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What words mean depends on contexts: the speaker(s), the audience, the interests at stake, relevant history. Many saw shifting Cornell Plantations to Botanic Gardens as excessively PC, but there were multiple reasons for abandoning plantations. Just considering proposals to abandon words like felon, convict, and parolee opened some minds to new possibilities for people now or formerly incarcerated. Considering the recently minted label Latinx has prompted not only appreciation of new gender options but also new futures in which racialization becomes less socially constricting. Especially in the age of the internet, language is as often encountered in graphic form as in speech. Features such as capitalization take on substantial and sometimes problematic social significance. Like particular words, typographic conventions can ‘dog-whistle’ hatred, becoming less effective when those targeted can engage in counter-speech. Counter-speech isn’t easy. Presidential tweets telling US-born congresswomen to “go back” to the countries of their (recent) ancestors did, however, get telling responses from American Indians and others. We need to acknowledge that there are no quick linguistic fixes to social ills and that those resisting reforms we might endorse need not be acting out of ill will but out of discomfort with the disruption of well-ingrained linguistic habits.
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