The replacement of words seems to be a response to changing times, but it’s really a simplistic and superficial way to pretend you’re doing something. The most recent example is the transgender focus in the media as a result of Caitlyn Jenner’s transformation from the pentathlete Bruce Jenner this summer of 2015. The eye-opening of attitudes about transgender people is terrific–including for me. In the mid-1980s I declined an evening with another couple because they wanted to bring their transgender roommate. It was partly because the roommate seemed to want to attach herself to everything this couple did, but if I’m being honest, I should also plead guilty to narrow thinking. I promise you I’ve changed.
But, as journalist Elinor Burkett wrote in the New York Times recently, the New York Abortion Action Fund now offers its services to ‘people,’ not just women. The campus word ‘sisterhood’ is being papered over with ‘siblinghood.’
Words are the easiest way to declare you’re enlightened. You may not have any transgender friends, but you can correct those who call Caitlyn Jenner ‘Bruce’. You may not have any black friends, but you can scold when someone calls African-Americans ‘black.’ In fact, the way in which people of colour are referred to over the decades gives the best example of how superficial the naming process is. “Negro” became “black” became “African-American” because the earlier name was demeaning without any honest examination of whether the demeaning came from the serious wound behind the label, and hence the need to replace it. (and can be inaccurate: “African-American” applies only to Americans, after all.) The same thing happened to words describing people with mental handicaps (I am conscious that this may be an offensive term, but in this case the Band-Aid is frayed around the edges and is continually being replaced.) Half-wit became retarded became handicapped became disabled became differently abled. The advocacy-association in our Toronto neighbourhood is now called The Association for Community Living. I’ll let that speak for itself.
When our children were small the co-operative daycare they attended decided that ‘diversity’ was no longer an acceptable term. (Admittedly this daycare also had a Free Nicaragua Day, on which the children wore little red T-shirts.) We henceforth had to use the term ‘anti-racist’ because it reflected a stronger stance against discrimination. It did, but we were mandated to use it in such a way that the staff became word-police, checking conversations for Newspeak. The term comes from George Orwell’s 1984, in which an engineer for the government observes, “Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year.”