The left mustn’t get hung up over language orthodoxy – we must be welcoming
28th March 2017
Does the left have a problem with “language orthodoxy”? The feminist author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie thinks so — after she was criticised on social media and by other public figures following her comments on transgender women, she attributed much of the negative reaction not to genuine difference of opinions, but to seemingly arbitrary rules the left has imposed on language. During an interview with Channel 4, Adichie said: “I think if you’ve lived in the world as a man with the privileges that the world accords to men and then sort of change gender, it’s difficult for me to accept that then we can equate your experience with the experience of a woman who has lived from the beginning as a woman and who has not been accorded those privileges that men are. ” She was accused of failing to listen to the experiences of trans women and of equivocating over the fact that trans women are women.
Following the backlash, Adichie defended herself during a public appearance in Washington DC. She argued: “This is fundamentally about language orthodoxy. There’s a part of me that resists this sort of thing because I don’t think it’s helpful to insist that unless you want to use the exact language I want you to use, I will not listen to what you’re saying.
” She singled out “cis” and “intersectionality” as words that are overly academic, and suggested that if feminists failed to regurgitate statements about gender, they risked being traduced as bigots. While I was disappointed by Adichie’s original comments about trans women (it’s worth noting she clarified that “trans women are women” at the event in Washington) it’s useful to engage with her criticisms about the political left and language. Is she right that progressive activists’ insistence on certain language stifles conversation? Do we alienate potential converts by insisting they use befuddling academic terms? Or is language too important to compromise on? The issue of how the left communicates its politics has plagued the movement for decades.
Probably the most famous critique of political language is Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language, where he condemns the state of political writing and outlines five rules all political writers should follow in order to communicate effectively. His fourth rule — “Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent” — is the most applicable to this particular row, given Adichie’s resistance to academic terminology. In 1999, a critique of the movement called Give Up Activism appeared in the pamphlet Reflections on 18 June, which played with similar themes in trying to understand why the movement wasn’t achieving its aims: “To think of yourself as being an activist means to think of yourself as being somehow privileged or more advanced than others in your appreciation of the need for social change, in the knowledge of how to achieve it and as leading or being in the forefront of the practical struggle to create this change.
Experts jealously guard and mystify the skills they have. ” Or to rephrase that in terms of Adichie’s comments, feminists use words like “cis” and “intersectionality” to posit themselves as gender experts, and the practice of feminism itself as a professional discipline. In some ways, the left’s insistence on using complicated terms to define the world is a reaction to the fact that it is politically marginalised.
Because leftists are opposed to the status quo, our movement is prone to functioning as a : we use words and engage in behaviours that solidify our similarity to one another, but separate us from ordinary people. It’s not that people outside the political left are too stupid to understand words like “intersectionality” it’s that the words we use are signifiers of who we are as people — which tribes we belong to — and in using jargon, the left runs the risk of sending a message that it is not like the very people it is supposed to be fighting for. In some ways, that’s intentional: the whole point of the left is to oppose the mainstream and shift society in a new direction, and in that respect we want to be different from the ordinary.
But we are yet to strike the balance between distinguishing ourselves from the status quo and winning people round to our cause. On the other hand, the words we use give meaning to our experiences. Words can bundle disparate phenomena into single concepts, and to that end “intersectionality” (to stick with that example) is a necessary term.
When it was coined by the academic Kimberlé Crenshaw, it was used to describe the lived experiences of black women it was a theory born of real life, not the other way around. We can’t fix problems unless we name them. The left needs to be able to define the world on its own terms.
Indeed, this is why “intersectionality” has entered the lexicon of the left: it has characterised an everyday experience for many people trying to understand the material conditions of their lives. Similarly, “cis” is a useful shorthand word to name a kind of gender privilege which is barely recognised in mainstream culture as even existing. How, then, to ensure that leftwing politics remain accessible without neutralising the ability of our movement to identify oppression? For the answer we can turn to Lenin: “Politics is a science and an art that does not fall from the skies or come gratis.
” In other words, politics is something people learn. We don’t need to abandon our language because it isn’t instantly recognisable to most people, we just need to explain it. We also need to appreciate that people who are experimenting with leftwing politics will come straight from the status quo we’re so opposed to, and they’ll bring their assumptions with them.
The duty of leftists is not to excommunicate these people for being insufficiently woke it is to welcome them — to create a movement where they feel included and respected. Then they will be more open to arguments about why words such as “intersectionality” are useful and why the contexts these words embody are important to engage with. To say that the modern left faces challenging times is a gross understatement.
We need to build a movement, and if even Adichie — who has done more to popularise feminism than 99% of women in the public eye — can be denounced after airing a flawed opinion, without being given the chance to change that opinion, we may as well all pack up and go home now. We have to believe that people are open to being convinced of leftwing ideas — not doing so is ceding victory to the right completely. Above all, we have to believe that the left can take people on a political journey, because if we don’t believe that, we’ll lose them forever.
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