The French connection
On reclaiming the humanity of enslaved people, the AP Stylebook, and when good intentions crash right through sense
A ham-fisted execution of a good intention can be frustrating to people who sympathize with a concern but who cannot defend an overreach or an inelegant declaration. The Associated Press has demonstrated just such an overstep via an update to its widely-used Stylebook.
■ Within reason, it's a good practice to center descriptions of people with their personhood first. Calling people "slaves" makes the unjust condition of slavery the noun, rather than the people. A subtle change -- to "people who have been enslaved" or "enslaved people" -- adds words, but reminds the reader that the subjects are people, not animals or inanimate objects. Dehumanization is essential to the evil of slavery, so anyone who rejects that evil (which should include any right-thinking person) should recognize that using "people" as the noun and "enslaved" as the modifier is a reasonable linguistic accommodation.
■ Centering on particular nouns can go too far. The AP has pronounced, "We recommend avoiding general and often dehumanizing 'the' labels such as the poor, the mentally ill, the French, the disabled, the college-educated. Instead, use wording such as people with mental illnesses. And use these descriptions only when clearly relevant." In the case of "people with mental illness", it's probably a reasonable accommodation -- recognition of their very personhood has mattered a great deal to their treatment, both in the past and in the present.
■ But "the French"? Under what possible set of conditions could it be considered "dehumanizing" to call the people of a nation by the name they have chosen for themselves? It's not like calling Germans "Huns" in the First World War. "The French" is a demonym; nothing more, nothing less. There's no dehumanizing connotation to it.
■ Should writers be careful how broadly they paint with any brush that describes large groups of people? Certainly. But it is a huge jump from categories of people whose treatment has all too often been defined by how others have deliberately or even unintentionally dehumanized them (like "the disabled") to people who made choices to join a group ("the college-educated") or who are members of a human nation. Care should always be taken with the language: Words matter.
■ But over-extending a good intention so much that it contorts the language into absurdity risks causing people to miss the point entirely. The difference between a medicine and a poison is often in the dose. Writers, too, need to know when to stop themselves before going too far.
Eiffel Tower of Babel, rendered by Dall-E