Bruce Thornton is a Shillman Journalism Fellow at the David Horowitz Freedom Center.
Years ago at a block party in my old neighborhood, my next-door neighbor, a Mexican-American named Lawrence, introduced himself to a new resident, a white self-proclaimed activist lawyer. “No, no!” she scolded him. “Lorenzo!”
The chutzpah of a white woman telling a Mexican-American man how to say his own name still epitomizes for me the white elite Left’s obtuseness about their own patronizing arrogance, particularly when it comes to the ethnic “other” they supposedly champion. And it also reveals the way identity politics uses language to encode its reduction of complex, unique individuals into crude political caricatures that they label “diversity.”
I remembered this encounter last week when I read about a poll that found only 2% of Hispanics/Latinos used the clunky neologism “Latinx,” and 40% are offended by it. Invented by mostly white, university educated “woke” activists and race-mongers, the word is a virtue-signaling totem for the Left’s exquisite sensitivity to how language allegedly reinforces sexism in order to further the nefarious designs of the “patriarchy” that, as the cliché goes, wants to keep women, especially women “of color,” “pregnant, barefoot, and in the kitchen.”
In the case of “Latinx,” the “woke” complaint is that “Latino” is a masculine noun, and so its use to describe people of both sexes is demeaning and exclusive of Latina women. But this pretext assumes that native speakers of Spanish, or any other European gendered dialect of Latin, will hear the word and immediately think of males and notice the exclusion of females.
Similarly, grammatical usage such as defaulting to the masculine when describing mixed-sex groups has been so common for so many centuries that most native speakers won’t even notice a word’s gender, any more than they think about biological males and females when they hear masculine or feminine nouns that have nothing to do with biological sex. It’s doubtful that a Spanish-speaker thinks the word for song, “canción,” which is feminine, has some meaningful connection to women or is exclusive of males.
The politico-linguistic dynamic behind “Latinx” was started by feminism over half a century ago in the case of the English suffix “-man” to describe a non sex specific activity or profession. Until feminist activists started complaining, most speakers of English would hear a word like “chairman,” “spokesman,” or “Congressman,” and would not notice its biological sex implications any more than they would other suffixes like “-ing” or “-ed.” Moreover, the same tenacity of usage, the power of linguistic habit that makes grammatical gender unexceptional, explains why words in English like “human” and “woman,” despite the efforts of feminist language commissars, are still in common use.
But more broadly, after decades of feminist agitation and charges of sexism, now the official style in public writing––which is to say, the style that reflects not grammar and standard usage, but an illiberal ideology that reduces individuals to categories––is to eschew such insults and so avoid retaliatory attack. Hence the silly substitutes like “chair-person” or “Congress-person.”
The whole thing reminds me of the old gag about the woman who calls the cops on a man indecently exposing himself. The officer comes to her second-story apartment, looks out the window, and says, “I don’t see anything.” The woman responds, “Of course not! You’re not using the binoculars!”
This use of words to reinforce ideology, then, is especially important for the identity politics and the various victim-lobbies whose numbers have expanded over the years. The therapeutic cult that has attended the rise of protected victim groups, the notion that people who’s been victimized should never, ever get their feelings hurt, has helped to multiply protective euphemisms, what historian Russell Jacoby years ago called “linguistic smile buttons.”
Again feminism has been at the forefront of such efforts, so that no woman hearing a word like “craftsman” will be traumatized by the heinous implication that her sex is unable to “craft” anything. Likewise, people who used to be called “crippled” or “handicapped” are now “differently abled,” as though the inability to walk or hear or see is just an alternative lifestyle. Even cliched expressions like “fell on deaf ears” is verboten.
Perhaps the most duplicitous of these euphemisms is “homeless person.” We know that the genuinely homeless, those who through no fault of their own have no place to live, are a tiny part of the hordes of bums, tramps, panhandlers, addicts, and crazies turning cities into unlivable, filthy, and dangerous hellholes. Yet the euphemism is useful camouflage for the government agencies and private charities who redistribute taxpayer dollars to the political and professional enablers of such chaos.
And that’s the point of all this linguistic innovation and surveillance. Politics is about power, the power to make people do what you want them to do so that you can gain leverage. Language is particularly useful for getting such influence, for it is the public, common possession of millions of speakers. Changing the standards of accepted speech for all these people is a force-multiplier for one faction to achieve its political aims at the expense of another.
But a tactic that for decades has worked with guilty whites, especially the cognitive elites that control the culture and media, is becoming less effective with our largest ethnic minority, immigrants from Mexico and Latin America who comprise 18.7% of the population. The permanent Democrat majority that increasing numbers of such immigrants would help to create isn’t looking like such a sure thing these days. Indeed, a recent Wall Street Journal poll showed that Hispanics are split evenly between Democrats and Republicans, an improvement on Donald Trump’s already higher than usual numbers of Hispanic voters in 2020.
The dislike of Latinx is one sign that many self-identified Hispanics who are not college educated professionals or activists are tiring of the radical, antitraditional rhetoric and politics of the “woke” Democrats. On issues like same-sex marriage, abortion, or transgenderism, many Hispanics have more traditional views. They also are more concerned with the economy and jobs than they are with tony causes like Climate Change or policies to steer people into driving more- expensive electric cars. Finally, one of the most important signifiers of ethnic identity is language, and native speakers don’t like outsiders fiddling around with their language. Seeing and hearing the word Latinx, one that serves a tiny minority of national Hispanics, reminds the majority that their interests aren’t as important as those of a small cohort in progressives’ “diversity” club.
More important, Hispanics––who prefer that term only as the least objectionable choice foisted on them by the larger culture––also chafe against the way that their particular ethnicities and national origins are homogenized into one reductive category in order to facilitate the Dems’ efforts to create a super-majority. Writing at the Spectator World, Alex Perez emphasizes the true diversity camouflaged by words like “Hispanic,” let alone the preposterous “Latinx”:
If Democrats, or Republicans for that matter, truly want to understand Hispanics, a successful poll wouldn’t frame the demographic question along the Latinx/Hispanic dichotomy. It would simply ask: where are you from? A Cuban would say he’s from Cuba, and a Mexican, unsurprisingly, would say he’s from Mexico. A Puerto Rican — you guessed it — is from Puerto Rico. In all these polls, Hispanics choose Hispanic over Latinx only because it is the least distasteful of the two words, though this choice betrays a deeper truth that all Hispanics know: disparate Hispanic groups, more often than not, merely tolerate each other.
Working class Hispanics in particular aren’t happy with the way Democrats reflexively assume that their positions on, say, illegal immigration are by default those of all “Hispanics.” Their dislike of “Latinx” is a sign of that discontent.
Finally, these trends against progressives’ identity politics are a hopeful sign that this divisive, illiberal ideology is losing support among some of their constituency. The whole focus on the crude stereotypes that derive from the age of Darwinian “scientific racism,” is more and more obviously the antithesis of true diversity, which comprises ethnic identity and, more important, individual character and minds.
Maybe then we will return to the foundational principle of our political order: that every human being is created equal and possesses unalienable rights like life, liberty, and the pursuit happiness––which includes the right to identify yourself and your ethnicity according to your own beliefs and traditions.