Friday, September 9, 2022

‘Homelessness’ finally eliminated!

Night Ministry worker checks on unhoused couple on Lower Wacker Drive.

     “Look at his shirt!” I said to my wife, aghast, as we watched two extremely fit young men trade volleys at the U.S. Open. Square neck, with a bib effect that made Karen Khachanov seem like he was wearing a barista apron.
     “Take it up with Nike,” she replied, dismissively.
     Translation: Change happens, deal with it.
     As if the reality that “the goat” Charlie Brown was, for baseball ineptitude, has completely morphed into “the GOAT” that Serena Williams is, the Greatest Of All Time, were not strain enough, now comes another linguistic shift, courtesy of my friends at the Night Ministry.
     ”Revised Mission Statement Recognizes Primacy of Human Connection and Dignity of Clients” reads the headline across that organization’s Fall 2022 Nightlights newsletter. 
     “The Night Ministry’s previous mission statement referred to those we serve as ‘experiencing homelessness’” it explains. “The word ‘homeless’ has been deliberately replaced with ‘unhoused,’ as the former often has derogatory connotations.”
     The problem with designating new words to describe negative conditions is that, no matter how carefully chosen, they quickly become negative words themselves, sometimes insults. Changing conditions is hard, often impossible, so we change the words describing them instead. Go for the low-hanging fruit.
     The idea, I believe, is that changing language helps change conditions. Maybe so. Though this also leads to something I call “euphemism creep” where any word attached with certain populations assumes the difficulties of the groups described, and becomes pejorative. “Special needs” was supposed to replace developmentally disabled, but soon kids were taunting each other as “special.”      The tendency has been to stop labeling people under all-encompassing terms. Thus you’re not blind, but a person with visual challenges. Focus on the human, not the difficulty.
     That’s why “slave” has been shown the gate. The word fell from favor to describe the condition afflicting many Black Americans before 1865 because it was based on the perspective of white society, which viewed them as chattel, period. When in reality they possessed all the qualities other people have. So instead of “her grandmother was born a slave,” I write, “her grandmother was born in slavery,” which isn’t a loss in style or comprehension and leaves the door open to her grandmother’s many fine qualities.
     But banishing negativity can blur the experience being described. Get vague enough and the reader won’t know what you’re talking about. I once wrote a long piece on what it’s like to be disfigured, talking to people with no noses, burned faces, or features distorted through neurofibromatosis.
     Mosaic, the London medical website publishing the article, was uncomfortable with the word “disfigured.” They wanted such people called “different.”

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  1. Any chance your conversation at Lit Fest (yeah, I don't like the name either) will be available as streaming or Facebook option?

    1. As far as I can tell from looking into it briefly, the events at this year's Lit Fest will not be streamed or televised, Baruch. In the past, C-Span's Book TV has broadcast many of the author events, but it seems like they are not involved this year, for some reason. (I'm not totally sure about this, I could be wrong...)

    2. They are making a mistake. This conversation will be gold.

  2. Put me down as an anti-euphemist. Even the distinction between "slave" and "born in slavery" diminishes the force of the ignominy inherent in slavery and thus lessens the impact of what it means to be "born a slave." And most euphemisms, just sound silly with "unhoused" being a prime example. I thought I saw an attempt to avoid the "person" words in a Sun-Times article that used the term "alder" to refer to what most people still call "alderman." But, alas, "alderperson" also made an appearance in the article.


    1. San Francisco's equivalent of our "alders..." is Supervisor. Alderperson just sounds weird and clunky. Supervisor is an easy, common, gender-neutral title. Works for me.

    2. Yeah, “alderperson” is a good example of why trying to make every single word in the English language gender neutral is not necessarily a great idea. Like George Carlin pointed out, is it really an improvement to go from “manhole” to “personhole” ?
      I’d also be leery about looking to San Francisco for guidance on any matters regarding municipal governance.

    3. They're members of the City Council, right? So why not "Councilmembers" instead of "alders"...which I suppose originated with those " village elders" of earlier times?

      The Cleveland City Council has 17 "Council members"...twelve men and five women. They are all "Council members"...either one word or two. The males are all "Councilmen" on the official city website, and the women are either "Councilwomen" or "Councilmembers"...

      But even after thirty years, I occasionally have to correct myself when I call them the "aldermen"...I spent nearly half my life in Chicago...and old habits die hard.

  3. I agree with you that this move by the Night Ministry, while well-intentioned, is not likely to be very effective in addressing the problem they're trying to address.

    Interesting anecdote about Mosaic. Whatever one thinks of the changes, "unhoused" is at least a synonym for "homeless," "enslaved people" is not confusing. "Different" is not even close to synonymous with ugly or disfigured.

    I agree with regard to Black and White, as well. Capitalize them, or not, it seems to me it should be the same with both.

  4. You don't hear "slave" at all anymore, especially within the last several years. Now it is "enslaved" in "enslaved people"...a way to emphasize that Black Americans were people, not domesticated animals or property. The Mississippian who managed Jackie Robinson in the minors begged his bosses not to add him to the roster. He said: "Are you sure a [n-word] is a human being?"

    I've also heard "de-housed" for "homeless"...quite some time ago, in fact. Is an "unhoused" person different from a "de-housed" one? Does "de-housed" refer to evicted renters? These euphemisms are frequently used by government attempt to ease painful realities. So "special needs" supplanted "'developmentally disabled"...which replaced "retarded"...which replaced "slow"...

    I grew up with all those endless bad jokes about the bright yellow "Slow--Children at Play" signs. You don't see them anymore. If I could find one, I'd buy it. It would go well in my backyard, because I've always been something of a--well, never mind...I just want one.

  5. Although labeling is almost impossible to avoid, nothing good comes out of it. As soon as you are labeled for something you are now associated with all things of that label. I am quite liberal but don't like being called it as I don't check all the boxes.
    Other labels can have deleterious effects. Defund the Police for example gives to many the wrong impression. I'm for serious police reform but I don't want to necessarily reduce their budgets.
    One final note, regardless of the wisdom of the term change from homeless to unhoused, The Night Ministry does miraculous things and is very worthy of support.

  6. Great column, “euphemism creep” a superb descriptor. It’s all a variation on the old marketing ploy of giving a bad product a new label, only difference being that it’s done to appeal to heightened sensitivities rather than padding the bottom line.
    The infantilism of capitalising “Black” while lower casing “white” is so obvious that I’m surprised it hasn’t been commented upon more (John McWhorter mentions it in his latest book, and cites it as a subtle example of what he calls “woke racism”, a philosophy which he postulates as being an actual religion). Your anecdote regarding your resistance to its adoption was illuminating. As you hinted at, it’s a tactic designed to give patronising props to grievance minded black people, while poking at a sore spot on grievance minded white people. Nice to know that our print media are establishing standards that are custom tailored to elicit emotional responses from readers based on racial animus.

  7. That’s the beauty of writing for a well-established publication like the Sun-Times. It has its own style guide. I never have to agonize over whether to quote someone using what I must call “the N-word.” There’s no other option.

    Understood . But what keeps you from using the heinous epithet in writing confined to your blog?


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