Editor’s Note: John Avlon is a CNN senior political analyst and anchor. He is the author of “Lincoln and the Fight for Peace.” The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion at CNN.
America’s culture wars are becoming a feedback loop between the far right and far left. They deepen our divisions and often don’t reflect reality.
Increasingly, the front lines of these fights take place in the realm of language, with self-appointed word police rushing to the ramparts to defend against cultural insults, both real and imagined.
The first weeks of 2023 have already shown these word police busy at work imposing politically-driven prohibitions.
Take Arkansas Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders, who decided to make one of her first actions in office a ban on the word “Latinx” in all official state documents.
The term is obscure for many – a relatively recent attempt to come up with a gender-neutral alternative to “Latino” and “Latina.” Among its many problems – beyond virtue-signaling pretension – is the fact that the vast majority of US Hispanics do not use the term. According to a 2020 Pew Research survey, just 25% of Hispanics have even heard the word and only 3% actually use it. In 2021, Gallup similarly found that only 4% of Hispanic and Latino Americans prefer Latinx.
So if the term Latinx is basically not used by the Latino community itself, why would Sanders feel the need to ban it? After all, it’s not like the offending word was widely used by her Republican predecessor, Asa Hutchinson, or the previous administration of her father, Mike Huckabee. Well, it’s a performance for right-wing national media because “owning the libs” is a critical component of conservative celebrity, even when it runs roughshod over alleged first principles like freedom of speech.
But the cultural irritants the right is reacting against are also not entirely a phantom menace – and they don’t just annoy conservatives. For example, progressive Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego tweeted in 2021 that his office would not use the term Latinx, arguing that “When Latino politicos use the term it is largely to appease White rich progressives who think that is the term we use. It is a vicious circle of confirmation bias.”
Speaking of the vicious circle of confirmation bias, the same week that Latinx was being banned in Arkansas, the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work decided to formally ban the use of the word “field” from its curriculum.
Why? Well, according to a memo, the school’s rationale is that someone might be offended by the term because it “could be considered anti-Black or anti-immigrant” – explaining that “phrases such as ‘going into the field’ or ‘field work’ may have connotations for descendants of slavery and immigrant workers that are not benign.”
Pay attention to the verbs “could” and “may” – because they acknowledge that this language ban is a matter of possible feelings not rooted in actual, etymological fact. This fits Bill Maher’s definition of political correctness: “the elevation of sensitivity over truth.” And that’s especially ironic in academia, where words are supposed to carry weight because of their precise meaning.
Because as a glance at the Merriam-Webster dictionary makes clear, the phrase “field work” has precisely nothing to do with slaves or migrant labor working in literal fields. Instead, it’s primary educational definition is as follows: “work done in the field (as by students) to gain practical experience and knowledge through firsthand observation.”
These two examples from one week in January 2023 are worth calling out not just because of their mirror image absurdity. They also provide a useful look at the differences between the far-right and the far-left in the culture wars.
Sanders is the elected governor of one of America’s 50 states. She has real world political power and responsibility.
The University of Southern California School of Social Work language ban is the result of a few academics without direct political power and a modest degree of cultural influence. Their decision likely drew more negative attention than real world impact.
It’s an illustration of how Democrats often bear the political cost of random academics and activists while Republicans often elevate their culture warriors to elected office, presenting themselves as defenders of comparative common sense. It’s just one more example of asymmetric polarization. What’s truly perplexing is why folks on the far-left don’t see how their actions help to recruit and fundraise for the conservative cause while alienating many of the independent voters that Democrats need to attract to win elections in a country where conservatives and moderates each outnumber liberals by a considerable margin.
A final example of a recent word police scandal hammers home the point. Stanford University did not, in fact, ban the use of the word “American.” This may be contrary to what you read in December.
Here’s what happened. The Stanford IT Department published internal guidance on language as part of its Orwellian sounding “The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” – created in conjunction with its People of Color in Technology affinity group. This presumably well-intentioned list galloped toward the embodiment of far-left wing stereotypes – especially in suggesting using the word “American” in favor of “US Citizen,” explaining that the allegedly offending term insinuated “that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”
This sparked a predictable firestorm. Yes, it was clueless and hopelessly out of touch. But keep in mind that this internal language guidance was not indicative of Stanford University policy as a whole. It was not a ban. It was just someone’s really bad idea offered as guidance to a relatively small group of people. But the self-created straw-man, once taken out of context, quickly came to symbolize the worst version of conservative suspicions about the unpatriotic and censorious impulses of folks on the far-left. The liberal wing of the word police just do not seem to know (or care) how uptight, humorless and scolding they sound – or how their intentions provide one of the most potent forms of recruitment for the right.
In this case, Stanford at least took the note from the outside world. Soon after the scandal broke, the school tried to clarify its intent, writing: “To be very clear, not only is the use of the term ‘American’ not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed. The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term ‘US citizen may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.”
That’s an understatement. The word police defined university policy in the public mind for a time. No surprise that earlier this month, the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative was itself eliminated.
The word police make us feel more divided than we really are. We need to stop this feedback loop between the extremes. Rep. Gallego was right when he called it a “vicious circle of confirmation bias.” A more consistent commitment to liberal values – including free speech and fact-based debates – might help us move away from these polarizing outbursts of groupthink and group blame. After all, democracy depends on an assumption of goodwill between fellow citizens – and that’s strained when the word police come knocking.