uses. John McWhorter is a contributing writer at The Atlantic. I always appreciate talking with you and about language with you. Thanks for joining us today.
John: I avoid that word too because I don't know how to say it, and thank you for having me.
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