This Misguided AP Guideline Just Shows that Stigma, Not Grammar, Is the Problem
Once, back in my librarian days, I signed up for a training webinar on how to better serve patrons with mental health issues. The webinar started with a note on acceptable terms, and the facilitator went over the obvious first: it really sucks to use dehumanizing words like “crazy” or “insane,” and it’s very easy to just not do that. We all nodded. But then things got weird.
“Right now, a lot of people use terms like ‘people with mental illness’ or ‘people with mental health issues,'” the trainer said. “But those terms are also dehumanizing. Instead, the proper term is ‘people with mental health life experiences.'”
Mental illness is about as common as any other chronic illness, so there were plenty of us with “mental health life experiences” attending the webinar. Needless to say, we were taken aback. No one had ever heard such a wordy, unwieldy term before. And who on Earth wasn’t okay with the other terms? They were how I’d personally been self-identifying for years.
That wasn’t the only time a “proper” term ended up backfiring. Another day, when I was working the front desk at a homeless resource fair, my coworker asked a client one of the questions on the intake form: “How long have you been experiencing homelessness?”
“Experiencing homelessness?” the guy scoffed. “Seriously? That’s what they’re calling it now? I’m homeless! Why can’t we just say that?”
This isn’t to say that every member of a marginalized group will agree on a good or bad term. There might have been plenty of clients at the outreach event who preferred “experiencing homelessness,” and there may have even been some webinar attendees who resonated with “mental health life experiences.”
But our constantly changing terms for marginalized groups—terms that often get longer and more euphemistic the more they evolve—point to a deeper problem than just verbiage. When a group is actively, aggressively stigmatized, that stigma follows them around no matter which new terms we use. As soon as we juggle our vocabulary to come up with a new term, the stigma simply attaches to that term, and we start the cycle over again.
That’s precisely what the AP Stylebook demonstrated last week, when the organization tweeted out its recommendation for avoiding dehumanizing language. Although the original tweet is gone, it originally recommended that writers avoid using terms like “the disabled, the poor, and the French.”
The Twitterati, of course, immediately leapt on the absurdity of lumping “the French” in with marginalized groups, and AP apologized.
The reason “the” language can sound dehumanizing is because mainstream culture actively dehumanizes marginalized people. “The disabled” sounds derogatory, while “the college-educated” doesn’t, because we’ve already been trained to see college-educated people as individuals, and disabled people as an anonymous group. Without addressing the underlying stigma, every new term will inevitably morph into something that sounds offensive.
Writer Julia Serano calls this phenomenon the “activist language merry-go-round,” acknowledging that her term overlaps with Steven Pinker’s theory of the “euphemism treadmill.” Serano specifically writes about how the merry-go-round affects the language we use for trans people:
The “activist language merry-go-round” is fueled by stigma: Trans people are stigmatized in our culture, and this stigma latches onto the words that are used to describe us and our experiences. As a result, many activists may feel compelled to focus on changing language (i.e., swapping out “bad” words with new words that feel more neutral or empowering). However, so long as trans people remain stigmatized, these newer terms will eventually become tainted by that stigma, and there will be even further calls for newer and supposedly better replacement terms.
Words matter, of course, and it’s vital to pay attention to the terms that marginalized people find empowering or hurtful. But unless you’re helping to push back against stigmas like these, then coming up with an endless chain of new terms will always ring hollow.
(featured image: Pixabay via Pexels.com)
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