Even the most woke readers of the New York Times, I suspect, may have blanched at the lead paragraph of a story in the Real Estate section a couple of Sundays ago. “They never wanted to call it retirement,” the article began, “but for Susan Farnsworth, Leigh Hough and Jean-Philippe Jomini, a throuple — a romantic partnership of three people — who have lived together as an intentional family for over 15 years, it felt important to get a head start on finding a home that would accommodate future needs for aging in place.”
This was, mind you, a straightforward, nuts-and-bolts story about how baby-boomers are designing homes that can accommodate their infirmities as they age. But — excuse me — a throuple? All the useful tips that followed — eliminating stairs, widening doorways, even raising the height of electrical outlets to make them easier to reach — seemed to ignore the elephant in the (wheelchair-accessible) room: What, exactly, are the sleeping arrangements?
Of course, we’re not supposed to ask that question. The unspoken message of this head-snapping opener is that your head should not snap at all: that this is just a “typical” American family, entirely unremarkable, deserving of no special notice (though requiring a parenthetical explanation). It’s just the latest example of the minefield facing readers these days navigating the Times’ efforts to show sensitivity to its diverse audience (some call it political correctness), even when it clashes with the demands of clarity, readability, and common sense.
I started out my journalism career as a copy editor, so it’s the small choices of language and style that often grab my attention. I must admit that I’m still uncomfortable that “queer” seems to be replacing “gay” as the preferred term for people of a certain sexual persuasion (it feels like a community’s proudly ironic cry of deviance being foisted on the rest of us), but I realize that it’s not my call. All I can do is hope that both options continue to remain open.
More nettlesome is the personal-pronoun issue for people who don’t identify as either male or female (“nonbinary” is the current, drearily digital term of choice). Unfortunately, the English language has no gender-neutral pronoun available, but the default choice of “they” to refer to a single human being (as in: “Chris picked up a prepared dinner and ate it all alone in their apartment”) causes nothing but confusion. I’d back a new coinage over this absurdity.
The language of race is even more fraught. The Times now discourages use of the word “slave” — explaining, in a staff memo, that it is “viewed by a growing number of readers as dehumanizing” — in favor of alternatives like “enslaved person” or “enslaved worker.” This seems like a case of the P.C. police working at cross purposes. At a time when journalists and filmmakers are forcing us to confront the dehumanizing cruelty of slavery in ever more graphic and hyperbolic terms (see the opening episode of The Underground Railroad), it is odd that the blunt, unambiguous word for these victimized Americans is being replaced by an array of milder euphemisms.
Some race-related style changes are merely silly. The Times’ real-estate section, for example, has stopped using the term “master bedroom” (too reminiscent, I guess, of the master-slave era); now the place where Mom and Dad sleep is the “primary bedroom.” More consequentially, about a year ago, in the wake of the George Floyd murder, the Times (along with other news organizations) made the decision to begin capitalizing “Black” when referring to people of color. This is reasonable enough, matching the treatment of other ethnic groups, like Hispanics and Native Americans. Yet it has led to one jarring inconsistency. A 1907 Oklahoma law, we learned in last Sunday’sTimes Magazine story on the Tulsa massacre, “prohibited Black and white passengers from occupying the same railroad cars.” Why, in an absolutely parallel construction, is “Black” capitalized and “white” not?
The Times’ explanation is that “white doesn’t represent a shared culture and history in the way Black does, and also has long been capitalized by hate groups.” This strikes me as fairly dubious rationalization. Other news outlets, like the Washington Post, have made the more sensible call and now capitalize both White and Black. In the words of Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz (or was it guildenstern?), consistency is all I ask.