The Fool’s Guide To Person-First

Years ago, I came to the realization that calling my client “the defendant” rather than by his name fed into his dehumanization. He wasn’t a person, but a defendant. Similarly, I never called the prosecution “the People,” as was stylized in the caption in New York state courts. They were “the government,” or perhaps “the district attorney” or “the prosecution,” because the jury was “the people.” I have no clue whether it actually changed anything, but I believed it to be the right thing to do, so I did it.

Since then, it’s spiraled out to others, to everyone, under the name “person-first” language. Except it wasn’t what I sought to do, replace a characterization with a name, but replace a description with a longer description that started with the word “person” and ended with whatever the point of the phraseology would be. Someone wasn’t homeless, but a person experiencing homelessness, and thereafter houselessness which became the new homelessness as if people were confused by the former.

Did that help? Did it matter? It didn’t house the homeless, which would seem to matter a lot more than what you called them, and yet this became an article of faith. When I questioned the efficacy of this rhetorical shift years ago, I was told in no uncertain terms by people who were unduly passionate that one either used person-first language or you were evil. The less fervent would argue “what does it hurt?” similar to the argument for pretending the people get to choose their pronouns and it was, if nothing else, a matter of decency. To not do so was to be discourteous, disrespectful, indecent.

It’s now made its way into the AP Stylebook, which matters as many media outlets base their writing and editing according to its dictates.

Why the AP would recommend using “people with mental illnesses” for “the college educated” or “the French” is unclear, but someone thought it important enough to put in writing. But I digress.

The underlying concept is that when writing about someone who has a “disability,” itself a vague euphemism that obscures whether that person has no legs or is blind, the person should not be viewed as one-dimensional, a body with a disability as opposed to a fully-formed human being who, among a great many other characteristics, has a disability (whatever that means). Thus, it’s “dehumanizing” to use the language “disabled person” as opposed to “person with a disability.”

Is it dehumanizing, or is it replacing two words with three and patting oneself on the back for being such a decent writer? Does any person with a disability feel hurt by being described as disabled rather than person with a disability? The answer to this question can be tricky, as people have become trained to be sensitive to finding offense in banal language and, when they know they’re supposed to be offended, portray the offended person regardless of whether they care a whit. If it’s indecent to call a disabled person “the French,” then it’s unforgivable to question their offense or trauma.

But even if this article of faith doesn’t actually change the real-life circumstance of anyone, the person who is homeless still being every bit as homeless as the homeless person, who would likely prefer a home (or even a house) to being characterized in two rather than three words, is there any harm to adopting the “person-first” approach to language?

Perhaps so. It deflects attention from the failure to address substantive issues, such as homelessness, by empowering people to feel as if they’ve contributed to the solution by changing their language while doing nothing to actually help anyone. Ask a defendant in lockup whether he prefers to be called an “ex-con” or a person who has been convicted of a felony and the likely response will be, “just get me the fuck out of here, asshole.” Or to be less colorful about it, a homeless person isn’t likely to refuse a place to live because you’ve not called him a person who is houseless.

And then there’s the creation of yet another minefield of offense, where someone who may well empathize with the substantive plight of homelessness is attacked by the unduly passionate not for contributing to the problem, or not contributing to solving the problem, but using the wrong words to say so. Given the perpetual morphing of good and evil words, anyone not obsessed with the latest flavor of wokespeak stands a very good chance of stepping on a mine and being blow up, even though they otherwise share the concern about the substantive problem.

Finally, there is the degrading of language in the quest to never offend anyone, particularly those who have dedicated themselves to seeking and finding offense in every utterance, by homogenizing language to the point where it’s so lacking in clarity and meaning as to convey no actual meaning lest someone’s feelings be hurt. My old pal, a lawyer who went blind from diabetes, told me the story of how he went on a cruise and was met at the gangplank with a wheelchair because the form included a space to check whether he was “disabled.” As he informed the staffer, he could walk just fine, but he couldn’t see because he wasn’t just “disabled,” but he was blind.

At least he wasn’t French.

16 thoughts on “The Fool’s Guide To Person-First

  1. Elpey P.

    Of course the truly righteous would say “French bodies.” Call it Strategic Dehumanization.

    “Why the AP would recommend using ‘people with mental illnesses’ for ‘the college educated'”

    Freudian slip?

  2. Guitardave

    I’ve heard it all before
    You’re saying nothing new
    I thought I saw a rainbow
    But I guess it wasn’t true
    You cannot make me listen
    I cannot make you hear
    You find your way to heaven,
    I’ll meet you when you’re there…
    …Child of vision, won’t you listen?
    Find yourself a new ambition.

  3. Hunting Guy

    After I retired from the military, I worked for the Salvation Army for 5 years in one of their homeless shelters.

    The people there didn’t give a damn what you called them as long as they got a meal, a shower, and had a bunk.

    Ya know, I bet the people that insist on using updated language have never met a homeless person.

  4. Guitardave

    One other thing.
    I think I should thank these people for making it so easy for me to decide, when conversing with a stranger, whether you’re based, or a total retard.

  5. orthodoc

    as noted by the great Haspel, “The purpose of “inclusive” language is to exclude whoever refuses or cannot be bothered to use it.” That is, it is means to mark the user of the wrong “sibboleth” as a right-wing shitlord (or should I say, one who is afflicted with right-wing shitlorditude)

  6. Alex S.

    I’m sure this won’t negatively impact rhetorical flourish:

    “Give me your persons who are tired, your persons who are indigent, your persons who are composing huddled masses yearning to breathe free, and your persons who are miserable detritus of your teeming shore.”

    See? It’s fine.

  7. Rengit

    In terms of “harm”, not that that means anything anymore, the whole “person with…” or “person of…” language feels somehow even more impersonal and remote than just saying “the French” or “the disabled”, like byzantine bureaucrat-speak to say “He is a person of American nationality” rather than “he’s an American”. It’s the same sense that referring to someone as a “human” is oddly dehumanizing. If the AP is concerned about the “harm” caused by dehumanizing language, then these changes seem at odds with the goal.

  8. Dilan Esper

    I’ve always hated the “People” locution, which we have in California. (Some jurisdictions use “State” instead, and of course the UK uses “Rex”/”Regina”.) The notion that prosecutors are serving the interest of the People depends entirely on what exactly they are arguing. If the defendant is innocent, for instance, the defense lawyers are on the side of the People (because the People are served by an innocent person being acquitted) and the prosecution is arguing against the People. Similarly, if prosecutors are defending abusive government conduct, or arguing to constrict the constitutional rights of citizens, or 100 other things, they are not representing the People but representing their offices’ own interests.

    And while I can’t know for sure, I have to assume that calling the prosecutors “the People” rather than the prosecutors has some subliminal effect on jurors. It’s a bad practice, and ought to be eliminated.

Comments are closed.