This essay explains the need for Translations from the Wokish: A Plain-Language Encyclopedia of Social Justice Terminology. You can visit Translations from the Wokish here.
What happens when you say something to someone and they think you meant something different than what you said? Confusion, right? Sometimes it’s an argument or verbal fight—this comes up with my wife more often than either of us wish. Sometimes it’s signing yourself up for something that you didn’t really want. It’s nearly always frustrating.
Misunderstandings of this kind are commonplace, even routine, as we interact with one another in all aspects of life. Maybe it’s at work, and it isn’t quite clear what your boss wants or your coworkers need from you for your current project. This happens to me all the time. Maybe it’s with your family or friends, and when these get bad enough, we can forget why we put up with each other at all. If we pause to reflect, they all lead us to ponder why miscommunications happen so often and what we can do about them (Peter Boghossian and I wrote a book, How to Have Impossible Conversations, about this, in fact).
The most immediate conclusion we can draw from these common but frustrating—and exhausting—situations is that language matters. How we use our words, what they mean, and how they’re heard are all relevant not just to creating or avoiding misunderstandings like these but also to resolving them. I know for my own part that many of the arguments I end up in with my wife boil down in the end just to reminding one another that we care and taking whatever pains to clarify our meanings to one another. A lot of times, we don’t even disagree; we just aren’t communicating well. More words, shared in the pursuit of understanding one another clearly, become the solution to unclear words.
On the deepest level, we can get some appreciation for what’s going on underneath many miscommunications by considering what language is even for. Why do we have and use words at all? The answer is obvious: to communicate our thoughts to one another. This, in and of itself, isn’t a particularly deep question, but it raises one. What does effective communication do?
The point of language, to the best of my understanding, is to create shared intentions between the communicators involved. When I speak or write, what I genuinely want is for you to understand the idea I have in my head the same way I understand it. I want to get my idea into your head, and I want the shape and texture of that idea—its meaning—to be the same as what I have. The problem is that my idea and my understanding of it is locked up in my head, and your head isn’t my head. Creating accurately shared intentions can be easy (“look at that” with a point to an obviously interesting object or situation) or very difficult, calling upon us to say the same thing many times in many different ways to convey the fullness of our meaning to one another.
So now we can draw a further conclusion: communication can be hard, and to essence of resolving this difficulty is to have the same ideas as conveyed by the words we use to convey them. Language is, in some sense, then, a set of conventions for what various words (and sounds and inflections and so on) mean, and the people who speak the same language can generally assume that from one person to the next, there is some agreement upon those meanings.
Amid the other difficulties in communication, there’s always ambiguity, of course. Some words sound very similar or the same and can cause confusion: “There are kids” and “They’re our kids” don’t mean the same thing but sound kind of alike, enough to be misheard even under good hearing conditions. Sometimes two words sound exactly the same but are entirely different (“beat” and “beet”) or are spelled the same but sound and mean something different (“wind,” like that blows through the trees, and “wind,” like you do with a cord). Sometimes two words sound the same and are spelled the same: “battery,” like in your phone, and “battery,” like you need to go to jail for it. Sometimes grammar, which cannot always be heard, makes a difference: “Let’s eat, kitty” and “Let’s eat Kitty, “ makes for a humorous example. Sometimes one word means two things in two different contexts: one can be touched physically or emotionally, appropriately or inappropriately.
This ambiguity creates space for people who would manipulate us with language through deliberate or deceptive misuses of words that generate the wrong intention in the hearer that creates an advantage for the speaker. The manipulations of salespeople and abusers immediately come to mind. This, we all agree, is a problem, and we usually do what we can to be savvy enough to realize when this is happening to us and to minimize it as best we can.
Many people do not realize that these kinds of things are happening, not necessarily intentionally but certainly by design, within Critical Social Justice. As an ideology, Critical Social Justice is very interested in language, and as an ideology with a deep academic pedigree behind it, it has come to use language in a very specialized way. Whether manipulative or not (and there are good reasons to conclude both of these at different times), the way Critical Social Justice uses its words is absolutely necessary to understanding how it thinks and what it does.
Words we’re all vaguely familiar with tend to show up in specific, unexpected ways in Critical Social Justice. Some of these sound good, like things we would definitely want more of: diversity, inclusion, equity, antiracism, and justice. Some of these sound bad, like things we should definitely want to fight against and minimize: racism, sexism, misogyny, hate, and white supremacy. The thing is, none of these ten terms that I’ve listed here mean what most of us think they mean when they’re used in the context of Critical Social Justice. In fact, even the terms critical and social justice aren’t used to mean what most of us think they mean in Critical Social Justice. These sorts of issues apply to scores, if not hundreds, of terms.
This is a problem. It is, in fact, an extremely significant problem because it causes more or less all of the problems I’ve listed above to come into play, not just in how we communicate (or fail to communicate) with each other, but also in our institutions and at the level of our national (and international) conversations about important social, cultural, and political topics. Because Critical Social Justice means something different than what most people expect by so many of its terms, and because its terms are often so specialized and written in academic jargon (think “privilege-preserving epistemic pushback” or “epistemic friction”), it’s important to create a resource that helps people understand what Critical Social Justice means by its words so that they can better decide for themselves whether or not the Critical Social Justice agenda is right for them.
Take “inclusion,” for example. Most of us understand the term “inclusion” to mean something related to “welcoming” or “not keeping people out.” In Critical Social Justice, “inclusion” does mean this, in some sense, but it means it in a very specific way that, as with everything in Critical Social Justice, is rooted in a “systemic” view of power dynamics and injustice in society. In the worldview of Critical Social Justice, anything that can be construed as offensive to anyone who belongs to an identity group Critical Social Justice considers marginalized, minoritized, or oppressed—sometimes called “protected classes” in other contexts—is deemed to be so potent, traumatizing, or even violent as to preclude their participation in part or in full and is thus exclusionary to them.
That means that under the view of Critical Social Justice, “inclusion” carries with it an implication of very strict “politically correct” speech codes and, at times, limitations on who can speak or even be present, as determined by matters of their identity, like race, sex, gender, or sexuality. For instance, a space with too many white people present can be deemed not inclusive to black people who want (or “need”) their own space, at least in the view of Critical Social Justice—thus creating a kind of intentional and politically reversed re-institution of segregation. It seems not everyone who enthusiastically supports institutionalizing inclusion initiatives understands this point.
For another example, consider “white supremacy.” You probably have a good idea what that terms means, and, unless you are actually a white supremacist (as they tend to be openly proud of it), you probably don’t like or support it. That’s not what is meant in Critical Social Justice. As critical whiteness educator and bestselling author Robin DiAngelo puts it in her 2016 book What Does It Mean to Be White?, “Remember: When I use the term ‘white supremacy’, I do not use it to refer to extreme hate groups. I use the term to capture the pervasiveness, magnitude, and normalcy of white dominance and assumed superiority” (p. 148, revised edition). That is, she means something vague and systemic, not the active kind of racism we associate with hate groups like the KKK.
Importantly, she explicitly tells us that she means something different (and chalks this view up to Critical Social Justice in another book), something many people may not recognize as being white supremacy. So, when people in the mindset of Critical Social Justice later implore us to take on certain behaviors because of the rampant problem of “white supremacy” in our society, anyone who doesn’t fully realize this difference or who reacts emotionally to such a highly charged word is likely to misunderstand what is meant and take actions they may not fully intend.
Now, in general, I’m not the kind of person to tell people what to do, or really even what they should do. I’m not particularly interested in ordering other people’s lives and affairs. I do think, however, that people should be able to make their decisions in as clear-eyed a fashion as possible, knowing what they’re signing up for before they take it up or decide that it’s not really for them. For that reason, I see this manipulation of language within Critical Social Justice as a major problem, especially since so few people fully understand what the terms mean or that they aren’t just a few weird definitions here and there but all exist within a particular and peculiar view of the world. They are, in fact, in the formal sense of the term, embedded within the Critical Social Justice discourse, and that discourse defines their ideology.
I consider this extremely important. Many of the ideas in Critical Social Justice aren’t just ascendant and common in our society and conversations now, they’re being institutionalized, weaponized, even legislated upon. The disagreements between (former) friends over the terms of Critical Social Justice—who, besides a white supremacist, wants to be friends with someone who supports “white supremacy” (and won’t even admit it?)—are tearing us apart as a society. I have had these kinds of disagreements and damaged relationships, and I know you probably have too. Enough is enough.
Luckily, for the most part, Critical Social Justice is very clear about what it means about its terms. It may intentionally make political use of “doubling” (using two different meanings of a word at once) and rely heavily on technical jargon, but its manipulations of language are mostly out in the open and spelled out at tremendous length, at least for those who take the time to learn to read their material and actually read it. This, I have done (not much to my enjoyment, I will tell you). This is what led me to create Translations from the Wokish: A Plain Language Encyclopedia of Social Justice Terminology (after being asked for it by countless people for well over a year).
In Translations from the Wokish, I try to dive into the specific Critical Social Justice meanings of familiar words (like critical, racism, diversity, and inclusion), specific academic jargony terms (like hermeneutical injustice, power-knowledge, and positionality), and philosophical or conceptual background terms (like Social Justice, Critical Theory, Theory, poststructrualism, standpoint epistemology, and queer Theory). My goal with this project is to help people understand these terms as they are used by Critical Social Justice and to illustrate how they come together to form a cohesive worldview and ideology that deserves to have been made into a proper noun: Critical Social Justice. That way, people can see those ideas for what they really are without having to read thousands of pages of scholarly and activist material and then decide for themselves if the Critical Social Justice worldview is something they want to take up—and if it isn’t, it should help them understand it well enough to argue against it.
Translations from the Wokish has been written in a roughly encyclopedic format, rather than just as a glossary, so that people who use it can really come to understand the terms of Critical Social Justice and how they fit in a peculiar bigger-picture understanding of the world. Each entry is therefore something of an essay that explains the terms themselves, how they fit within the Critical Social Justice paradigm, and how they tend to be put into practice (with some comments about why these implementations might stand at odds with what a liberal society would want to take on). So that everyone can see for themselves, every entry in Translations from the Wokish in which it is relevant contains examples of the terms being used in context within the literature of Critical Social Justice. This should help people get a sense of this literature without having to take the time to read thousands of difficult pages of it themselves.
Now, I have to ask you to bear with me a little. Translations from the Wokish is a rather massive project involving hundreds of entries, each of which has to be properly sourced, understood, and written before it can be published. In that sense, it is and will be a work in progress, maybe indefinitely. I intend to continue to polish existing entries as I go, to add further poignant examples from the Critical Social Justice literature, and to keep adding to the encyclopedia, all as I have time. Eventually, it will probably comprise around 500 terms of Critical Social Justice language and usage.
In the end, I hope people will understand Critical Social Justice and then make up their own mind about it. As I just noted, I don’t think a liberal society will want to take up with much of the Critical Social Justice view of the world or its activism, but if it does, I think it should do so only after clear, honest discussion that gets the terms right and that understands its intentions clearly. At a minimum, my hope is that Translations from the Wokish will foster more understanding and better conversations about both Critical Social Justice and social justice itself. Language matters. How we use our words matters. We have to understand one another.