People who have, People who do, People with, People

One of the perpetual complaints about political correctness is that people demand to be called one thing, then another, and people can’t say anything without offending somebody. As regular readers know, I have no time for political correctness whining. I do feel for people who examine unpopular ideas and opinions–it’s hard to run against group norms, for good reasons (Research that confirms racist and classist beliefs tends to be accepted just fine, though.) But using language in a decent, polite, and caring way strikes me as very little to ask.

I am old enough now that I have seen much of the language around gender binaries change in new and lovely ways–and in ways I’m not dialed in on. Often, you don’t learn how to speak in ways that welcome other people until you’ve done it wrong and get corrected–something that I strongly think fuels the resentment against political correctness. People used to being treated like authorities are suddenly corrected, and that wounds their pride. Fragility, in other words. Silly: it’s great when people correct you. It means people are telling you what they need, and that’s so much easier than guessing. And they help you become more welcoming and supportive to people who have the same preferences they do in the future.

The classroom, however, is a tough place. Students are often afraid to speak up. In order to navigate language when I don’t necessarily know, I have a practice that I has served me very, very well over the years: start with “people who.” I learned this from an autism researcher, Barbara Wheeler. She always, always said “Children with autism” or “Children who have autism” rather than “autistic children” and it’s a great habit of speech because it puts the individual’s humanity first. It follows the same construction practice as people of color, and over the years, it’s worked well for me.

It works for a bunch of things: “People who hold conservative views”; “People who are transgender”; “people who are blind”; “People who face mobility barriers”; “People who don’t fit male-female gender binaries”; “people who espouse libertarian views”; “people who are stateless”.

I could go on, but you get the idea. It’s polite, in general, but for me the biggest benefit has been as a self-discipline. We are not speaking of “Trump supporters,” we are speaking of “people who supported or support Donald Trump.” Language for me forms my habit of mind; I do not have a little voice in my head; I have a ticker tape of text. When I revise that text, it changes how I think and feel. This way of speaking reminds me that I am always dealing with and speaking about people first and then their characteristics, values, ideas, struggles, etc. second. They are foremost people, and it reminds me that they merit care whatever their story is.

Note that I don’t see “people who hold libertarian views” as being on par with “people who are stateless.” But there are ways of addressing differences of power, status, and oppression without using adjectives to reduce people to one part of their struggle or one part of their value set.

I fretted at various points about whether this practice would make me wordy, but in general, my sentences roll out of my face the way they always do. I’m a wordy person. Efficiency can wait on humanity.