Language Policing and the Dynamics of Power and Privilege

This wasn't what I had originally planned to write about tonight. But since it came up that a well-respected member of Real Progressives was tone-policed by some economically privileged allies, I'm addressing the problem of tone policing, why it has no place in our movement, and how allies need to take their allyship to our common progressive goals seriously instead of treating this as just another feel-good, boutique activism project.


Struggling poor people are in a literal battle for our lives. We have much bigger fish to fry than having to worry about getting bogged down with having to walk on eggshells in order to accommodate economically privileged people's delicate feelings and fragile egos as a condition of their allyship. 


Tone-policing is straight out of the neoliberal playbook. It ensures that the fight for social and economic justice, a truly progressive agenda that all our lives ultimately depend upon, becomes solely the responsibility of struggling poor people who are already marginalized, disprivileged and disempowered by virtue of socio-economic status alone - irrespective of race, age, gender, or national origin. 


Tone-policing protects a status quo of systemic oppression, privilege, and power. To be clear: Systemic oppression is not something that occurs in a vacuum or in a fit of collective absent-mindedness. Systemic oppression is an intergenerational privilege transfer vehicle that serves up the human rights of consumable, disposable people in economies of scale. Privilege occupies the space where someone else's human rights belong. 


If economically privileged people people can't handle the way struggling poor people are talking about the brutal economic terrorism of austerity, life-threatening poverty, and the hidden injuries of class in our own words, it will never matter how "politely" we talk about these things - you've already sent us the message that your real issue is that we're even speaking up at all. 


There is nothing "nice" about people dying from poverty and lack of affordable life-saving prescription drugs. There is no "nice" way to talk about the very real suffering of struggling families with disabled adults and children who've been thrown under the bus with budget cuts, while being lectured on how they must "dial it back" so as to not offend privileged people's delicate sensibilities. There is no "nice" way to talk about the devastation of poor human trafficking survivors' lives who wouldn't have been trafficked if they had not been made vulnerable to social predators due to unrelieved poverty and homelessness in post-Welfare Reform America in the first place. 


An estimated 250,000 Americans die from poverty each year. How many more have to suffer and die before we all get the real change we need? You know, that systemic change that is long overdue and desperately needed so that we can all have some hope of being able to survive? Poor people who've already died from poverty, from lack of healthcare, from being unable to afford their insulin, from homelessness and exposure to the elements and diseases from lack of access to basic sanitation and so on, have already had their voices censored permanently by preventable premature death. But tone-policing ensures that those of us who've not yet died from the very real material deprivation that poverty is, won't get our voices heard while we're still alive and able to speak out.


It's been difficult enough to speak out against neoliberalism's rogue wave of social Darwinism and non-stop victim-blaming over the past 40 years' War on the Poor. There is no "nice" way to talk about poverty and classism. Classism - like racism, sexism, ageism, and ableism - ruins the life chances of the poor and near-poor across all racial, age, and gender lines. Classism crushes poor struggling people's hopes and dreams under privileged people's fancy shoes. There is nothing "polite" about that. 


If privileged people take umbrage to the way stressed out struggling poor people talk about class oppression, but actively alleviating poverty and dismantling classism is not a priority concern, then they're not an ally. Nor are they progressive. Economically privileged people don't get to subjectively define poverty and classism. They don't get to silence struggling people who are suffering and tone-police our lived experiences with the hidden injuries of class and lecture us for being "too angry." Anger is a perfectly legitimate and rational response when one is being harmed. 


We are not obligated to prioritize privileged people's comfort at all times while telling our truths and stating facts. Upper-middle class people's comfort does not trump struggling people's lives. We are in the middle of a human rights crisis that's been many decades in the making. We stand at the precipice of the point of no return. You are either for our human rights or you're not, there is no "Other" box.


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