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James Carville Wants to Police the Language Police
Maybe don't play that game and try talking straight instead?
People are talking, as they say, about the James Carville interview with Sean Illing where Carville says “wokeness is a problem and everyone knows it.” But what exactly is the problem that Carville sees with wokeness?
Here are some representative quotes:
You ever get the sense that people in faculty lounges in fancy colleges use a different language than ordinary people? They come up with a word like “Latinx” that no one else uses. Or they use a phrase like “communities of color.” I don’t know anyone who speaks like that. I don’t know anyone who lives in a “community of color.” I know lots of white and Black and brown people and they all live in ... neighborhoods.
. . .
I always tell people that we’ve got to stop speaking Hebrew and start speaking Yiddish. We have to speak the way regular people speak, the way voters speak. It ain’t complicated. That’s how you connect and persuade.
. . .
[L]arge parts of the country view us as an urban, coastal, arrogant party, and a lot gets passed through that filter. That’s a real thing. I don’t give a damn what anyone thinks about it—it’s a real phenomenon, and it’s damaging to the party brand.
Carville’s point here is that the language that highly-educated and politically-engaged “woke” people speak is foreign and alienating to most people—including most of the people that woke activists claim to represent. So, for example, the overwhelming majority of Hispanic Americans reject the term “Latinx” if they have even heard of it, so using the term may cause those voters to tune you out—not a great outcome when those voters are part of your base. This is basically the conventional wisdom by now, so I don’t actually want to debate whether it is true or not; I’m happy to assume it is true for the sake of a larger point I want to make, in particular since I have been arguing for years that the essential task of a democratic politician is to drink with every tinker in his language.
Here’s the thing though: America has always spoken a multitude of languages and dialects. Boston brahmins and Iowa farmers were both part of the same Democratic coalition within recent living memory, and they did not speak the same way, eat the same food, or pray at the same church. And I assure you, it’s not like the Iowa farmers were unaware that the Boston brahmins could be horrible snobs.
So why is this time different? Why are the socially reforming energies of wokeness so much more alienating that they have become a central political problem for the Democratic Party in terms of its ability to actually speak to and for the country at large?
I can think of multiple possible reasons, and by and large they are mutually compatible. One possible answer is technological. Now, everybody knows what everybody else is saying, because they’re saying it on Twitter and the media follows Twitter, so you can’t speak one way to one audience and another way to another audience. There’s also the element of right-wing partisan media, Fox News in particular, which, as Kevin Drum points out, seems very convinced that anti-wokeness is a political winner; in that context, there really is probably nowhere to hide. Another possible answer relates to the shape of the coalition; as urban, college-educated White people have grown as a percentage of the Democratic coalition, their language has become hegemonic in a way that it was not previously. Far from being a consequence of greater diversity, in other words, the triumph of woke language may be a consequence of decreasing diversity. (This is likely especially true among the staffer class.) Another possible answer relates to the moralizing cast of woke language; it may be easier to shrug off being told you are socially inferior than to be told you are morally inferior. I doubt any of these explanations is adequate on its own, but as I say, they are mutually compatible for the most part.
But if these are the explanations, then it’s not obvious what the Democrats are supposed to do about it. It’s not like they can make Twitter go away, or like they can force the media to ignore what happens there (certainly not right-wing media). It’s not like they can or should reject the votes or volunteerism of the most enthusiastic and growing part of their coalition. Nor is it especially compelling to tell people: don’t speak a language that you think is right and correct even amongst yourselves because other people feel alienated by it. That would be like telling Yiddish speakers that they’d better change their names, clothes and accents because otherwise the Democrats would lose votes for being known as the Jewish party.
So what are they supposed to do? I think it’s telling that Carville clearly has no idea, as revealed in this exchange:
So what do you want the Democrats to do differently besides not having people peddle politically toxic ideas like abolishing the police? How do they change the conversation so that Republicans aren’t defining them by their least popular expressions?
You’re a strategist, James. I want to know what you’d advise them to do. You don’t have any complaints about Biden because he’s getting stuff done. He’s putting money in people’s pockets. But the Democratic Party is a big coalition and you’re always going to have people promoting unpopular ideas, right? Whereas the Republican Party is more homogenous, and that lends itself to a tighter, more controlled message.
Tell me this: How is it we have all this talk about Jim Jordan (R-OH) and Matt Gaetz (R-FL) and we don’t talk about Dennis Hastert, the longest-serving Republican speaker of the House in Congress? If Hastert was a Democrat who we knew had a history of molesting kids and was actually sent to prison in 2016, he’d still be on Fox News every fucking night. The Republicans would never shut the hell up about it.
Illing asks Carville what, as a strategist, he recommends, and he simply changes the subject. He has nothing to offer about how to deal with wokeness; instead, he suggests being more aggressive on the attack.
I’m not going to go up against James Carville on the merits of political attacks, but I will suggest that he’s missing an additional possibility. What if—hear me out—the problem isn’t so much what the wokesters themselves say as the fact that people like James Carville aren’t willing tell them that they are, you know, wrong?
I want to be clear what I mean by this. Carville, obviously, is saying that they are wrong, in the sense that they are damaging the prospects of the Democratic Party. But he’s not saying they are wrong as such—wrong on their own terms. He’s not saying that, for example, the people who object to Latinx have a moral point, and that, therefore, the effort to shame people into using the term is morally wrong and not just practically troublesome. He’s not, in other words, granting equal moral dignity to multiple sides in these language debates. This is another kind of snobbery—and I suspect people can read it as such.
I actually have quite a bit of respect for various aspects of the woke project, very much including the effort to use more inclusive language. It’s easy to caricature this kind of thing by focusing on the worst Twitter offenders, but honestly everyone can play that game against every political side. But if you take that process seriously, then you know that (a) it is never-ending, and that (b) shibboleths are not a short-cut. It’s never-ending because society is constantly changing and language is constantly evolving with it, and what seemed like sensitive language yesterday can be revealed as insensitive tomorrow—not because some commissar has decreed it so, but because real people have real reactions to it, and to how it affects them directly. That’s just life and the only thing to do is live it. Shibboleths, meanwhile, are not a short-cut because they actually signal not sensitivity to other human beings who might be hurt, but sensitivity to the language police who you fear might hurt you. In fact there is no short-cut; every single conversation has to take place between human beings, and exhibit sensitivity to the particular human being you’re talking to.
I’ll give you an example of what I mean. I had a conversation recently with a doctor who works with people with developmental disabilities. This is a guy who has devoted his life to a field that is all about inclusivity and sensitivity to very profound difference. When he was first told many years ago that he should use the term “people with disabilities” rather than “disabled people” so as to be people-first in his language (you’re a person with certain characteristics, not a person inherently defined by those characteristics), he went along, because he’s a pro-social guy, but he thought it was ridiculous and he was faintly offended to be given instructions about how to speak when, as I say, he’s devoted his life to the field. What turned him around was a personal interaction with someone, a colleague with a disability, who said that the difference was important to her. Then he flipped from being irritated to being appreciative and supportive of the change. He changed his heart, and now his change in speech truly reflected that change of heart.
I don’t think there is any substitute for that personal interaction in effecting the desired change in language. There’s no short-cut. And since there is no short-cut, there is no point in language-policing or shaming—it can induce conformity, but it can’t induce sensitivity or caring, and might actually impede them. But sensitivity and caring are, ostensibly, the goal.
More recently, though, this same doctor went to a lecture where another doctor used the term people-with-disabilities as the general term, but referred to himself as an autistic person. The audience picked up on it, and asked him why he did that. And he said, well, while he agrees with people-first language in general, he himself feels like autism goes all the way down; you can’t scrape off a layer of autism and find a person underneath that is somehow separate from the autism. He feels, in other words, like an autistic person, and so that’s the language he uses. And this, once again, flipped the doctor I was talking to, from thinking of the people-first language as “correct” to thinking of it as “polite by default,” where no particular language is actually correct.
Again, I don’t think there’s any substitute for that personal interaction, but I also think this illustrates how shibboleths don’t work—can’t work—because they inherently crush the individuality of identity. And, again, the lesson is that the language police are wrong in their own terms.
I’ll give you another example from my own life. I don’t have strong feelings about words like “Latinx” because I’m not someone of Latin American heritage. But I do have strong feelings about somewhat similar efforts to de-genderize Hebrew, a language that is an important part of my heritage, and basically I feel like it’s an instance of linguistic imperialism, an attempt to impose ideas generated within English-speaking communities on a linguistic framework within which they are extremely foreign. Everything about Hebrew is gendered—nouns, verbs, adjectives, the works—and there is no neuter gender; it’s a strict binary. You can’t “reform” Hebrew to make it gender-neutral or non-binary; you’d have to tear the language up entirely and replace it with something else. And I don’t want to do that because I love the language for what it is, and, you know, love is love is love—right?
That having been said, if a significant number of native Hebrew speakers started speaking a different dialect that did exactly that, I would be interested and I would engage with them. I would listen to what they had to say. I would be open to them changing my mind. I’d receive them very differently, in other words, from the way I receive native English-speakers who want to futz with the liturgy, and that has something to do with my sense of whether they are coming from a place of love.
(By the way, news flash to James Carville: Hebrew is a vibrant, spoken language, with millions of native speakers, its own slang and dialects, its own poetic and demotic registers, all the things a living language has. Yiddish, by contrast, is a language of certain insular religious communities—many of which also speak Hebrew—and a handful of hipsters and antiquarians. It’s more alive than many people probably realize, but it’s a lot more obscure, more like a faculty-lounge language, than Hebrew is these days. You might want to get out a bit more.)
When Orwell wrote “Politics and the English Language,” he was making a moral argument, and that, I think, is what is missing from the political push-back against the language purification project. The problem isn’t just that it alienates and confuses people who aren’t in the know. The problem is that it obstructs communication with anyone, and makes it harder for anyone to hear what someone is truly saying, which means it is making people less sensitive to difference and to the needs of their interlocutors, not more so. This is not a problem of pushing too fast or too aggressively; it’s a problem inherent in the way the project is conceived, as a one of purification rather than one of opening. I don’t think you have to endorse Orwell’s preference for Anglo-Saxon monosyllables to travel with him at least that far.
So my bottom line to James Carville is: you’re afraid of being canceled? Maybe don’t be. Maybe have the courage of your actual convictions. Don’t stop by saying, “this is counterproductive;” instead, say, “I don’t agree with this.” For that matter, don’t stop by saying, “defund the police is a bad slogan” but say “defund the police is a bad idea—I know you mean well, I respect what you are trying to do, but it is a bad idea and I oppose it because it’s a bad idea, and not just because it’s unpopular.” Rep. Rashida Tlaib can advocate defunding the police all she wants, and the Democratic Party won’t suffer, provided people in the party who disagree with her are willing to tell her she’s wrong instead of telling her to be quiet, willing to be hated on Twitter for it and not care. In other words, stop trying to police the language of the woke the way they are trying to police yours, and start arguing the substance.
Expressing real difference will, among its ancillary benefits, force you to use language that is clear and communicative—the kind that other people can understand even if they don’t have a PhD in semiotics. And experiencing actual argument, and learning to live with it, will prove, to those who are terrified of a supposed woke hegemony, that there is no such hegemony, just a lot of people who are afraid of their own shadows.