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The Style Guide for Progressives That Will Make You Rethink Your Language

Last year, NPR published a blog post titled “Help A Blind Person Identify Everyday Things.” This sort of language is fairly common, probably not something that would offend most people. Yet referring to individuals as blind first, and a person second, could suggest that their disability is the primary thing that defines them. Instead, many prefer that writers refer to the subject as a person who is blind.

Of course, there are some people who view this as unnecessary political correctness. It’s a difficult and constant challenge to know what terminology you’re supposed to use when you refer to different groups. Maybe you’re sensitive to language focused on race, but you don’t fully understand how to talk about immigrants or the disabled. As a result of this lack of awareness, you might inadvertently fall back on offensive terms.

To address these issues, Hanna Thomas of SumOfUs and Anna Hirsch of Activist Editor have created a comprehensive resource called A Progressive’s Style Guide.

We also got the chance to talk to Hirsch about the best way for editors and writers to make use of the guide, how realistic it is to be politically correct at all times, and who this guide is ultimately for.

Was there a specific experience that spurred you to create the guide?

Hanna had been working on a listserv that we’re both a part of. I saw it, and I was like, “Oh my god, I need to be a part of this thing.” I saw it from a place of hope so that people on the left can talk better about the intersection of different causes.

I wanted people who are on the left, and are working on the left, to feel more confident talking to each other about issues that overlap. If you are working on immigration rights, you also need to know a lot about anti-racism, because people’s lives are complicated and complex. And there might be people who are disabled who are immigrating—and you need to know that language, as well. For me, that’s the point of putting this tool together. The goal is to get that conversation going more.

Have you heard from editors who decided to take your advice about the use of progressive language?

I haven’t come across anyone yet who says that A Progressive’s Style Guide shouldn’t exist. And if they did, they’re probably on the other side politically. They would probably think that we shouldn’t be doing this work. Otherwise, people have really liked the idea that we need to learn how to talk across issues.

Some people say that they don’t love the layout, or they have questions about the thoroughness of it. People are having rich conversations about how the guide could be even better, and they’re talking respectfully to each other in comment threads about different ideas they have. We’ve also gotten some feedback that having all this info in one place is really useful. And we have been told repeatedly that people have learned things for the first time about language that they want to change in their own writing.

Some editors might argue that using certain language can compromise a story or force them to use language that hurts the quality of the writing. What happens when you have to replace a term that you don’t expect anyone to find offensive with something that takes up more space and might be more politically correct?

The main idea of this work, for me, isn’t to catalogue what you should and shouldn’t say on the left. It’s an attempt to say, “Well, we’re all working on the left, but we kind of got siloed.” One person is doing stuff with the environment, and I’m over here working on stuff about racism. And we don’t live our lives that way. We don’t live issue by issue. But we’re still kind of working that way. There needs to be a way to talk to each other at those intersections.

Knowing each other’s language for different issues, as progressives, is really important. This is an attempt to make us more aware of each other.

However, the guide isn’t just about specific words to use or not to use. It’s not a rule book, it’s a guide. Part of the guidance is a request for the reader to practice stopping and thinking before we use words, to accept the extra struggle of taking the time to think more deeply about how we are using language, and that this extra time and effort is part of how we make positive change.

Are there any particular articles in the news recently that you think use language that isn’t progressive? Why is the piece harmful to a particular, or multiple, groups?

For me, this isn’t about using the right language. The problem isn’t that people aren’t using progressive language, it’s that they don’t know the language of each other’s issues. So I think that someone who is writing an article for Democracy for America about anti-racism is going to do a bang up job talking about anti-racism, yet they might not remember how to frame an issue that has to do with a black person in America who is also disabled.

This guide, in my mind, is not geared toward the right at all. I’m not saying that those people shouldn’t use it, but that doesn’t quite make sense to me. The guide is for progressive causes and activists who are working on the left. That doesn’t mean that people shouldn’t pick it up and learn something from it, or decide to fight for people’s rights, but I just don’t see someone who scoffs at progressivism making use of this guide.

Have you had a personal experience where the language in a piece made you feel marginalized or lesser?

We understand that language evolves. But there is resistance to the evolution as well. I am interested in that resistance.

I identify as a woman, but most of the time I don’t identify with femininity. I like being called “they.” In conversations with friends, professional conversations, and in writing, I have been told repeatedly that when I raise this issue about my own identity I am inconveniencing others. This is a way of shutting me down further. This can be for different reasons, to maintain power by others who don’t want to change and perhaps want me to maintain a “feminine” role, or perhaps shutting me down helps others not have to feel uncomfortable trying out new ideas and language. Perhaps some people are simply doing and saying things they learned to do without thinking too much about it.

I don’t generally feel much anger about this process, though I understand it when people do feel anger in response to being told that their choice of language for themselves isn’t allowed or is bad. I want to change the game so that there aren’t losers and winners. I want there to be a game where we are all able to find out more about each other. To play that game, we all have to be willing to go some new places.

Because people can take offense at so much, should you even try? Where do you draw the line with using politically correct language? Is there a particular example of progressive language that you find to be too much?

The central idea of intersectionality is to make more complex narratives. Language needs to reflect that humans have complex experiences.

Go ahead and write your piece, but be willing to understand that you might be writing in a way that doesn’t include some people. Then think about how you can be more inclusive in your storytelling in the future. This isn’t about right versus wrong. We want people to deepen their thinking about how we use language. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t write the thing that you need to write. Just be willing to reflect.

I don’t use the phrase politically correct language. Today this phrase often has a connotation, especially on the right, of people being language police and creating rules and shutting people down. Again, that’s not what I’m up to. In fact, that is the opposite of what this guide is up to—we’re opening up a conversation. What I want writers and editors to do is keeping doing the good work! And let part of that be opening up a bit more and a bit more when possible to examining our patterns of language, learning about each other and each other’s choices of language, and sharing the experience and power of language over time.

This interview has been lightly edited and condensed.

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