Hurtfully Yours

To ensure that America’s economic recovery continues apace, the Federal Reserve has the power to take any steps necessary to tamp down inflation, such as raise interest rates. It is understood that you can’t allow something as important as the U.S. economy to bob along on the open seas; you need intervention by “experts.”

On the progressive left, self-designated experts are becoming more and more demanding that Americans also think this way about language—that we need sanctioned versions of how we conduct public and private conversation.

Last year, our country began an essential reckoning with centuries of institutional racism. The means of correction are broad—from passing legislation on policing reform at all levels of government to removing Confederate statues and names of racists from military bases to retiring common (and needless) phrases like “master bedroom” and everyday uses of the word “slave” (“I slaved away in the kitchen on a hot day”).

But we are seeing two dangerous effects from recent skirmishes on language. One is the conservative media’s outright lies about critical race theory—propaganda distorting an intellectual discourse that had previously concerned few people outside specific academic disciplines. The other is the steroid shot to existing excesses of the left, pushing internal academic business out into the public, where, without context, it does no one any good.

The linguist John McWhorter recently pointed out the absurdities of the student-curated “Oppressive Language List” from Brandeis University’s Prevention, Advocacy and Resource Center (PARC). He marvels at how “survivor” is already on the ropes after having taken out “victim.” That means I go from being a victim of a banana peel at the corner to a survivor of a banana peel at the corner to a person who has been impacted by a banana peel at the corner.

Another problem McWhorter identifies is that these terms create more problems than they resolve. The entry that startled me was “people of color” being no longer appropriate because some people of color are not as “impacted by violence” as “Black and Indigenous folks,” so you should use “BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color).” I don’t understand how that leaves out less impacted people of color.

That very example raises another issue with its use of “folks.” Haven’t the language monitors noticed that white people often use “folks” as a veiled reference to Black people, in the same way they use “urban,” “community,” and “neighborhood” to talk about places where most every resident is BIPOC and poor? If you’re going to deconstruct nuance, shouldn’t you look in the mirror?

It seems especially ironic that this list was created by students at an institution named after Louis Brandeis, author of some of the Supreme Court’s greatest defenses of freedom of speech and the right to privacy.

As a former editor in academic publishing, I have seen the ill effects of (nonpartisan) academic jargon on perfectly fine language—terms like concretize and impactful that derive from a rhetorical laziness that could have been lifted from any high school blue book. Academic writing is often bad; there are many tiers of talent with prose, and the quest for tenure often encourages these bad writers to come up with Frankenstein constructions to make it seem like they have developed something novel. Academia has long been a finite world, where the parameters are simply dullness. But Twitter has formed a ring of vultures around even its most obscure aspects, looking for things sharp and barbed to weaponize at scale.

Since the murder of George Floyd placed direct focus on racism against Black Americans, “cancel culture” has become the extreme right’s blanket term for the enemy—which has proved highly advantageous since all perceived offenses can be equally weighted, whether a man publicly murdered by the police or a student upset because her professor failed to provide a trigger warning about a reading assignment.

Playing into this hand are tensions among progressives that have been mounting for more than a decade, with campus issues regarding sexual harassment and assault and the emergent primacy of “safe space.” The transubstantiation of victim to survivor created something desirable—the empowerment of coming forward, of having one’s perceived suffering validated in a vast diffusion of blame, regardless of whether it is inflicted on the actual perpetrator. The problem, of course, is the subjectivity of any concept of “suffering.”

I consider this aspect of language manipulation more troubling than lists of verboten terms, because with it you are recalibrating meaning in a way that undermines language as an unconscious unifier among all demographics. The coined usage that bothers me most is “hurtful,” mainly because it seems a construction that a child would come up with.

Sit in a park where children are playing and soon enough you’ll see a kid in tears: “Mommy, he hurted me!” I can understand why a child would confuse this verb tense: “hurt” is too passive. The child needs an active verb to cast blame, to show that his or her suffering has a cause, an agent. But I also think that children have some capacity to know that they can hurt themselves, because they have probably done it while playing alone many times before. I think that, even at a young age, they perceive the ambiguity.

We can easily hurt ourselves—say, by going rock-climbing with no training. And we can get our feelings hurt by a person who has no intention of doing us harm. “Hurt” can refer to a gamut of injury, from actual to perceived. When we learn of an accident, our first response is usually “Was anyone hurt?” “Hurtin’ me” or “hurtin’ you” is an origin lyric within country music. To take such a dense parcel of human experience, couple with a suffix, and apply to everything in the external world seems to me the height of immaturity.

Much that we see, hear, and read about in daily life is difficult—difficult because it makes us grieve, makes us angry, makes us afraid. It frustrates and confuses us. Calling difficult things “hurtful” ascribes to them an inherent intent to cause discomfort, which is simply not true. In my book, hurtful is to difficult as truthiness is to truth. It is a fabrication to allow us to cast blame (“Mommy, those photos of people jumping off the World Trade Center hurted me!”).

I can’t help but feel that the advancement of “hurtful” is a projection of white academia’s guilt at having been raised in privilege and comfort: if you can increase the ways that people can be hurt, you will implicate more people as being to blame, and thus your own blame will be ameliorated. It gives white people of certain social classes justification for throwing white people of lower social classes under the bus.

There is incalculable danger in demanding that people translate their feelings into words deemed “acceptable” to people they don’t even know, who live in entirely different contexts. The right’s favored meme about liberals is that they want to take away your guns. But a left that goes for people’s words seems to me inflaming a resentment that is exponentially worse.

Wittgenstein famously declared that “the limits of my language means the limits of my world.” The reason so many Trump supporters parrot all the words of propaganda fed to them by Tucker Carlson is predominately fear. They may paint these strange words on poster board for cameras, but this is not the language in which they live. When you tell people they are being “oppressive” by using words and phrases like “crazy,” “taking a shot,” “rule of thumb,” “no can do,” and “everything going on right now,” you are encroaching upon their everyday world, fencing them in.

Language is nothing like an economy you can fix by putting the brakes on inflation. Believing you can reform large swaths of the population by dictating what they can and can’t say is more than hurtful. It is a danger to democracy. §