Progressives should watch our mouths. If we want to create a public conversation that is welcoming and inclusive, we need to start by getting our own language right.
We strive to frame the public debate in terms of social justice, human rights, and opportunity for all, but as progressives we can certainly be smarter and more deliberate in the way we talk about the nation’s priorities and future. At the very least, we can stop using certain words and phrases that erode support for progressive values and policies.
At the very least, we can stop using certain words and phrases that erode support for progressive values and policies.
Stripping these words from our dictionaries is a good first step:
- The Market. Building public support for a more fair economic system requires highlighting the fact that the economy is a set of human-made rules, systems, and structures, not an autonomous organism or an unbridled force of nature. Referring to bankers, CEOs, and other financial actors as "the market" obscures that reality, and reinforces the conservative notion that economic regulation is a hindrance rather than a crucial part of the rules that govern a just society. Instead, let’s clearly identify the people and institutions that are at work—for good or for ill—in our economic system. Instead of “regulating the free market,” let’s talk about “rules that hold banks accountable” or “consumer protections.”
- Entitlements. When used to refer to safety-net protections, the term “entitlements” suggests handouts and dependency rather than a societal investment in shared prosperity and economic independence. It also obscures the tremendous subsidies and other benefits that corporations and the wealthy receive through other channels. Let’s instead call popular programs like Social Security and Medicare by name, while challenging “public service cuts,” and supporting “economic security policies.”
- Felon. Activists around the country are doing inspiring work to create a fairer, more effective, and more equitable criminal justice system. To speed that work along, we should stop using the word "felon," which reduces the identity of people convicted of crimes to the worst thing they’ve ever done. Worse still is “felon disenfranchisement” (banning people with felony convictions from voting), which combines a negative word with an arcane one that means nothing to many people who might otherwise care about the issue. Instead of opposing "felon disenfranchisement," for example, we should uphold the “voting rights” of “people with felony convictions," "people emerging from prison," or “people who’ve paid their debt to society.” Let’s also drop “ex-offender.” And, while we’re at it, let’s stop using the word “criminal” as a noun too, for the same reasons.
- Illegal. Terms like "illegal immigrant," "illegal alien," and, worst of all, “illegals” are dehumanizing as well as grammatically flawed—since people cannot be illegal. Conversely, talking about "legalization" and "getting right with the law" suggests, by implication, that those who lack authorization to live or work in the U.S. are inherently lawbreakers. We should instead talk about a “roadmap to citizenship” for "new Americans," “aspiring citizens,” and, when greater specificity is needed, “immigrant parents,” “workers,” or “students” who are "undocumented" or “lack authorization” to work in the U.S. To be sure, those phrases are more of a mouthful than “legal” and “illegal.” But reducing people’s lives and identities to one negative word undermines our values and goals.
- Immigration Reform. Things that need “reforming” are bad, and the phrase “immigration reform” implicitly suggests that immigration—which is the age-old movement of people from one place to another, and a profound benefit to U.S. society—needs rectification. Let’s instead talk about improving our flawed “immigration policies,” creating a “roadmap to citizenship” for new Americans, and adopting “commonsense approaches that uphold our nation’s values and move us forward together.”
- Gay Marriage. Terms like "gay marriage" and "same-sex marriage" suggest that we are debating a unique exception to "real” marriage. By instead calling for "marriage equality" and "the right to marry," we can make clear that we are promoting the same fundamental right for all people in loving relationships.
- Level the Playing Field. This metaphor is intended to connote fairness, but it’s often misused by progressives. The purpose of institutions like public education and healthcare is not competition (as the “playing field” sports metaphor implies), but community, societal wellbeing and the common good. Instead, let’s talk about “expanding access,” “toppling obstacles,” and “ensuring equal opportunity.”
- Judicial Activism. Conservatives coined this term to criticize landmark decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court like Brown v. Board of Education, Roe v. Wade, and Miranda v. Arizona that finally recognized long-ignored fundamental constitutional rights. But progressives now frequently use the term (sometimes earnestly, sometimes ironically) to criticize the current Supreme Court’s conservative rulings, many of which go out of their way to decide questions that were not even raised by the parties. We should call out these rulings as “judicial overreaching” that “tramples Americans’ constitutional rights” and, where appropriate, as “based on politics instead of the Constitution.” But let’s not reinforce the conservative “judicial activism” frame, or imply that it’s improper for courts to make momentous decisions that uphold the Constitution.
- Work Hard and Play by the Rules. This phrase is a staple of Democratic candidates, and “tests well” with a range of demographic groups. But it’s always been flawed, suggesting that there are “good” Americans with a strong work ethic and respect for the law, alongside large numbers of “bad” Americans (and foreigners) who are lazy, dependent, and dishonest. Poor people and people of color are most frequently on the losing end of these negative implicit stereotypes. Indeed, President Bill Clinton coined the term largely to distance himself from issues of poverty and inequity, and used it in enacting welfare reform. President Obama has helpfully shifted to calling for a country in which “everyone plays by the same rules – from Main Street to Wall Street to Washington, DC,” and where everyone “has a fair shot.” That’s a verbal step in the right direction.
- Responsible Homeowners. Misconduct by banks and inadequate consumer protections pushed our economy to the brink of collapse and continue to cost millions of American families their homes. But President Obama and others continue to respond, rhetorically, by calling for aid to “responsible homeowners.” That phrasing buys into the conservative narrative that reckless, irresponsible homeowners were a major cause of the meltdown, and that reforms should rigorously benefit only those with “clean hands.” That conservative narrative, in turn, undermines support for the very policies—like adjusting mortgage principal to fair market value—that the President and progressive allies are promoting. Dropping the loaded word “responsible,” and promoting initiatives that enable “homeowners,” “families” and “communities” harmed by the crisis to get back on track, will make it easier to see those initiatives enacted.
Using these words can be a hard habit to break, but start with an inventory. Look at your website, your last press release, or a recent blog post. Practice changing phrases that undermine support for social into phrases that help expand opportunity for all. Pretty soon “economic security policies” will be second nature, the way “entitlements” is today.