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Don’t Be a Bigot, It’s “Houseless” Now
in a complicated game of cultural domination, the american activist's rapidly accelerating war on language comes for the word "homeless"
From the earliest days of Pirate Wires, the culture warrior’s obsession with altering language has fascinated me, as in many ways I think this single struggle defines our contemporary world. From the internet-enabled malleability of language, which I explored at great length in Tether, and Kat Rosenfield explored more recently in Gaslight, to the rapid pace of term adoption made possible by viral sharing, relatively recent advances in technology have enabled political activists to alter our words in a manner once unimaginable. Today, the goal of activists is not to change our culture, but to reshape our language in such a way as they control the very bounds of what is culturally possible. In this regard, they are very much ruthlessly winning.
The most obvious example of activist victory today? Consider how many words, perfectly benign ten or even five years ago, you are no longer allowed to say. Then, in the absence of such words, consider what concepts you are no longer capable of expressing. In a funny, insightful Sunday morning read, River catalogues a wild list of our many new linguistic sins.
When AOC called Jordan Neely “houseless” last week, I knew the word had reached new cultural heights. I noticed the use of the word online over a year ago and thought it must have been some sort of ESL thing, one of those words that a foreigner or child would perhaps come up with, a word that, while understandable, isn’t really a word in the English lexicon. I quickly realized that it was instead the preferred term of a certain subset of leftist Twitter — the rest of them preferred “un-housed” — an equally made-up word, but one that sounds a little less infantile. Both have caught on, but “houseless” bothers me more because it sounds so deeply stupid.
So why are people saying it?
The LA Community Alliance says it made a “conscious decision” to move away from the word “homeless” and use “houseless” instead. According to the organization:
For decades, “homeless” served as a slightly better substitute for several more antiquated and offensive terms, such as vagrant or transient, which placed unfair blame on the person experiencing a loss of housing. Yet over time the term “homeless” grew to gather its own burdensome stigma that only serves as additional strain on the person who is without a house. Not everyone has housing, but everyone has a home—including our houseless beneficiaries at LACA. The term “homeless” makes the spaces they do call home sound illegitimate, when home represents far more than a location. Instead, home is friends, family, and community.
The spaces homeless people call home are illegitimate — and dangerous, both to themselves and others. As for this Hallmark card definition of home, I’m simply not sure how this advances an end to homelessness, if that’s even a goal anymore.
So is houseless just a polite word for homeless? Nay, says the LA Community Alliance:
Houseless is not a euphemism for homeless. We remind everyone that “houseless” is an adjective. It’s true that the term homeless began this way — initially as part of the phrase “homeless people”— yet it quickly became a noun in the form of “the homeless,” dropping the word “people” altogether and leaving the inescapable impression that these individuals were no longer entirely viewed as people. It removed their humanity.
It is not because of language that the homeless have been dehumanized, but rather the inhumane conditions in which they live. The idea that humanity, so brutally taken by the ravages of mental illness, drug addiction, and state abandonment, could be somehow restored by the changing of a word is ridiculous. Even I don’t believe in words this much, and I’m a writer — words feed me and pay my rent.
Along with academics and bureaucrats (both state and corporate), the American activist class — a highly educated demographic — has for decades engaged in the constant production of new and polite words. Invented on the pretext of praxis, these words are adopted by the broader professional-managerial class as a matter of upper-class distinction — what I once called in American Affairs “The New Dialect of Power.” If you’re a right-winger (or a left-wing eye-roller like me) and happen to be in this class, I suspect you think I’m overgeneralizing. “I don’t say Latinx,” you say. No, but you’ve heard of it. You know what it means and why the “x” is there. You know what BIPOC and AAPI mean too, and you damn sure know which euphemism to use when referring to the mentally retarded in mixed company.
None of this is to say that words are powerless or that changing them functions purely as a class-cultural distinction. Neither is it to say that the effect is always the one that the activists, bureaucrats, and academics intend, although sometimes it does seem quite convenient. For example, the LA Community Alliance is correct to point out the word “homeless” originated as a polite adjective, replacing terms like “street person,” “vagrant,” “hobo” and “bum.” Before the popularization of the term “homeless,” all of the previous terms were associated with street living. Homeless is a much broader term, which includes not only people living on the streets but also people who are living in their cars, women in domestic violence shelters, and even people who are couch surfing or living in motels. While it’s good that people without homes do not have to succumb to street living in order to be recognized as people in need, the broadness of the term is a double-edged sword.
The needs of a single mother who has fallen on hard economic times and finds herself working a minimum wage job while living out of her Toyota Corolla are not the same as a heroin addict with schizophrenia who’s been living on the streets for the better part of two decades. The current “housing first” orthodoxy sounds like a fine solution for people for whom money is both the cause of their homelessness and the solution to it. It’s not a good solution for people who haven’t walked a straight line since the Bush administration. The intended goal of “houseless” — to whitewash and legitimize the horrors of homeless encampments — is grotesque. But its effect is the same as “homeless,” forefronting the idea that all “houseless” people need is four walls, something which is only true for the most invisible subset of the population.
The same is true for racial designations. BIPOC, meaning Black and Indigenous People of Color, is an explicitly exclusionary racial designation. According to a CBS article on the subject, “People are using the term to acknowledge that not all people of color face equal levels of injustice. They say BIPOC is significant in recognizing that Black and Indigenous people are severely impacted by systemic racial injustices.” In theory, this would exclude Hispanics, but the word Indigenous is broad enough that all but the most fair-haired Argentinian or Cuban can claim it. On Twitter, I once saw a half-Puerto Rican twink from New York use the term BIPOC self-referentially and justify it by calling himself Taino, the extinct native group that once inhabited Puerto Rico and other Caribbean islands. Nobody’s been a Taino in 400 years! Of course, accuracy or historical significance isn’t really the point. The point is to create a minority racial category that excludes Asians — whose economic success in the country has served as an annoying retort to the idea that white supremacy is the driving force in American society.
Of course, when Asian activists attack the “model minority myth,” they are quick to point out that Asians are an incredibly diverse group of people, even as they expand the definition to include Pacific Islanders, a lumping together of which — in their defense — the government has also done, however inconsistently, for decades. If Asian is overly broad, the category AAPI is even broader. Most Asians descended from people who willingly immigrated to the country after the Civil Rights Movement. On the other hand, many (but not all) Pacific Islanders like Native Hawaiians, Samoans, and Chamorrans are descended from people whose native lands were annexed by the United States, an experience they don’t share with any Asians except for (formerly) Filipinos. For activist organizations, the extreme broadness — which is to say, meaninglessness — of the term AAPI can either be pointed out or completely ignored depending on whether or not the issue feeds into a victim narrative.
When discussing pay, an issue where Asians typically perform well, the SPLC can point out that a Burmese woman only makes 50 cents for every dollar a white man makes, 62 for a Samoan woman. On the flip side, when one deranged lunatic goes on a shooting spree at several spas in Georgia and blames his “sex addiction,” an Indian-American running for city council in New York can call it “a continuation of a long line of hate and violence against the Asian-American community,” and say “we will not be silenced,” as if there is a “we” — some invisible thread connecting immigrant Korean spa operators in Georgia and second generation Indian-American politicians in New York. The thread doesn’t exist. These people share nothing but a box on the census form. I’ve seen no evidence that “Asians” as a cohort face any systemic racism or abuse in this country. Nevertheless, when something terrible happens to a poor Burmese or Filipino immigrant woman, it will be bourgeois Indian and Chinese girls who solicit donations on her behalf to fund their little make-work NGOs. It’s the way of the world.
Sometimes the new words are old words with new meanings. Sometimes, they’re the words you’re suddenly allowed to say. Somewhere along the way, “cripple,” a word used multiple times in the King James Bible, became a slur. More importantly, not just a slur for people who cannot walk but for people with any disability. This isn’t just something a fringe activist said on Twitter. This is one of the three definitions of the word on Dictionary.com. But the notion that we ever called anyone besides the paralyzed cripples is simply not true. We never called the blind cripples, we never called the deaf cripples, we never called the autistic cripples, and we certainly never called people with ADHD, anxiety, autoimmune disorders, or gluten allergies cripples, whether self-diagnosed or not. This is a gaslighting of the American public on a grand scale. Nevertheless, this “slur” has been “reclaimed” by people with wheelchair emojis in their bios who are perfectly capable of standing and walking — as evidenced by the photos and videos they post of themselves. Literally walking around and calling yourself a cripple or “crip” for short, just because you have some disability (a word that could mean almost anything now) is a bit like calling yourself a “faggot” because you can name five songs from Charli XCX’s discography. What if you listen to Charli XCX and you’ve been diagnosed with ADD? Are you a “crippled faggot?” I once gave a pass to a straight guy because he wore a Dolly Parton t-shirt to the bar. I won’t stop you, but come on.
Jokes and rants aside, there’s a similar phenomenon playing out in the trans community. Every March 31st, on Trans Day of Visibility, social media feeds are filled to the brim with adult Steven Universe watchers, Bushwick De-Pop sellers, and unpublished creative writing MFAs kindly reminding everyone that they are non-binary. What does this word mean? As far as I can tell, nothing. Nowadays, people quickly associate the term with an aesthetically upsetting form of gender-goblinry — blue hair, septum piercings, adult overalls, you know the look. But the Spirit Halloween meets Oshkosh B’gosh aesthetic is far from universal. A non-binary person could be a bearded gay pornstar on anabolic steroids, a married heterosexual mother of two who works at the bank and wears Lululemon, or a pregnant popstar. Basically, a non-binary person could be anyone. “Non-binary people don’t owe you androgyny” is a famous slogan. It conveniently obfuscates the fact that it’s not so much androgyny that people are looking for but rather evidence that the term means anything at all. The fact that some people who identify as non-binary seem to present in a way entirely consistent with their birth sex makes their designation as trans people confusing. What the identity provides, however, is membership in a protected class.
While some words are expanded to the point of uselessness, others merely become unspeakable. Tranny was a slang term for transvestite that originated in the gay male community and was long used by drag queens before reaching a cultural maximum through internet porn. It became an unspeakable “slur,” so far as I can tell, after the trans writer Parker Malloy ignited a campaign against RuPaul Charles — the most famous professional transvestite of all time — for using the word on his show. By redefining tranny as a slur for transwomen regardless of context, it could be taken away from everyone, including the effeminate gay crossdressers who had tossed around the word in gay bars for decades.
It’s an insidious little chess game we play with language. Presenting as a nice and virtuous member of the college-educated class means anticipating the linguistic moves before they happen, deleting the forbidden word from the Twitter archive before it’s a moment too late, and knowing why the new word is the new word without having to ask about it. It means knowing who can say what and when and in what context.
I don’t even know what to call midgets anymore.
Little people? So they say. But how is that not offensive? I used to be friends with a girl whose dad was a midget, and they called him that. It wasn’t that long ago either, less than a decade or so, back when you could still say the word “retard” — and the context mattered.
Of course, nobody called the actually retarded retards, for Christ-sake. To bastardize Azealia Banks, “the word retard came to me from my mother.” Everybody said it. My mom said it. To me! Everybody knew the rules and more or less followed them: you can say the word to anyone to whom it doesn’t literally apply. Then one day, it just stopped being a word you could say. The Special Olympics, a great and noble organization run by the Kennedy-Shriver Clan, apparently had much to do with it? Who knows?
I love words, but I hate their politics. I hate that they can be used to manipulate people, which is so much worse than causing them offense. I hate their increasing meaninglessness. I hate the ever-changing mores around language, this big godless Sunday school. One N-word is enough. Not everybody gets one, and they certainly don’t get two or three. I don’t like figuring out which ones they’re gonna be. I don’t like the chessboard. I don’t want to play anymore.