We strive toward enlightenment … and language follows suit

EDITOR’S NOTE: Mr. Pitts’ column contains language some readers may find offensive. He intentionally uses this language to illustrate how far we’ve come since such words and phrases were considered appropriate.

A few years ago I learned with some confusion that I was now — at least, according to the political left — something called a “cis-male,” which as it turned out (I had to look it up) means someone whose male gender identity corresponds with the sex he had at birth.

About the same time, I learned that people whose ancestry lies in South America were now Latinx. Like “cis-male,” it seemed to come out of nowhere — a sudden pothole on the highway of interpersonal communication.

So I get where former President Obama was coming from when he said in a recent Pod Save America interview that Democrats can be a “buzzkill” with their obsessive focus on a jargon-rich vocabulary whose laudable intent — inclusion and acknowledgment — doesn’t quite obscure how clunky and unnatural it often feels. The ex-president mentioned how challenging it is for his 86-year-old mother-in-law to master “the right phraseology” to discuss issues.

“Sometimes,” he said, “people just want to not feel as if they are walking on eggshells.”

James Carville, former President Clinton’s top strategist, made a similar point in a brusquer manner last year when he launched a jeremiad against “faculty lounge” language and “stupid wokeness.”

Replace “wokeness” and “right phraseology” with their obvious precursor — “political correctness” — and you realize there’s nothing new about any of this. The left has long prodded the English language toward respecting and including marginalized peoples, and that high-minded effort has often lapsed into excess and self-parody. As in a 1995 Bible so politically-correct that it cut references to Jesus sitting “at the right hand of God” so as not to offend left-handed people.

All that to say: Obama and Carville have a point. They also don’t. Because as jolting as it can be when language attempts to reflect modern sensibilities, it would be even more jolting if it did not.

Can you imagine calling people with intellectual disabilities “imbeciles” and “retards” as was once common? Can you imagine a news story about a “hulking Negro brute” “ravishing” an innocent white “girl”? This was also common. Some of us grew up saying, “Honest Injun,” or that so and so didn’t have “a Chinaman’s chance.” Some of us recall when certain jobs were “men’s work, little lady” and to haggle with a merchant was to “jew them down.”

But we strive toward enlightenment. And language follows suit.

President Obama is right that people don’t want to feel as if they are walking on eggshells. But neither should they be allowed to feel that they may metaphorically walk anywhere they please, stomping with a muddy tread through the dignity and humanity of marginalized people.

That’s what so-called political correctness rose to challenge. Proof of the need to continue that challenge is as near as the next rally by Marjorie Taylor Greene, Tommy Tuberville or Donald Trump, as near as that Los Angeles overpass where demonstrators recently greeted traffic with Nazi salutes and banners endorsing the anti-Semitic idiocy of the right-wing rapper formerly known as Kanye West.

Intolerance grows bolder and more unashamed than it’s been in generations, a corrosive eating through bonds of national affiliation — and the right responds with loud silence. Meantime, luminaries of the left take their own to task for cluttering the language with the jargon of inclusivity. They are not wrong.

But to look to the right is to realize: one could be guilty of a whole lot worse.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald. Email him at lpitts@miamiherald.com.