Style matters – Sum of Us’s new progressive style guide

July 19, 2016

Our friends at Sum of Us recently released a comprehensive, beautiful, deep-dive style guide for progressives.

And today, especially, how is something as wonky as a style guide connected to the unspeakable brutality against people of color that has washed across our screens in recent days? And especially to stopping that brutality once and for all?

Because language matters. A lot.

So this isn’t one of those outdated “should and should not” style guides. Instead, it’s a valuable and fresh perspective on the words advocates and communities are using today, why those terms matter, and how to take a community- and power-building perspective to the language we use when we’re communicating about our struggles and victories.

The guide covers language in issue areas from age and disability to race, gender, indigeneity, health, and geopolitics. It sparks a conversation about language among progressives, a conversation that as communications folks we heartily welcome.

As authors Hanna Thomas and Anna Hirsch say so well: “Language is a key ingredient in a winning theory of change. Language can build bridges and change minds…In fact, understanding and applying the authentic language of the individuals and communities with whom we work can be a revolutionary act in itself.”

The style guide is explicitly multi-voiced and, say the authors, is designed to help combat discriminatory language and to use examples that reflect a broad range of identities and perspectives. It succeeds.

The guide helpfully includes columns of preferred and less preferred language, links to deeper thinks on the why behind these choices, and a powerful section on imagery choices. It also leads with a powerful note on self-identification, which could as easily be called self-determination in language.

“Wherever categorization and labels are used to oppress groups of people, self-identification becomes an act of resistance. At the same time, people who are robbed of opportunities to self-identify lose not just words that carry political power, but may also lose aspects of their culture, agency, and spirit. Progressive writing, as much as possible, should strive to include language that reflects peoples’ choice and style in how they talk about themselves. If you aren’t sure, ask.”

Reading this guide is much less like consulting a cheat-sheet, and much more like exploring how to use language as a tool that “makes revolution irresistible” as Toni Cade Bambara said.

And as long as we’re quoting, the late, great Dr Maya Angelou may have said it best in this short video: “You must be careful about the words you use, and that are used in your house…Words, are things that get on the walls. They get in your wallpaper, they get in your rugs, in your upholstery, in your clothes and finally into you.”

So let’s use ‘em right.

Belinda Griswold