A Progressive’s Style Guide
May 27, 2016 11:02 AM   Subscribe

"Every day I experience how language can bring people together and build power. But language can also be divisive, dangerous, and exclusionary... I got to work on a Progressive Style Guide, (pdf) that would help guide fellow campaigners and writers in the progressive movement on using inclusive language."
posted by roomthreeseventeen (63 comments total) 70 users marked this as a favorite
 
This is great. I would like to write to her, but I don't see an email anywhere in the guide or the web page and googling just taught me that Hanna Thomas is a common name. Anyone know an address? (don't worry, I'm not going to complain, argue, stalk her, or send a SWAT team to her home or office).
posted by If only I had a penguin... at 11:18 AM on May 27, 2016


I believe this is her.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 11:25 AM on May 27, 2016


as long as we remember that we're discussing an art here, not a science ...
posted by philip-random at 11:29 AM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Very cool. Would be really nice if the Do/Do Not use word list was set up so that you could easily see the better alternative (i.e. instead of gentrification use displacement). I do really like how a lot of the words are linked to explanations of why you should/should not use certain terminology.

Very interesting and thought provoking. I think using the right words is important and something even the best intentioned sometimes struggle with.
posted by mosschief at 11:37 AM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


This is so awesome - thanks for posting!
posted by melissasaurus at 11:43 AM on May 27, 2016


This is cool. I don't have the time to read a 41 page style guide right now (though I'm certainly interested in learning to use more inclusive language, so I'll probably at least skim it) but I love that this exists. I'm sure it's not perfect since language isn't perfect, but there are a lot of times when I find myself reaching for an inclusive-but-not-too-clunky term, and something like this seems really helpful for that! Also I appreciate it when people point out the ways in which I unintentionally use exclusionary language, and I bet there's some stuff in here that I've never thought much about but could stand to consider more carefully.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 11:52 AM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Is there anything harder to read on a mobile device than a landscape mode PDF?
posted by sparklemotion at 11:53 AM on May 27, 2016


Lots of things? I just turned my phone sideways into landscape mode.
posted by ActingTheGoat at 12:07 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


On review at a computer -- most of this is awesome (and should be common sense, but isn't). There are a few that I disagree with, and would defend my usage if called out on them, but in the context-free abstract it's not worth haranguing over.

I do not envy the author the "OMG THE PC POLICE ARE HERE TO PUT YOU LANGUAGE JAIL" backlash that I am sure is coming her way.
posted by sparklemotion at 12:08 PM on May 27, 2016 [8 favorites]


OK, so I'm skimming now and my first (shallow) impression is that the graphic design on this thing is a lot better than it strictly needed to be. I'm particularly in love with the cover page, for some reason. Not to minimize the importance of the actual content, but this is a really well presented document. I wish every PDF I had to read was this thoughtfully laid out.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:09 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I've been trying to replace ableist language in my writing. It's usually fairly easy to do things like replace blind review with anonymous review. The words I'm having the most trouble excising are words like crazy or bonkers. It's hard to find simple replacements that connote everything I want to connote. Calling someone's opinion stupid is more insulting than I want, and calling their opinion implausible or erroneous isn't quite forceful enough and doesn't express incredulity in the right way. It makes we wonder exactly what I am connoting when I call a view crazy. I don't think my sentiment is intrinsically tied to an ableist framework, so I should be able to find a non-ableist paraphrase. But it's hard and I haven't found a good one yet.
posted by painquale at 12:12 PM on May 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Maybe I should try to bring back poppycock.
posted by painquale at 12:17 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]


I think there is deep need for style guidance on language that lifts people up and fights hegemony, and this is a good start! Personally I think something this important would have merited a more anthologistic approach, with subject experts tackling each section; the two authors are covering a huge, ambitious amount of ground here, and I think the inherent limits of any two individuals' subject familiarity does poke through in places throughout this document.
posted by threeants at 12:19 PM on May 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


like replace blind review with anonymous review

I'd literally never thought about this, though. Would one say that a show is color-anonymous casting? That doesn't make sense in my mind.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 12:20 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I also feel it's slightly off to center the do/don't sections around how "activists" use language, rather than how it's used by the wider swath of people directly affected (in cases where this might differ).
posted by threeants at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


painquale: "The words I'm having the most trouble excising are words like crazy or bonkers. It's hard to find simple replacements that connote everything I want to connote. Calling someone's opinion stupid is more insulting than I want, and calling their opinion implausible or erroneous isn't quite forceful enough and doesn't express incredulity in the right way. It makes we wonder exactly what I am connoting when I call a view crazy. I don't think my sentiment is intrinsically tied to an ableist framework, so I should be able to find a non-ableist paraphrase. But it's hard and I haven't found a good one yet."

Absurd? Ridiculous? Inane? Ludicrous?

Or my favorite: Preposterous!
posted by Rhaomi at 12:22 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]


I greatly appreciate this style guide and it's consistent with a lot of stuff that I work on for my job. However, I found the AIDS references very oddly out of date, with the focus on "AIDS" rather than "HIV" or "HIV/AIDS"
posted by gingerbeer at 12:24 PM on May 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've stated it elsewhere here on Metafilter, and I'll say it again: I'm disappointed in the support for people-first language.

I understand that it's meant to emphasize that they're people first, and the adjectives are only a part of who they are, but people-first effectively others all the same.

That's because we only use people-first when talking about things perceived to be a negative. You can talk about a tall woman, a smart man, a beautiful genderqueer person. Not a woman of height, a man of great intellect, or a person of beauty.
posted by explosion at 12:33 PM on May 27, 2016 [26 favorites]


I love how the offended Deaf advocate then immediately turns around and ignorantly insults people with learning disabilities (this is a quote of a quote)
...'That telling a deaf person about the plight of rabbits, they wouldn’t understand, wouldn’t be able to communicate, wouldn’t care? Deafness is not a learning disability.'
Even with the recognition that in the UK learning disability means developmental disability (as opposed to specific cognitive deficit as it does in North America), this is pretty insulting. Developmentally disabled people are not unfeeling either.

Inclusive language is great. But maybe check your own when sending that irate email.
posted by jb at 12:37 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Reminds me of a discussion here a while back about better ways to describe "unmanned" vehicles (I think "uncrewed" was the consensus; never did get to use that one at my old job, unfortunately)
posted by indubitable at 12:42 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I like this. It is good.
posted by odinsdream at 12:42 PM on May 27, 2016


Autonomous, indubitable? Self-piloting? Remotely-operated?
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 12:59 PM on May 27, 2016


Drone
posted by crookedneighbor at 1:10 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


I love how the offended Deaf advocate then immediately turns around and ignorantly insults people with learning disabilities

I'm pretty sure that she's referring to the phrase meaning a difficulty in comprehension, which is not an inherent characteristic of being hard of hearing.
posted by zombieflanders at 1:16 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


This is amazing! I am a liberal-leaning Christian who works in editorial for a Christian publisher. It's a tricky line to walk, keeping my politics in check when the overwhelming number of authors we work with and their audiences are conservative evangelicals. But sometimes saying, "Hey, this word has fallen out of favor; let's go with this one instead," goes over better than I expect, and this is a great guide to recalibrating my "problematic-o-meter" to know what words or phrases should throw up a flag.

I especially like how it's not "DO THIS/DON'T DO THIS," but rather, "THIS IS USED/THIS IS QUESTIONED OR AVOIDED." And I like the acknowledgments that YMMV depending on the specific human you're talking to.

A side note: I have been reading so much lately about the intersection of progressive causes (for lack of a better phrase) and publishing, and I often want to cry at my desk. I have so little power to effect change at an organizational level, and it's especially an uphill battle in the specific niche of publishing I'm in. But I forwarded this guide to a bunch of other editors in my group, presenting it mostly as food for thought and an FYI about potentially problematic words. As someone who loves the nuance of language and sees word choice not as a matter of political correctness but as a matter of kindness, passing this along seemed like a tiny, tiny step toward making the world a kinder place.
posted by timestep at 1:29 PM on May 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


The is very interesting. I have long thought that the right (in the US) has been winning the war on framing social debate by being more incisive in their language (Trump is pretty good at this as well), so having some sense of how progressives are reacting is good.
Some words "Asylee"? will raise eyebrows, but by and large the terms with linked histories seem to be easy to understand.
posted by OHenryPacey at 1:54 PM on May 27, 2016


For promoting inclusive and thoughtful language: Two thumbs up.

For the following sentence: " We invite drivers of progressive change...to peruse the vital movement frameworks, decolonizing usage, and up-to-date word choice and phrasing for current theory of change directions and momentum across groups and issue areas presented in this guide," a sad thumbs down.
posted by storybored at 1:55 PM on May 27, 2016 [10 favorites]


This is fascinating! I'm going to have to dig into the footnotes because some of these surprise me—like trans* being in the denigrated category.
posted by not that girl at 2:19 PM on May 27, 2016 [1 favorite]


Related but not quite the same thing is the book Keywords for Radicals: The Contested Vocabulary of Late Capitalist Struggle, which is more like mini-essays exploring concepts like "Accessible," "Gender," "History," " Privilege." I've only dipped into my copy but have been impressed and interested in what I've read.
posted by not that girl at 2:24 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm going to enjoy nit-picking this. In the disability section, they include fat-shaming as a concept, but then they include "fat country/lean country" as an accepted term in the section on global justice. Dear other activists: fat bodies are not a metaphor for greed, plenty, or waste of resources.
posted by not that girl at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2016 [9 favorites]


I think it's there cause of the asterisk, which is unnecessary. This leads people to writing things like "trans* woman" which... just, isn't necessary.
posted by odinsdream at 2:27 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


This leads people to writing things like "trans* woman" which... just, isn't necessary.

I've never seen that. I've seen "trans*" on its own as a more umbrella-ish term, or referring to a group of people, but not to describe an individual. I'm not saying it's not used. Just that I haven't seen it and I kind of question whether there's a deliberate response to such a usage.

I looked at the footnote for trans*. All of their footnotes are simply URLs, and the footnote for trans*, footnote 146, leads to a mashable article that doesn't use or reference "trans*." So...huh.

I'm not loving this thing, despite its very good intentions. The couple of footnotes I've checked suggest that either they wrote what they wanted and went looking for links afterward, or that they uncritically used single articles as support for their idea that a certain term was either used or denigrated. I think I want more of a sense that deep and broad reading was done, and educated critical thought then applied to it.

My look into it has still been fairly superficial, so this is just an early, soft judgment that may not stand when I've read more of it more thoroughly.
posted by not that girl at 2:41 PM on May 27, 2016 [5 favorites]


I'm not loving this thing, despite its very good intentions. The couple of footnotes I've checked suggest that either they wrote what they wanted and went looking for links afterward, or that they uncritically used single articles as support for their idea that a certain term was either used or denigrated. I think I want more of a sense that deep and broad reading was done, and educated critical thought then applied to it.

My understanding is that this was created by someone who does communications for an advocacy organization, for other activists, probably as a side project of her normal job. Not the product of academic research, but someone doing the best they can to create a useful resource. By which I mean to say, I bet she is open to constructive feedback or suggestions, and it looks like someone provided her twitter handle above.
posted by lunasol at 3:11 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


Not the product of academic research, but someone doing the best they can to create a useful resource.

You're right of course, and let me not be guilty of excessively criticizing a good effort by someone with good intentions who is doing their best. Or of criticizing a thing because it is not some other thing. As Walt Whitman wrote, "We do not call the tortoise unworthy because she is not something else."
posted by not that girl at 3:26 PM on May 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


I've owned this for twenty years: it's a right-wing satirical publication, but I've found it surprisingly useful over the years: The Official Politically Correct Dictionary and Handbook.
posted by alasdair at 3:31 PM on May 27, 2016


This is fascinating! I'm going to have to dig into the footnotes because some of these surprise me—like trans* being in the denigrated category.

I feel like trans spaces have largely approached a state of agreeing to disagree on the asterisk because people have come to realise that it's so community-specific that it's hard to be offended unless you know someone's reasoning for their choice of asterisk or not. Or what they understand the asterisk to signal, for that matter.

So I think that one was a bit of a miss. The DSM-V replaced Gender Identity Disorder with Gender Dysphoria. While the argument was that being trans is not 'disordered', I feel like the author is showing a lack of understanding with that note. You're either talking about the ICD term specifically, in which case you're stuck with GID, or you're talking about what's in the DSM, which case you ought to be talking about Gender Dysphoria (in capitals), or neither, in which case, you probably want something not capitalised and not so medicalised.*

*Yeah, I'm drawing an awkward distinction between 'Gender Dysphoria' the thing in the DSM and 'gender dysphoria'. Hopefully it makes sense.
posted by hoyland at 4:09 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


I've stated it elsewhere here on Metafilter, and I'll say it again: I'm disappointed in the support for people-first language.

I feel like trans spaces have largely approached a state of agreeing to disagree on the asterisk because people have come to realise that it's so community-specific that it's hard to be offended unless you know someone's reasoning for their choice of asterisk or not.

There are a number of things that have to be an eternal "agree to disagree" I think.

I was thinking about this comment:
The words I'm having the most trouble excising are words like crazy or bonkers.

and - so mental illness is a category I have some standing to talk about and I have a nuanced and very particular take on this question which is that a person is not a crazy person but that anyone can do a crazy thing. And I'm not a huge fan of the idea of (well-intentioned) people without personal experience of mental illness (or addiction is another one for me) going around explaining which words to use because it's redolent of speaking "for" people who can speak just fine for themselves. But of course that particular take is just me and there are people with plenty of personal stake who would completely disagree so - I dunno I guess you have to know your audience.

they uncritically used single articles as support for their idea that a certain term was either used or denigrated

I took it as - or decided to take it as because it's vastly more useful that way - more of a collection of opinions than an authoritative list. The latter is an inherently silly proposition anyway because at best you are capturing the norms of a particular mileau at particular moment in time. Putting together arguments people have made about different words actually gives a better sense of what's going on - though there are a couple cases here where the conclusion drawn seems a little dubious based on the link.
posted by atoxyl at 4:59 PM on May 27, 2016 [7 favorites]


FWIW, my personal take on crazy as an Officially Diagnosed Crazy Person is that it's one of those "I can use the term, but I really wish you wouldn't, unless you are one of us" things.

Which I try not to get too het up about in practice, because craziness is mostly invisible so it's not like I can tell if you're one of us unless I know you pretty well. But it does annoy me, mostly quietly.

I do try to be careful about how I use it to apply to people or things other than my little circle of Beloved Crazy People who are all cool with the term for ourselves. So I sympathize with it being a hard term to replace. I can usually come up with something that works in the specific context with some thought, but it's hard to suggest a blanket "always use this word instead" replacement.
posted by Stacey at 5:19 PM on May 27, 2016 [2 favorites]


Ooh! Progressive Style! Awesome!

Reads article

Oh. That kind of progressive.

Packs away gold lamé cloak for next time.
posted by Grangousier at 5:24 PM on May 27, 2016 [6 favorites]


Fwiw, I imagine if you're whatever thing or topic, and you go look at that thing or topic in this document, you'll be able to pick it to death. However, this resource is way ahead of anything else I've seen in terms of trying to bring together more justice-oriented terms across a wide spectrum into a consolidated, easily referenced guide, whose use in most organisations would bring them way forward in their efforts to be more inclusive. It shouldn't be seen as the only guide needed, and it's certainly open to improvements and revisions, but I applaud it and will definitely share it with people.

One really great part is that, let's say someone's in need of a 101 on writing about gender. Instead of sending them just gender-specific references, I can send them this and refer them to the specific section, meaning they'll also get exposed to these other intersectional concepts as well.

Good stuff.
posted by odinsdream at 5:41 PM on May 27, 2016 [3 favorites]


Not at all surprisingly, you can basically use the "questioned/avoided" side of the charts as a Daily Mail style guide. Less snarkily, this is excellent, and I'm really pleased this has been made.
posted by Jon Mitchell at 5:52 PM on May 27, 2016


The principle of self-identification ("Progressive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that reflects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves"), which is a simple, and powerful and correct thing IMO, seems to get thrown out the window as soon as the guide comes up against groups it disagrees with (eg anti-abortion/pro-life).

I've been trying to replace ableist language in my writing. It's usually fairly easy to do things like replace blind review with anonymous review.

Given that sensory metaphors appear to drive out more abstract ones I think you may be on a hiding to nothing there.
posted by Leon at 6:26 PM on May 27, 2016


Fascinating work. This is presenting a very interesting cultural phenomenon. I'd call it the speed of speech and it is getting faster. I'm a pretty old school progressive artist that is pretty open to any kind of language, art, music or literature offensive or not. I love learning and interacting with the many unique aspects and beauty this planet's peoples. If what you do hurts or offends others, I don't support or give accolades to your work but organizing others against them just isn't my style.

However, as a middle aged person working an awful lot, keeping up with the culture is getting really difficult. I used to write a bit but now I'm doing it less and less. I don't want to upset or hurt others with words or phrases that may have been acceptable 6 months or a year ago or for someone to read my work from years ago to judge me on today's cultural mores.
I pretty much stick to sculptural work and when someone asks what the piece is about, I just say I don't know.
When someone is offended by me, I just want to tell them that I love them as a fellow human hoping to make peace and learn from the interaction.

Maybe it is just insecurity(I've got plenty!) but since creativity is involved, it generally dries up and apathy sets in.
Anyone have any helpful advice for keeping up with the pace of today's language?
posted by Muncle at 7:07 PM on May 27, 2016 [4 favorites]


It's an interesting document to read through from the neutral perspective - the relative length and pro/con content of many sections is quite revealing about current progressive priorities. (The geopolitics and health sections, which would be my particular interest are particularly a revealing mess).

The sourcing for some words is interesting. For example, the sourcing for "multicultural" as a word for progressives to avoid is an article by Kenan Malik ( a British civil liberties/free speech advocate) which is a balanced attack on multiculturalism as it is used by the progressive left, for example.
posted by Another Fine Product From The Nonsense Factory at 2:27 AM on May 28, 2016 [1 favorite]


Indeed, that article on multiculturalism is not really an argument against using the term "multiculturalism" itself, it’s a term used by both media and government institutions anyway so good luck on giving it up. It’s good to call attention to how policies and political debate on multiculturalism may be fraught with problems of all kinds, but the word itself is still useful as long as it’s still widely used as a frame of reference in specific contexts, it depends how it’s used, it’s not necessarily problematic in itself.

Similarly with "gentrification" - although the article cited does specifically argue against using the word, and replacing it with "displacement", and that does indeed make sense, I happen to agree with that argument myself. But again, for practical purposes, "gentrification" is such a widely used term, and like multiculturalism, it also has a large body of academic research associated to it (a lot of it also using the term "displacement" already), and is very much still used by activists all over the world.

Those are two examples that stood out to me as more in a category of their own - I do think it’s worth paying attention to how those terms used and what they’re supposed to signify, but of course they’re not really in themselves as divisive or exclusionary as terms in other areas, and based on current usage I wouldn’t describe them as being "avoided/questioned by activists" really.

Apart from that from a quick glance I don’t really see anything that wasn’t already common knowledge about which words are preferred, and it is indeed a very interesting document as a quick overview of all those priorities, it’s very well done and readable too. I just wish it had been a website instead of PDF, it’d make it easier to update it and add more references too?
posted by bitteschoen at 4:10 AM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


One word that surprised me from the Do Not Use section:

- Addict

One word that surprised me from the Please Use Instead Section:

- Ghetto

As a North Carolina resident, I appreciated seeing "Bathroom Bill" listed, because when I hear people use that phrase when talking about HB2, they're usually talking about trans rights with the same level of peace, love, and understanding we hear from people that use the phrase "Gun Control" to talk about victims of gun violence. It's fucked up how many people's idea of a trans person is like Buffalo Bill from Silence of the Lambs or something.

"Bathroom Bill" has a cold, apathetic, arrogant "that's the thing the freaks care about" undertone to it, and I'm glad to see it called out on this list.
posted by oceanjesse at 6:48 AM on May 28, 2016


I just wish it had been a website instead of PDF, it’d make it easier to update it and add more references too?

But potentially less useful to print out and keep a copy of next to your editing desk?
posted by tobascodagama at 7:09 AM on May 28, 2016


I had no idea 'ghetto' was frowned upon until a politician recently used it and was called out for it (on social media). So, yeah, these things evolve. Nice post.
posted by joseph conrad is fully awesome at 7:10 AM on May 28, 2016


As someone who is disabled and worked in the field of mental health and sort of hangs-out in disability activist spaces, the person-first language thing is interesting. What it comes down to is ultimately the specific characteristic and the individuals' preference. For example, I've been told a lot of people on the autism spectrum will just say "I am autistic." But at the same time would prefer "I am a person with depression." It sort of depends on how intrinsic the characteristic is to their identity. We don't tend to label people as "a depressive" these days, but "a schizophrenic" is much more common (and probably shouldn't be.) So ultimately, I think it comes down to the individual, but person-centric language is still safest. Like, I know people who are totally comfortable with having schizophenia as part of their identity, but more commonly, the label "schizophrenic" is used to dismiss someone's humanity and agency.

(As an aside, and this is mentioned in the PDF, but don't use "schizophrenic" in the literary sense meaning "of two minds." Because it's SO INACCURATE to the disease and leads to so much misunderstanding. )

I had to excise the word "crazy" from my spoken vocabulary when working in mental health. But my clients used it a lot to talk about themselves, usually as humor. I tend towards the term "batshit" by itself to refer to something that is just outer-limits illogical. I don't know if that's better, but it's sort of one step removed from mental ilness, I feel.
posted by threeturtles at 2:24 PM on May 28, 2016 [4 favorites]


[Couple deleted, if you think this is silly you can skip it.]
posted by Eyebrows McGee (staff) at 7:06 PM on May 28, 2016


I wasn't surprised to see "addict" and "alcoholic" on there because there are a lot of people who don't like to be defined that way - and that's pretty understandable - but those need a disclaimer that others strongly self-identify with the term. You know, 'cause AA and NA do exist...
posted by atoxyl at 10:03 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


"Addict," "alcoholic," "junkie" (or whatever, "dope feen") are mostly treated as "we can say it" kinds of things.
posted by atoxyl at 10:12 PM on May 28, 2016 [2 favorites]


Please don't use "addict" if it's not self-identification, though. It's really stigmatizing language.
posted by gingerbeer at 12:35 AM on May 29, 2016 [2 favorites]


It's not a guide to dressing yourzelf?
posted by ArticTusk at 7:31 AM on May 29, 2016


but "a schizophrenic" is much more common (and probably shouldn't be.)

I work with people with Schizophrenia, and I don't hear "a schizophrenic" used ever within our treatment team or among our clients (which doesn't mean no one with Schizophrenia uses it, of course). I do hear it a lot from people who don't work in mental health, and it's jarring to me. Our team uses "Schizophrenic" as an adjective to describe someone with Schizophrenia fairly often, though I don't like it and I try not to use it. I've been working toward "He's been diagnosed with Schizophrenia," mainly because one of my jobs is diagnosing people and so I read a lot of mental health medical records and hear a lot of stories of people's past mental health diagnoses and treatments, and I'm realizing more and more that diagnoses are not always particularly accurate. So someone may have been diagnosed with Schizophrenia, but that doesn't always mean they actually have Schizophrenia (or Bipolar Disorder, or Borderline Personality Disorder, etc.).
posted by lazuli at 11:13 AM on May 29, 2016 [1 favorite]


I realize that I’m sorta late to the discussion, but for anyone interested, Conscious Style Guide is another resource that’s along similar lines (and it’s pretty great). They’re also on Twitter at @consciousstyles.
posted by Handcoding at 9:50 PM on May 29, 2016 [3 favorites]


This article about the darn asterisk just floated across my Facebook feed. The summary is really "we're starting to think the asterisk signals exclusion rather than inclusion like it was meant to, so we're ditching it", which I suspect is true on the internet. It's probably not true at my former university, were the trans and queer groups were very strongly pro-asterisk since they were operating in a context where virtually any other university-associated entity presumed trans meant binary.

(I do find something about the article oddly irritating, even though I previously reached a similar conclusion. It may just be that having already reached said conclusion means I'm not the target audience.)
posted by hoyland at 5:57 AM on May 30, 2016 [2 favorites]


I'm so confused. The asterix is a Boolean wildcard - by definition it is inclusive. That's the point of a wildcard in computer aided searching! include all things that fit the first part, even if the end is the same.

Or to get fun: *searchterm* returns all items with the search term anywhere in a searched field.
posted by jb at 6:08 PM on May 30, 2016


The article seems pretty straightforward on explaining what they mean:
The asterisk originated from search Boolean, where trans* would search for any words starting with trans (transgender, transsexual, etc). The asterisk is useless as a way of attempting to be more inclusive because trans already included all trans people. The asterisk did well for explicitly noting that being trans is not limited to trans men and trans women (as trans without the asterisk was misinterpreted as meaning) but it subtly began working with this misinterpretation and contributed to the incorrect thought that “trans” by itself only means binary trans people. This does not indicate that the term itself is problematic but that it is just not a useful tool. Trans without the asterisk is already inclusive of all trans identities.
People started using it (or interpreting it) differently from how it was intended, which created unforeseen problems.
posted by lazuli at 6:18 PM on May 30, 2016 [1 favorite]


I wrote up my understanding of the history of "trans*" a few years back, and that still seems right to me, although at that point I hadn't run into the more recent fights and interpretations of what the asterisk means, which still seem a bit baffling to me. Like I can see how as trans(s)exual versus transgender stopped being an argument people were having so much it got easy to re-interpret the * to be about nonbinary issues, a much more current argument in the community. But even if that were always the case I'm deeply skeptical of the inclusionary benefits of punctuation that doesn't effect the spoken form in any way.
posted by vibratory manner of working at 1:07 AM on May 31, 2016 [2 favorites]


My thought is that we had the asterisk as the unix wildcard, completing to 'transsexual' and 'transgender', then that became less relevant, so it went away for a while (mid 2000s? earlier? I never saw it used as the unix wildcard in the strict sense), and started coming back meaning "no, really, we acknowledge non-binary people exist, damn it" a few years later (late 2000s?). This would explain why some people think it appeared and others think it disappeared. But (and here I started editorializing a bit), the people who think we need to keep 'transsexual' around as a word distinct from 'transgender'*periodically try to insist that the wildcard is the "correct" interpretation, which makes the whole thing super murky, as some people are then going to try to insist you mean the opposite of inclusion with your asterisk. And then there's the part where you make more progress by demanding that non-binary folks be acknowledged and respected than with orthography (or arguing about orthography).

*As opposed to basically letting 'transsexual' fall by the wayside. They mean different things, but (from my perspective) we have little to no need for that distinction in almost any context. (Like... I can't think of a use that isn't hurtful to others, aside from people who use 'transsexual' to describe themselves because they've done that for 30 years.)
posted by hoyland at 4:56 AM on May 31, 2016 [3 favorites]


FWIW, I always understood "trans*" to be a wildcard, and use it when I'm uncertain which label a person or community prefers, and don't have the ability to ask them. Particularly, it seems slightly more inclusive of a spectrum of gender identities/presentations, whereas I've generally understood "transgender" to mean something more specific.

If that's problematic, I'll stop doing it, but I was surprised to see the term on the list, because it isn't very common, and I've never seen anybody take issue with it.

(BTW, the link referenced in the style guide's footnote about trans* doesn't discuss the term at all)
posted by schmod at 10:57 AM on June 1, 2016


I understand that it's meant to emphasize that they're people first, and the adjectives are only a part of who they are, but people-first effectively others all the same.

That's because we only use people-first when talking about things perceived to be a negative. You can talk about a tall woman, a smart man, a beautiful genderqueer person. Not a woman of height, a man of great intellect, or a person of beauty.


I disagree rather strongly about this, but understand that your opinion may indeed be influenced by the ways that we often see people-first language used.

Firstly, for instance, if somebody described me as a "homosexual" or "geek" before introducing me as a person, I'd find that really weird, and incredibly insulting, because I don't consider either of those things to be a particularly prominent part of my identity.

Secondly, compare the two sentences:
"A driver struck and killed a cyclist"
"A person driving a car struck and killed a person riding a bicycle"

There's an emotional, empathetic, and human connection in the second sentence that isn't isn't present in the first. It's a much more impactful headline -- the first one barely elicits the reaction of "Oh shit! Somebody died!"

In this case, the absence of people-first language is used to "other" the cyclist, minimizes the agency of the person driving the car, and can be used to belittle the impact of a fairly shocking and gruesome story.

Even worse, we often see the passive-voice used in cases like this, ie:
"A cyclist was struck and killed by a driver"
"A cyclist was struck and killed"

Which basically boils down to bullshit like "Mistakes were made."

Also, note the absence of human-first language when stories involving overseas tragedies are often discussed by the media (particularly victims of our own wars). Omitting people-first language is a tool that is used to make deeply uncomfortable topics more palatable, while reinforcing our existing beliefs.

It leads to awkward language, and can be used irresponsibly (the example you gave would also be a no-no according to this guide, because it uses unnecessary and qualitative adjectives), but is absolutely preferable to reducing humans down to a single adjective.
posted by schmod at 11:06 AM on June 1, 2016


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