Kurt Vonnegut Jr. once wrote “We are what we pretend to be, so we must be careful about what we pretend to be.” I would submit the corollary claim: “We mean what we say, so we must be very careful about what we say.” The way we use language reflects and informs how we think. Thus, I propose a few grammatical conventions to be adopted by those with leftist, progressive, and radical inclinations.
1. Refrain from capitalizing “american” and other nationalities.
The rise of Donald Trump, among other world events, suggests a resurgence of WWII-era nationalism; wasn’t “Make Germany Great Again” Hitler’s campaign slogan? It was no good then and it’s no good now! De-capitalize, de-emphasize, de-nationalize! Be proud of your country, but not too proud. Celebrate what’s good and criticize what’s bad. See yourself primarily as a citizen of the world, no more/less important than anyone else, and no more/less deserving of safety, dignity, freedom, and respect. (Eg. “My name is Dustin and I’m an american living on Earth.”)
2. Exercise caution when using “we.”
“We” is a multifaceted pronoun that can be evoked (implicitly and explicitly) in a variety of forms. The collective we can be a powerful tool for generating feelings of solidarity and resilience within a community, and should be considered correct under the radical-grammatical framework (Eg. “We shall overcome” as a slogan of the american civil rights movement).
The national we, however, tends to impose a sanitized collective history and a simplistic collective will over a hugely diverse group of people, thereby erasing many individual’s narratives and needs. For example, in resigning from the 2016 Presidential race, Ted Cruz echoed a conventional claim, that “we were founded on… [the idea] that each of us have a right to find and use our god given gifts, a right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” In reality, of course, america’s founding slaveholders (to use Nathan Schneider’s term) made pallid efforts to extend such rights to most americans– namely those without property, white skin, a penis, or any combination thereof.1 Thus, this usage is not grammatically-radically correct and should be avoided.
The national we is closely related to the weaponized we, which constructs a toxic and dangerous “them” so as to preserve an pure and sanctimonious “us.” For example, in calling for further militarization of the US-Mexico border in 1993, former President Clinton stated “we must not, and we will not, surrender our borders to those who wish to exploit our history of compassion and justice. We cannot tolerate those who traffic in human cargo, nor can we allow our people to be endangered by those who would enter our country to terrorize Americans.” Donald Trump recently said the same thing, but at a lower reading level. I call this the weaponized we because it often prefigures and promotes all kinds of violence (both vigilante and state-sanctioned), as we have certainly seen in the case of the US-Mexico border.2
3. Be consistent in your use of racial/ethnic identifiers
“White” conveys skin color, not geographic history. “African-american” conveys geographic history, not skin color. “Race” is an ambiguous social construct that does not hold up under a biological lens, so let us be clear about what we mean.3
If you wish to speak about skin color, and the different experiences afforded by skin color, then say “white,” “black,” and “brown.” If, for some reason, you wish to speak about geographic histories, then use terms like “african-american” and “mexican-american,” but be sure to also use terms like “irish-american” and “finnish-american.” In many instances, geographic history is not a particularly useful “racial” identifier, since our ancestries are convoluted and may be largely forgotten. And what time period should they refer to, anyway? Everybody comes from Africa…
Additionally, if you wish to speak about geography, it is best to be consistent in your use of countries vs. continents. Thus, the designation “african-american,” should be coupled with designations like “european-american” and “american-american.” Note: The use of “american-american” as an ethnic identifier should absolutely be considered grammatically-radically correct.
- I’m referring to the line “With the exception of a few shared mythologies about our founding slaveholders and our most murderous wars, we like to imagine that everything we do is being done for the very first time.” See: Nathan Schneider, “Preface,” in On Anarchism by Noam Chomsky (Penguin, 2014), ix.
- For a sense of the violence emanating from the militarization of the US-Mexico border see: Death on a Friendly Border, DVD, directed by Rachel Antell (2001). For a discussion of the violence of exclusion and the construct of global apartheid see: Joseph Nevins, “Security in an Age of Global Apartheid” in Operation Gatekeeper and beyond: The War on “Illegals” and the Remaking of the U.S.-Mexico Boundary (New York: Routledge, 2010).
- An explanation of this claim can be in a Newsweek article by provided Robert Sussman, who writes: “At first, scientists attempted to classify human races based on variations in characteristics such as skin color, hair color and form, eye color, facial anatomy, and blood groups…Traits considered to be ‘racial’ are actually distributed independently and depend upon many environmental and behavioral factors…For example, skin color is related to the amount of solar radiation, and dark skin is found in Africa, India, and Australia. However, many other genetic traits in peoples of these areas are not similar. Furthermore, similar traits such as skin color are convergent; different genes can cause similar morphological and behavioral characteristics. For example, genetic pathways to dark skin are different in Tamil Nadu and in Nigeria.” See: Robert Wald Sussman, “There Is No Such Thing As Race,” Newsweek, August 11, 2014, http://europe.newsweek.com/there-no-such-thing-race-283123?rm=eu (Accessed: July 8, 2016).