why inclusive language can be so much work, according to science
These days, the darlings of the far right across the West are fighting the “epidemic of wokness,” their new name for “political correctness,” a clunky euphemism for trying to be as inclusive and respectful of as many people as possible. While many may shrug and ask why anyone would praise politicians and pundits fighting for their fans’ right to be assholes to others, the campaign against “woke speech” is unfortunately very popular, especially among educated upper middle class suburbanites in America and Canada, and their European equivalents. But why?
Obviously, bigotry still exists and plays a very active role, but what about those who seem to voice genuine support for inclusive language and policies both in private and in public? A new study may hint at an explanation. After surveying 447 workers, researchers found that steadfast adherence to inclusive speech was associated with reports of cognitive fatigue. In other words, when you’re making sure you don’t say something that could be taken the wrong way despite your best efforts, you may expend a fair bit of mental bandwidth on self-censorship and end up feeling wiped out at the end of the day.
At this point, you may be reaching for your torches and pitchforks, but before you rush to start the official cancellation, please consider what these findings mean and how we should be using them. As the researchers point out, the conclusion that should absolutely not be drawn is that trying to be inclusive is too damn hard for the average person. No, the conclusion to which this points us is that inclusive language in systems that were originally built around keeping people out by race and class, is a process, not a flip of a switch.
Humans are creatures of habit, and habits take a long time to change. Every study on changing our patterns of thinking and action focus on incremental, consistent improvement until changes we want to instill become new habits. You may genuinely want to lose weight and get ripped at the gym, but starting off with supersets and three hour long workouts is a great way to injure yourself. Similarly, when trying to change people’s worldviews, you want them to do the work at a pace they can process and properly absorb.
why you need to prepare for pushback
Alternatively, if your workplace starts mandatory diversity training for people who think they’re already pretty chill and kind to others, some will be offended at what they see as being blamed for historical wrongdoings of which no culture has a shortage, some will be very anxious about committing a microaggression or using incorrect terminology, and some will be angry at what they see as thought policing. Even in the best case scenario, with the most well-meaning and compliant crowd, there’s going to be a lot of sudden second-guessing about what they say.
Again, this doesn’t mean that diversity training or inclusive policies are too hard, just that they need to be implemented wisely, gradually, and adopted in a way that makes them seem just like natural progressions. Certainly, there will always be people who’ll refuse even that, but it would avoid the feeling like everything one has done in their life was apparently a racist, or classist, or ableist, or sexual slight. Inclusion programs are fighting against multi-generational systems of biases and stereotypes, as they readily admit, and it’s a marathon, not a sprint.
Once again, I hear you reaching for the means of cancellation, and once again I am asking you to follow me where this goes. As an ex-Soviet Jew, I wish that a few classes on Jewish culture and history turned anti-Semities into allies who won’t tell me I did well on a negotiation “like a real Jew” when trying to compliment me, or call me a spawn of the Illuminati on a street corner as a kid. But I also know that anti-Semitism is thousands of years old, is still quite virulent, and no amount of movies about the Holocaust has soothed those who really hate me for existing.
The entire world is filled with racial biases and bigotry because, to quote Dr. Cox from Scrubs, people are bastard coated bastards with bastard filling. You can come in and lay out offensive and problematic histories, unconscious biases, and rap knuckles with rulers when people slip into speech patterns, idioms, or terms we now view as problematic, but people will still make mistakes even when they try their hardest, or feel like everything they know is a lie and they’re somehow responsible for it, then lash out in rejection.
the frustrating art of dealing with real people
Being a person today is hard for everyone. Yes, the burden is certainly not equally distributed, but we’ve become accountable to everyone at all times, and a single wrong tweet or rumor that goes viral can have severe consequences against a public that lost faith in its institutions and is now taking out their pent up frustrations at each other. Meanwhile, discourse about inclusivity, privilege, and intersectionality has grown so toxic, people are trying to justify trolls bemoaning that Anne Frank, a victim of the Nazi genocide machine, “had white privilege.” It’s utter insanity that alienates and scares people rather than welcomes them into a world of equals.
You have to give humans room to grow, learn, and rewire their brains, even when it’s frustrating to know you’re going to have to put up with words and expressions that irritate you even longer than you already have. But when working with people, we don’t have a choice. The message was supposed to be “we did bad things in the past but today we know better, and should do better, so let’s fix it.” But that’s not how it landed for a wide variety of reasons, and if we want inclusion programs to be successful, we need to learn how to recalibrate and evaluate them.
It’s becoming clearer and clearer that there’s a limit to how hard you can push, and while it’s easy to justify going in guns blazing because you’re trying to fix injustice, it’s also easy for the people you want to reach to justify digging in their heels by saying they’re being unfairly and viciously maligned simply for being born as they are. Remember, the goal has to be a natural dialogue, not a series of edicts, no matter how justifiable those directives might seem. I know I’ve already said it, yes, it’s frustrating, but it’s impossible to overstate just how flawed humans are, and how difficult it is to get people to change decades of internal worldbuilding.
If you’re trying to teach inclusion, you have to meet people where they are to take the first steps, then make their journey as smooth and intuitive as possible. When those who hear and agree say they feel like they’re constantly trying to rewire their minds on the fly as not to commit some sort of cancellable faux pas at all times, you not only make their progress more difficult, you’re also leaving the door wide open for bigots and racists who promise to take “the woke load off” their shoulders, and lead them down a rabbithole into regressive rage.
See: Koopman, J., et al (2022) Walking on eggshells: A self-control perspective on workplace political correctness, APA Psych, DOI: 10.1037/apl0001025