Q&A: Language is not neutral

Mass protests this year against the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and police brutality as a whole, were met by police departments with more police brutality, but often framed by mainstream newspapers and cable news as destructive only on the part of protestors. A New York Times headline read: “Appeals for calm as sprawling protests start to spiral out of control.” 

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It is clear that copy editing choices like referring to police violence in the passive voice, referring to Black and Latinx people by a lowercase instead of an uppercase, and other minutiae of language haven’t done enough to properly portray the realities of all people in the United States. 

But editorial choices like the Times’ headline are not the only option: there is also a contemporary push for outlets to adopt language that actually reflects power dynamics. Internally, these pushes are often spearheaded by journalists from historically marginalized identities and often follow in the footsteps of Black-owned publications, journalists, and academics who have already reframed their language with intention — for example, changing “black” to “Black.”

In 2016, Alex Kapitan started the Radical Copyeditor website — which is prefaced on the idea that language isn’t neutral — to talk about the power of language. Alex works with those who want their writing to be sensitive and anti-oppressive with regard to different identities. The Objective spoke to Alex about falling in love with words, the fallacies of the “censorship” argument used by those who criticize style guides like the Trans Style Guide, and the ways newsrooms can not only use language to minimize harm, but also do more good.

This conversation is edited for length and clarity.

Tell me why you chose to call yourself a “radical” copyeditor?

The term “radical copyeditor” came about when I started sharing on Facebook years ago (when I was editing for clients). I saw the term “people who mother” in something I was editing and got frustrated. I wrote on Facebook, “Dear author, when you use the term ‘people who play the mothering role,’ it invisibilizes same-sex couples, and not everyone has a mother. Not everyone who gives birth is a mother.” And then I signed it “Love and light, your friendly neighborhood radical copyeditor.”

When I think about “radical,” so many people — particularly in right-wing politics and journalism — have twisted the word “radical” to mean dangerous, fringe, extreme. Like ‘radical Bernie and his radical ideas about universal health care.’ 

That’s an intentional twisting of the meaning of the word radical, which is about the idea of going to the root of things, the root of your common struggles. But that idea is threatening to the status quo.

It’s also about locating myself at the intersection of radical politics and a commitment to liberation and anti-oppression work that intersects with nerdy language skills. Language is not neutral. It carries immense power to describe and create.

When you talk about language, you start talking about grammar. When you talk about grammar, you’re just talking about power. 

When did you learn to question language rules and the way language is used?

I was self taught. I never took a single copyediting course, never took a grammar course — it was all purely from a place of love of language and desire to put my nerdy skills to use. When I just started getting into it, I edited an academic journal for free and made all kinds of mistakes, but they didn’t have a copyeditor before and I was better than nothing.

I come from this naturally curious place: Is this a thing? Why is this a thing? This sounds right to me. Why does it sound right to me? Why not? 

Instead of learning grammar rules and committing them to heart, I encountered them and questioned them from the inside. “Radical” really just means root. What’s the root? What’s the origin of this? That’s what I’m all about, asking where something came from, why we do things a certain way and who it serves and doesn’t serve.

The purpose of grammar and weirdo language rules, a lot of times, is to set up a division between people who are using language “correctly,” and who are “right,” and more “valuable,” and more “civilized;” and people who are using language “incorrectly,” and who are thus less “smart,” and “less educated.”

For me, that’s not the point of language. The point of language and rules and trends in how we use language — it should be about comprehension.

Is it estranging to feel this way when so many people who love English are adamant about respecting grammar rules? To approach with that framework?

Yeah, but I keep doing it because my work is rooted in faith and my sense of values. The faith I’m a part of is about trying to live our values and create the world we want to live with. 

My own understanding of my purpose as an editor is to help people communicate and understand each other along lines of difference.

If there’s a choice between a rule just for the sake of having a rule because of someone who had power versus communicating in a way that humanizes people, I’ll go with the latter. I’m not about throwing out rules, but I’m also not about using rules for the sake of using rules.

The people who go on and on about syntax errors in say, Chinese food menus — screw you! Have you ever tried to learn Chinese? It’s absurd. Context comes in as well, the language choices that people make in a tweet versus in a Chinese restaurant menu versus a scholarly article on “postcolonial blah blah” all needs to be different depending on who the audience is.

So backtracking a little bit, where did your love for language come from?

I’ve always loved books. I can’t remember a time when I didn’t love books. My first favorite book was The Angry Bear and the Red Ripe Strawberry. I memorized that thing so I could read it to myself. It felt like such an empowering thing to have access to books. I just consumed them and I’ve never really thought too hard about what that was about for me.

I’m nonbinary and was sort of raised when there wasn’t any ability to see myself reflected in the mainstream world: nonbinary wasn’t a thing and trans meant binary. There were a lot of question marks about myself and I lacked the language to describe my experience.

I’m sure that reading books was part of that: loving fantasy and loving science fiction, pretending to be the people in those books, trying on different personas, universes, genders — I just loved it. It was a way of exploring the world, not even the existing world, but the conceiving universities of possibilities out there. 

My origin story in terms of what turned me into a radical copyeditor — I realized this last year, all of a sudden. I was in fifth grade, maybe sixth grade, and I had to write one of my first papers, which was a biography in two pages. I was reading one of those written-for-kids biographies and whenever the author mentioned the woman that I was researching, they called her by her first name. And whenever the author mentioned her husband, they called him by his last name. 

Even at 10, 12, I thought that was messed up.

How do you respond to those who say that these style guides — let’s use the Trans Style Guide as an example — are censoring people?

It’s a common one for people to say: “You can’t tell me how to talk.”

What it comes down to is actually: “I want to be able to say whatever I want without consequences.” People are frustrated because they’re being told that when they use language in a particular way, it has a negative impact.

That’s very convoluted and very twisted — it’s not what free speech means. When you say a trans woman is biologically male or a trans woman is male, that has actual harm. That’s harmful. That causes physical harm in people’s lives. It exacerbates oppression that is making it harder for trans women to survive when you use language in this way. 

Not someone saying you’re not allowed to use this string of words, we will deport you/execute you/lock you in prison — that’s what censorship looks like, but saying hey keep this in mind and use a little care in how you talk about things you don’t entirely understand, because it has an effect on the people you talk about. 

It’s pretty classic. If you are somebody who is used to having the entire world cater to you, and someone says I actually exist and Iwould prefer that you don’t make it harder for me to exist — that entire world being catered to you has a crack into it.

That change in behavior, that feels like a threat. It feels like an assault on your own centrality in the system of the world. It’s why white people struggle so much when you say “Hey, there are certain roadblocks that you have never encountered because you’re white.” They say “they don’t see any roadblocks,” but they’re proving my point. 

I think in those situations, it’s important to not engage on the terms the other person has set, but to engage on your own terms — you don’t start arguing about freedom of speech, you get to the root of the language and you get there quickly. That’s all you can do.

How do you think newsrooms can work toward minimizing harm with their language?

I think we want to do no harm and add positives, not just detract the negative. That’s part of it for me. I’m not a journalist and though I have occasionally published stuff that might fall in the category. I don’t see myself as part of that world, but it’s so important. I freaking love journalism and it matters so much. 

What comes up first and foremost around that question: What are the sorts of practices that we put in place to ensure that the people telling the stories have taken a lot of perspectives into account and have perspectives themselves? Newsrooms completely populated by straight cisgender white men are a problem because they’re not able to benefit form all the perspectives people bring to sharing stories. Journalism is about stories, about story-telling. Perspectives matter. 

One of the ways in which journalists do harm is by seeking the balanced perspective in an imbalanced system. Let’s say, 97 percent of the climate scientists in the world say “Climate change is real and we’re screwed, here’s all the data.” And you go and find the one person who says they’re a scientist and doesn’t believe in climate change. That’s not balanced. 

You have to cite the 97 people talking about climate change in order to cite that one person who thinks it’s fake. It’s not just about numbers or the majority.

The majority of cis people in the world don’t think trans people exist, but that’s not the point. When we look at balance, we have to look at the imbalances that exist in the story of brutality.

Janelle S. is a contributor at The Objective. This piece was edited by Gabe Schneider. Copy editing by Siri Chilukuri.

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