The Cold Distance Language Posturing Puts Between Us And The Poor

When I lived in Malawi, I was told by “development experts” that I shouldn’t use the phrase “helping the poor” because the word “helping” was “paternalistic and demeaning.”

At the time, I nodded my head and did my best to follow their instructions. When communicating back to my friends in America, I would try out different phrases like, “I’m working with native partners to alleviate poverty in the third world.”

But then I was told that both “native” and “third world” were offensive. Using the word “native” apparently identifies the local people in relation to when white people showed up in their country, so I was instructed to say “national” instead. “Third world” was, again, another demeaning phrase because it ranked countries against each other and so I was instructed to substitute it with “developing world.”

Now, the World Bank is paving the way to christen “developing” as the new, in vogue, offensive term. And this time, we’re told to differentiate the poor from the rich countries by referring to them as either “emerging or advanced markets.” Phrases that will, I have no doubt, inevitably become offensive in due time.

This language posturing may (possibly) have good motives behind it, but the real world consequences are severe and counter-productive. In reality, what happens is fewer people join the arena of helping the poor as more unnecessary barriers are added by self-described “development experts.” Specifically, many opt-out of the conversation for fear of offending the powers that be. And others are tricked into misperceiving relatively simple issues as too complex to get involved with.

The beneficiaries of this dynamic are “development experts” and the victims are those living in destitute poverty.

Offending The Powers That Be

It’s always been explained to me that we are supposed to use careful language when talking about the poor as a way of loving them and giving them their due dignity. But what’s not discussed as overtly, but still heavily implied, is that those who refuse to adhere to the latest fashion of language policing are then deemed unloving bigots.

It’s as if the language policers (a.k.a. “development experts”) are telling us, “Come, use my words and earn your place as a respected member of the development community. One who, by mere virtue of having a precise vernacular, can prove your love for the poor and desire for equality. But…don’t use my words and suffer the consequences of being an outcast of our community. Your conditions are laid out before you, choose wisely.”

Most see this double bind and don’t want to get involved. Either they are forced to spend their time learning to talk about poverty correctly, instead of alleviating poverty correctly, and they don’t see the point. Or, they choose to focus on poverty alleviation but are soon after shouted at by the experts who are displeased that they aren’t doing development work “the right way.”

Words are fluid and have a history of being redefined to keep the “experts” in power.

Misperceiving Relatively Simple Issues

There is no reason to skirt around this reality: a “development expert” is incentivized to convince you that he’s an expert, with extremely special knowledge, that you couldn’t possibly begin to understand. So long as you believe this, he has a job.

From my point of view, language policing seems to be a way to prevent people from talking about (and perhaps even thinking about) the poor altogether.

This is a similar tactic that used car salesman use when trying to sell an overpriced Ford Fiesta to an ignorant consumer (I would know, I spent a summer as a car salesman). First, you posture yourself as a car expert, then you use confusing language that the potential buyer won’t understand. Once you’ve set up this dynamic, you make the vulnerable buyer dependent on your knowledge so that they run all of their decisions by you, including their uninformed one to pay extra for a used car. Rinse and repeat until you hit your monthly quota. This is what Thomas Sowell calls “creating your own demand.”

So, while the “development experts” retain their jobs, the poor are often neglected. As I have blogged about before, you would be shocked to learn about the lack of scrutiny that most charities face. And this is, in large part, due to the prevailing wind of the last several decades that goes something like “your language posturing about the poor matters more than the effectiveness in which you help them.”

But making it difficult to have a conversation about the realities of our world are of no benefit to anyone except those sitting on top.

The Counter-Productive Consequences

The real world is a horrifying mess.

For most reading this, it shouldn’t feel that way. If you have a laptop, drinkable water from a faucet, a stable currency and electricity then your immediate world should seem pretty great, astounding even.

But that is very much not the reality of billions of people living on this planet. Think right now about the life of a woman living in rural Africa who has to walk an hour on hot sand with bare feet to fetch dirty water for her family every day. That person may not feel real to you. It may be nearly impossible for you to imagine her daily routine. But, in actuality, most of the world is closer to her situation than to yours.

Those who have spent significant amounts of time living with the poor know how ridiculous it is to pretend like their primary concern is the words we use to refer to them. You don’t have time to think about the language other people are using when a huge percentage of the children in your village are dying from preventable disease (i.e. malaria, malnutrition and unclean drinking water).

The luxury of language posturing about the poor is, in all honesty, antithetical to empathizing with them. It puts the poor in a safe box where we can think about their situations optimistically and from a distance, not truly understanding the tragic reality of those living in destitute poverty.

The poor often live harsh lives. So when we glide over their circumstances with dressed-up language, we are saying to them, “I don’t empathize with your situation. I don’t even want to think about your situation. I want to live in a world where everything fits neatly into my comfortable categories, including you.”

If you are looking for an outlet to truly empathize with the poor, I suggest visiting where you will not only see the realities of extreme poverty, but you will be given a wide variety of choices to do something about it. Something that truly matters, that will truly make an impact in the life of a real poor person, however you want to refer to them.

And the next time someone tells you to use less offensive language about the poor, ask yourself, who stands to gain by controlling your language?

“The reason there will be no change is because the people who stand to lose from change have all the power. And the people who stand to gain from change have none of the power.” -Machiavelli