Margot Libertini: The left's linguistic barrier

Thursday, March 15, 2018 - 5:37pm

My life largely exists within my happy liberal bubble. I am a philosophy and international studies student at one of the world’s leading public universities. I am politically active within the Democratic Party; nearly all of my friends are pro-choice, liberal, feminist Democrats. And anytime you see me walking on campus or running on a treadmill, chances are high that a podcast produced by Vox, NPR or Crooked Media is playing in my headphones. For these reasons, I am fluent in the way that liberals speak. I know that when I’m referring to women’s issues, I cannot say female because that refers to biological sex and not chosen gender. I know that we call Nazis white supremacists and not their chosen name “alt-right.” I know that we say “survivors” and not “victims,” and that when introducing myself I should always provide my pronouns as well. I have no qualms with living and speaking in this way — I want to be as inclusive and intersectional as possible in my activism and existence as a whole. I have committed to a life of feminism and social justice advocacy. Therefore, it should be the expectation that I know how to eloquently and correctly speak on the issues.
Most Americans have not decided that they want to spend their lives advocating for these causes. I understand that there is privilege in not being super politically engaged, but there is also privilege in our activism and our language. After 2016, many Americans came to realize that it was past time to step up and march, speak out and hopefully, come November, vote. This meant that many people who had previously abstained from any political affiliation or activism were deciding to let their voices be heard by publicly opposing our predator-in-chief. There were definitely problems with a lot of the new-found Democrats, such as the 2017 Women’s March, which was marked by pussy hats and bourgeois white feminism, while women of color and transgender women were marginalized within a movement they founded. So, more seasoned activists and SJWs rightly resisted their entrance into the territory.
It’s March 2018, and we have less than eight months until the midterms and two years until presidential primaries. I desperately want Democrats back in charge of all branches of government. I want protections for Dreamers, for the phrases “chain migration,” “repeal and replace” and “defund Planned Parenthood” to die hard, for the State Department to be funded and staffed, for the White House to be free of domestic and sexual abusers, for the tax cuts and bank de-regulations to end and more. But we cannot get this critical work done with the votes and organizing of the far-left activists alone. We need to find a way to welcome those who have been absent.
I believe the first step to this is to be forgiving in our language and customs. The host of “Stuff Mom Never Told You,” Bridget Todd, once emphasized “calling in.” I think this is a good place to start. When someone says something that feels a little off, maybe even blatantly problematic, we can start with the assumption that they were well-intentioned. The language surrounding social issues is legitimately hard to learn and understand, so taking 30 seconds to softly explain why phrasing something slightly differently would be more inclusive might be a useful and worthwhile approach. But too often, the left attacks. There is much to be mad about right now, but attacking those who are on our side feels entirely unproductive.
For example, in early 2017, Chimimanda Ngozi Adiche (yes, the amazing Nigerian-American feminist most famous for her TED talk and novel, “Americanah”), came under fire for comments she made about transgender women. She said, “‘Are trans women women?’ My feeling is trans women are trans women.” To me and others, this appeared as though she meant trans women are not “real” women. If that were what she meant, that would definitely be a transphobic view and I would not consider her a feminist icon any longer. But in clarifying her comments, she said that all she meant is that trans women have different experiences than ciswomen, but that “cis” had never been in her vocabulary before. She claimed that the left is guilty of “language orthodoxy,” and that it is exclusionary.
In that regard, I believe she is right. Ngozi Adiche is a Nigerian-American, and “cisgender” is a term largely used in upper-class, Western contexts. Most of the language I have been talking about is used in these contexts. So, if we liberals truly aim to de-Westernize and to be advocates for the lower classes, I don’t think we can attack those who do not enter liberal circles already knowing the language.
Margot Libertini can be reached at mliberti@umich.edu.