I was thinking the other day about some new language we’re all suddenly using. Not new words, but particular phrases. Make space for. And sit with that. And do better. There are a few others that will come to me later, but I ran across a couple of them in a single short piece the other day, and it reminded me how much they bug me.
There’s an undertone of nursey preschool teacher to do better, scolding mommy to sit with that (in your timeout chair), and while I despise the term “virtue signaling,” there’s an undeniable tone of it in make space for. Here’s a wonderful thing that a person who is better than you has made space for. Sit with that a minute (along with your lazy badness). See if you can’t do better, going forward.
I used the word “crazy” in a headline and got a finger in my face about it from a reader, who included a link on why no one is supposed to say crazy anymore, but honestly, “mentally ill idea” doesn’t really express what I was trying to say. Also, “slaves” has been replaced by “enslaved people,” which comes from the same idea that changed “schizophrenic” to “person with schizophrenia” and “manic-depressive” to “person with bipolar disorder.” It emphasizes humanity, but honestly, if it makes that big of a difference to you, maybe your problem was you not fully understanding slavery to begin with. I’m informed that “slave” is a nonhuman noun, but I never saw it that way, except when a photographer showed me his lighting system, which uses the term to describe a particular type of flash.
Don’t get me started on the linguistic minefields around transgenderism. I keep my mouth shut. I check my privilege. I sit with that. I make space for the idea that it is better to confuse readers by saying, for instance, “actor Elliot Page has come out as transgender” than to spend even a single phrase explaining that Elliot was once known as E****, because one must never, ever use a deadname. You have to figure it out from the paragraph that says Elliot starred in “Juno” and a couple other films you may or may not have seen. Kate effortlessly uses “they” and “them” to describe nonbinary folks, and I’m never not confused by this, and asking “who else are we talking about?”
I try to have empathy for every member of the human family, but as a writer, my aim is clarity. This doesn’t help.
When Ross Perot was running for president, he addressed an NAACP chapter. He was talking about why NAFTA was bad for working-class people, who are disproportionately not-white, and he said, “Who gets hurt by these trade agreements? You people!” This led to a blizzard of think pieces about the term “you people,” how condescending it is, etc. etc. A colleague said, “He should have said ‘people of you,'” and I cannot deny it: I laughed, even though I fully understand why colored people is bad, and people of color is not. If Perot had said “you guys” or “you folks,” no one would have said a word, but oh my — you people. Very bad.
I read something yesterday that announced, in an editor’s note at the top, that a particular racial slur used by the subject of the story (describing an incident where the slur had been used to attack her, not by her) had been excised. I got to the part with the slur, and it had been asterisk’d out. So…OK, I get it, that was a good call. But why announce it first? Just do it. It’s talking down to readers, which is a reflection of so much of what we do with each other these days. It’s a writer announcing “I heard the bad word, but I am sparing you, because I’m trying to do better,” even though everybody probably knows the word in question.
Anyway, welcome seems to do the work of make space for. Think about it works for sit with that. Do better is probably something we have to live with, until it’s replaced by something worse. I leave you with this, which I found in the NYT’s Social Q’s column: