Pressing Issues

That Time Euphemisms Got Too Woke For the Media

The GOP is defunding libraries, censoring history and science, and banning words and books, but media men are flipping out about the occasional awkwardness of inclusive language.

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As the state government of Florida literally bans saying certain words in school, America’s free speech warriors are readying for battle. 

Not with Florida, though. Not with any of the many jurisdictions debating or acting to outlaw discussion of racial or ethnic or religious or sexual identity. Not on behalf of children who want to learn about Black people or about being gay, about Native American history or women’s rights. 

No, America’s corporate media men are polishing their swords and preparing to sally forth to strike at what’s really threatening the public discourse: 


“Asian” instead of “Oriental.” 

“Person with a disability” instead of “cripple.” 

“Historically marginalized populations” instead of “slum-dwelling poor.”

That sort of thing. 

They are assembling against “equity language.” To the champions of literacy on talk shows and the opinion pages, the most dire threat to Americans’ First Amendment rights come not from lawmakers making laws against free speech, but from people suggesting ways to be less rude. 

Writer George Packer, in an Atlantic piece originally titled “The Moral Case Against Euphemism,” later updated to “The Moral Case Against Equity Language: 


The whole tendency of equity language is to blur the contours of hard, often unpleasant facts. This aversion to reality is its main appeal. Once you acquire the vocabulary, it’s actually easier to say people with limited financial resources than the poor. The first rolls off your tongue without interruption, leaves no aftertaste, arouses no emotion. The second is rudely blunt and bitter, and it might make someone angry or sad. Imprecise language is less likely to offend. Good writing—vivid imagery, strong statements—will hurt, because it’s bound to convey painful truths.


Reading Packer’s piece, which dealt almost entirely with internal speech guidelines for nonprofit organizations, you’d think the most important issue in language today was how the Sierra Club writes its press releases. As Republican lawmakers are pushing bills from Idaho to Iowa that call for teachers to be literally thrown in jail for teaching “forbidden” concepts, Packer and his pundit ilk would like us to be upset that someone somewhere is trying to figure out a way to be more open, at the risk and of occasionally making a sentence sound awkward. 

This focus on the limits of tolerant language in Ivy League syllabi comes at a time when teachers are being threatened with firing for teaching accurate versions of history to fourth-graders. It’s as misguided in its targets as it is hypocritical, considering that America’s corporate media loves euphemistic, dumb-sounding language as long as that language protects the powerful. 

They’ve spent decades calling violent extremists in the Republican Party “firebrands” and “provocateurs,” characterizing genocidal rhetoric by talk-radio screamers as “controversial statements.” 

Murders of Black men and women by police get headlined as “officer involved shootings” in newspapers and local TV broadcasts, making it sound like the gun and the bullets were independent actors and the cop wandered into the scenario unawares.

Coverage of law-enforcement beating, tear-gassing, and killing peaceful protesters describes what happened as “clashes,” as though teenagers with fireworks and riot police with tanks were equivalent opposing forces. 

America’s paper of record, the New York Times, regularly platforms bigots describing themselves as “concerned parents” to attack trans and gender non-conforming youth, framing the existence of gender transition as fraught with dangers that don’t exist under the guise of “just asking questions.” 

Countless news organizations take a similar tack with climate change, pretending there is a lack of consensus on global warming’s effects to placate the wealthy corporations that sponsor such coverage. 

Reproductive justice, voting rights, the political spectrum itself … There is nothing that America’s legacy media won’t soft-pedal if it upsets some Wall Street bro’s golf game, but heaven forbid NPR say “pregnant people” even once. 

Come wintertime, every cable news broadcast leads with stories of corporations deluged with hate for wishing customers “Happy Holidays,” but if a minor university’s speech guidelines suggest not using racial slurs, suddenly America’s gone soft. 

There’s something particularly rich in much of this scolding coming from media men who have spent the past decade demanding women stop worrying so much about the erosion of their rights, or that anti-war protesters stop waving rude signs at the Pentagon. 

When the GOP chanted “lock her up” at a former First Lady and Secretary of State, pundits told audiences these dangerous criminals were just kidding. When a violent mob broke into the United States Capitol to try to overthrow an election, TV commentators described them as a tourist group, akin to a rally for a victorious sports team. 

Packer, now so against euphemism, actually made quite a name for himself during the run-up to the Iraq War, chiding opponents for being mean about their resistance to bomb other countries just because we could. Cable commentator Bill Maher pretends to be a warrior for the cause of free speech when it’s a friend of his being attacked, like a wealthy comedian or a right-wing journalist. But if someone asks him to consider the free speech rights of college activists or trans people, he tells them to shut up. 

For years, pundits have been lecturing people under threat about keeping their voices down, their heads lowered, not overreacting. No matter how violent the assault on our rights we must never respond with anything less than saintly decorum, lest we provoke an even more violent response. 

And now the same people who for years have told us to calm down and stop calling monsters by their monstrous names are saying language is too flat and dull and lacks the urgency of the moment? Now that language aims to comfort the afflicted instead of afflicting the comfortable, they want to storm the barricades? 

I’ve written before in this space about the need to call things what they are, about the way the corporate media convinces its audience the powerful are powerless. 

Euphemisms that feed political apathy, that blur the intentions of fascist forces in America, that pretend everyone is on an equal playing field and everything is fine, those are right and proper and serious and good. 

Packer and those like him pushing this line about equity language being a threat to the truth are not speaking up for incisive writing. They’re asking that only the truths that make them uncomfortable be obscured.

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