The current proliferation of the term “Latinx” has received little critical attention. As scholars of diversity, we argue that this term’s hasty adaptation —mostly in academic and activist settings— requires stronger qualified attention. The current arguments for its unquestioned adoption, which we will outline in this paper, suggest a dangerous trend in current academic discourse that privileges a narrative of imperialism, oppression, colonization, and hegemonic masculinity.
Scholars such as Jordan Peterson have cautioned that speech suggesting or explicitly requiring mandated compliance have dangerous implications for present day academia. The rhetoric of imperialism continues to inspire current academic interest, but we argue that it has little place in regulating the use of “x” instead of Latino or Latina. Sadly, we will point out that the desire for the end to oppression via linguistic acrobatics in this case has instead suggested a form of fascist oppression and totalitarian silencing that denies the beauty and complex truth of Latino identity. We write this in hopes that a more open and honest discussion about gender identity, sexual orientation, and Latino identity can emerge that does not privilege a response of linguistic gymnastics intent on silencing dissent.
First and foremost, we openly acknowledge that there is no place for discrimination based on color, gender identity, sexual orientation, ability, age, race and ethnicity. All forms of causing pain and alienation to one’s self and to others with no redeemable quality should not be tolerated. However, we argue that the current effort to vanquish discrimination by employing the letter “x” to Latino by rewriting the term as “Latinx” is shortsighted. This is a movement to “x” out difference and comes from individuals and allies who feel that a social structure and language is inherently oppressive when it is based on binary language. In this case, for individuals who identify as non-binary, the binary indication of male/female in Latino/a is seen as inherently oppressive and in order to mediate the oppression, we must replace all traces of binary identity with the letter “x”. Scholars and activists have come down on both sides of the issue with varying degrees of sophistication (Alamo, 2015; Scharrón-Del Río & Aja, 2015; González, 2017; Guerra & Orbea, 2015).
Is gendered language linguistic imperialism? And do scholars who don’t believe so suffer from an internalized colonization? This has been a main argument by activists who claim that the “o/a” binary use implies a violent dehumanization. In order for this to be true, one would first have to definitively define the essential nature of “maleness” and “femaleness” (which has not yet been successfully achieved by any academic scholar or activist in this debate thus far) and then to prove that these constructions inhere hostility.
How can this be demonstrated? One way would be to prove that language and its construction tyrannically acted exclusively to regulate power by one group. In the West, language is a social entity, changing and shifting as a social process. To demand that a political agenda forcibly alter language is an interesting suggestion, and one that is a popular technique of totalitarian regimes. For example, the current dogma employed by activists and scholars that demand the use of the word Latinx are akin to Orwellian “Newspeak” that limits subversive ideas (Orwell, 1949). The current dialogue has become eerily an example of silencing those who wish to not use “Latinx”. Proponents of “x” usage believe that binary language is indeed “linguistic imperialism” because it assumes a definition of masculinity and femininity that excludes their lived realities. The evidence for this, however, has only been anecdotal. There has been an absence of scientific evidence suggesting that binary language alienates or impedes the development of anyone. Though there has been quite a lot of personal lamentation. Individuals claim they “feel” oppressed, or “feel” colonized by binary language. However lamentable this may be, mandating language (not wholly appreciated or understood) in order to address individuals’ feelings should be regarded with some caution. The relativistic nature is alarming, unscientific, and troubling. Scholars and activists using these frameworks (mostly for political reasons) have yet to offer rich understandings of what binary identities are beyond a biological proclivity. This is lazy policy and adolescent reasoning.
The notion, stemming from feminist and critical theory, that language is both oppressor and liberator may have merit. Still, no critics of binary language have offered any proof or distinctions to traverse these murky waters. True scholars and revolutionaries of language, by way of example, pour their heart and blood and effort into the power and use of language without the petulance of adolescent name-calling. Cervantes, Neruda, Allende, Borges, Mistral have altered the landscape of language in beautiful and complex ways by expanding the nature of our understanding of human nature and its complexities. They have done this with an incredible amount of skill, tireless work and decades of their own effort. Those that would advocate for “x”ing out difference are merely uncomfortable with the difference they claim to inhabit. Their aggressive silencing and refusal to enter into debate about this is a fascist proclivity of which there should be no place in academia. They claim to inhabit the margins of the social order and their great desire is to be mainstream and accepted. But the techniques of attempting to eliminate difference in order to highlight difference cannot work.
The irony here is that the use of “x” is an aggressive move based in political jockeying and destructive silencing: the very tools of hegemonic imperialism themselves. Proponents of “Latinx” position themselves in a heroic multicultural position that demands the creation and promotion of victims. How can we begin to explore the complexity of sexual identity and its dark mysterious pathways by using tools of oppression? By eliminating difference without knowing if this would actually have the effect it is meant to, is dangerous. Binary language has become the scapegoat of identity politics, like Jews in Nazi Germany or immigrants in modern U.S. politics.
Language has come under attack by radical left-wing ideologues intent on securing their own power without any attention to the overall social well-being. They leverage their rhetoric as champions for social good, all the while doing little to advance the well-being for vulnerable populations. For wanting to get rid of binary language, their arguments are wholly and completely binary and exclusionary—they are intolerant of difference (to their ideas) and rely on the complete annihilation of difference (“x”ing out). Though they claim to be against the erasure of difference, they at once without any acknowledgement of the tragic irony aggressively erase the binary difference with their supposed inclusive “x.” And further, the use of destructive silencing of any dissent to this motion cannot be seen as anything other than a despotic grab at power. It is shocking and disturbing how the effort to eliminate oppression for non-binary individuals can so swiftly turn to a purely tyrannical and oppressive act of silencing.
Why do we need to keep Latino and Latina? We have yet to explore the extensive complexities of identity and the power of our internal maleness and femaleness. Current literature by those mired in this debate has been shallow and shockingly simple. Perhaps this is what non-binary x-ers are responding to, and if this is the case, then they may have some basis for argument here. However, to relegate all Latino masculinity to machismo and all femaleness to be femininidad is a gross oversimplification of gender and sexual identity. What would authentic non-binary investigation look like? It would start with a radical perspective of peering into the strange and unknown psyches of sexuality, biology, passion, fear, and rage. Perhaps including drawing from psychoanalytical scholars, historical researchers, and social scientists. From the literature and social media postings available, it seems that current non-binary x-ers are not interested in this difficult investigation but rather are intent on navel gazing and power snatching in order to plant their flag of ignorance on a shifting sandy shore. This is not what remedying inequities looks like. The binary language is not oppressive and does not marginalize non-binary identities. Current understanding of identity and sexual orientation thinly address these issues and to suggest otherwise is selling the Emperor’s new clothes.
We argue that this notion of exclusion from non-binary x-ers and their allies has arisen from a pervasive consumerism where the value of human life has become an extension of its brand identity, and the use of self-righteous hate and rage against the system (in this case binary language) is the exact the same power grab move used by, for example, white nationalists. We have seen how easy and manipulative ideologues can be in order to advance their political grab without any sense of the dangers or implications of their social movements. We argue that current white nationalist agendas and non-binary x-ers are engaging in dangerous manipulations of mainstream social processes, in this case with language perversions. The manipulation uses a threefold mechanism to secure power: (1) they identify a communal rallying cry; (2) they engage an ideology of complicity; and finally (3) secure a fascist takeover of their agenda. This is similar to what Nelson-Rowe’s “Melodramatic Moral Order” of using victim, villain, and hero to rapidly assert control of educational reform (Nelson-Rowe, 1995).
1. Identify a Communal Rallying Cry
Non-binary x-ers have identified a seeming vulnerable population: individuals who claim they fall outside of the gender binary. These individuals belligerently seek allies by stating that those who don’t agree are part of a large-scale movement of discrimination and oppression. The rallying cry is that discrimination and oppression exist and that language hurts non-binary people. In this case, the evil use of language is itself the oppressor, and we as purveyors of language (because that is our mode of communication) oppress by talking and writing. Though, without doubt there are real and dangerous threats to individuals who do not conform to traditional expressions of gender and sexual expression, especially in countries with strict anti-homosexual laws and cultural practices. These individuals face, still, incredible discrimination, pain, and hardship. That the social order should be more inclusive and non-discriminatory is the only true path that should be of concern. However, by capitalizing on the real pain of alienation, and suggesting that using the word “Latinx” is the pathway to its panacea is short-sighted and dangerous. However, this has become a rallying cry of those who feel marginalized. As Nelson-Rowe (1995) argues, such a move lays the foundation of the “victim” identity constructed by what he terms are “melodramatic claimsmakers” that buttress their own power, in this case as “hero.”
2. Engage an Ideology of Complicity
The language of discrimination is a powerful tool to control others behaviors, as to not comply would secure their identification as perpetrators of oppression. This concept is well illustrated by Christopher Browning in his examination of how seemingly ordinary men could turn into brutal butchers during the Holocaust merely by not questioning the ideology of complicity (Browning, 1992). There is little to no critical understanding of non-binary identity in this debate, other than agreeing to use the “x” in order to not have to deal with the issue. For example, in a recent email to a Chief Diversity Officer at a major Midwestern research intensive university, we asked why he used “Latinx” in a campus wide communication and his response was not a well-reasoned argument of gender expression but rather a curt reply saying a group of graduate students told him to do it. This is the extent of academic understanding and conversation, a complete disregard of authentic dialogue in order to appease a vocal minority that might slander a group as discriminatory. To express dissent at using the “x” is to be guilty of unexamined privilege. As Scharrón-del Río and Aja note, “opposition to this newer term, however imperfect it is, comes from a place of unexamined intersectionality of privilege and oppression, one that completely furthers oppression and marginalization of non-binary and trans people from Latin American descent” (Scharrón-del Río and Aja, 2015). This conclusion that the only opposition can come from unexamined privilege serves merely as a political tool to silence dissent. The authors suggest they are not truly interested in dialogue or examining gender identity—they are interested in totalitarian tactics of complicity.
This tactic serves to ensure that others will blindly agree, especially well-meaning but non-critical thinkers of the social world who simply don’t want to offend. When they are told if they don’t use the “x” they are agents of oppression, they quickly conform, regardless of whether they believe in the use of the term or not. How is this radical? How is this revolutionary?
3. Fascist Takeover: The Power Grab
Academia since the 1970s has been seeped in a post-modern decadent indulgence in political preoccupations. Forgetting any radical liberation of the 60s, and opting for the narcissistic power machinations, academia’s main focus appears to be an anti-liberatory, anti-freedom dictate that creates a have and have-not culture which dehumanizes the potential of human life. If all of the human condition is a power grab, then there can be only manipulations of power moves. The milieu must consist of those without power and the solution must be to gain power, regardless of how that is done. To enact this, the following tools are used: the blatant manipulation of language without any proof that the intention will provide the result; the use of the ideology of complicity, and the silencing of dissent all conspire to demonize contradictory points of view. This creates an environment where learning is second only to the Game of Thrones type actions of desperate academics who have relied on shallow consolations to buttress their careers. There is nothing noble or interesting about using totalitarian techniques to advance your political agenda and silence dissent.
The x-ing out of identity is a distinctly Utopian vision: if somehow difference were erased, then no oppression would exist and we could all live in a perfect Edenic existence. The hopeless and hapless search for a utopia is a dangerous one used historically by tyrants and fascists. This historical reality seems lost on current academic debates about issues of diversity, oppression and privilege. In a perfect world, no individual (non-binary or other) would feel colonized or limited or excluded. However, all evidence of this type of thinking and language manipulation has historically only pointed to totalitarian tools of control. It is a dangerous move as utopian language cannot function as a lifeline to a manipulative hope for a better world. We must be careful to not engage a remnant of a Protestant Edenic vision that in reality only oppresses others.
In conclusion, we warn that the pathway by which we chose to take regarding the end of suffering should not in and of itself contain the very seeds of oppression and pain that we are trying very hard to eradicate. We hope that a more open and genuine discussion about gender identity and sexuality may permeate academia and activist corners, especially in Latino scholarship and communities. The current vacuous and seemingly puerile discourses remain unenlightening and dangerously condemnatory.
Alamo, H. L. (2015, December 12). The X-ing of Language: The Case AGAINST ‘Latinx’. Retrieved from Latino Rebels.
Browning, C. R. (1992). Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 101 and the Final Solution in Poland. New York: Harper Collins.
González, H. M. (2017, July 20). Why I Chose to Not be Latinx. Retrieved from Latino Rebels.
Guerra, G., & Orbea, G. (2015, November 19). The argument against the use of the term “Latinx”. Retrieved from The Phoenix.
Nelson-Rowe, S. (1995). The Moral Drama of Multicultural Education. In J. Best, Images of Issues: Typifying Contemporary Social Problems (pp. 81-99). New York: Aldine De Gruyter.
Orwell, G. (1949). 1984. London: Secker & Warburg.
Río, M. S.-D., & Aja, A. A. (2015, December 5). The Case FOR “Latinx”: Why Intersectionality Is Not a Choice. Retrieved from Latino Rebels.
Dr. Pilar S. Horner is Associate Professor of Social Work at Michigan State University. A qualitative researcher, her research interests include health disparities with regards to access of care, and quality of life issues among Latinos, undocumented families, refugees, and immigrants. Her work also looks at how culture influences health outcomes for disadvantaged populations, especially concerning processes of migration. Dr. Horner teaches advocacy on immigration and transnational health and policy.
Dr. Daniel Vélez Ortiz is an Associate Professor in the School of Social Work at Michigan State University. His areas of research are in Latino older adults, cultural factors in mental health services, mental health literacy, and organizational factors relating to service delivery. His long-term work aims to integrate community mental health literacy and services into community spaces where older adults, particularly Latino groups, naturally gather. He would like to develop a link between disconnected systems of care using technology and other available resources. Dr. Vélez Ortiz has a deep commitment to an applied focus in his research, where he has advanced knowledge with an emphasis on improving the lives of Latinos and other minorities across different age groups.