Is It Racist to Refer to Space 'Colonization'?

The language police have come for the space geeks.


Mariana Ionita/

There is a time and a place—many times and many places, in fact—when it is good to highlight that certain utterances are likely to offend. Once, my parents were on a trip and met someone who casually used the term jewed down. And far too many people still use the term gyp, not realizing it is a negative, stereotype-fueling reference to a group that faces horrific discrimination and violence. There's a reason it will be seen as a big deal if Donald Trump in fact used the "N-word," while no one would have batted an eye if a white person used that same term just a couple of generations ago. Part of the evolution of language is retiring old, bad words, or severely limiting their usage.

But that doesn't mean we shouldn't be on the lookout for language overpolicing as well, especially given that we're living in a time with numerous, often conflicting claims of what is and isn't offensive. There's a real risk of backlash when people are told, without good reasons, that they are doing violence to others by dint of their subtle word choices.

On Tuesday, The Outline published a usefully illustrative exemplar of such overpolicing. In "The Racist Language of Space Exploration," Caroline Haskins digs into the future of space exploration and the forces that will shape it.

Haskins does raise some interesting points and flirts with some intriguing questions. For example, she notes that there is a looming problem with the concept of private property in space, given that ownership there may well be banned by a treaty to which the U.S. is a signatory.

Haskins also flags sticky questions about the ideological forces that will shape space exploration and commerce as those concepts advance. "While other nations increasingly possess the capability to operate in space, not all of them share our commitment to freedom, to private property, and the rule of law," Vice President Mike Pence said recently, as quoted by Haskins. "So as we continue to carry American leadership in space, so also will we carry America's commitment to freedom into this new frontier." American concepts of freedom and the rule of law, of course, are very different from other nations', and it's fascinating to think about how those tensions might translate into conflict as we inch our way toward becoming a truly spacefaring species.

Instead of grappling with the political or policy or ideological ramifications of these questions, however, Haskins digs in on the question of how we talk about space. The subhed of Haskins' article claims that "the language of colonialism is infecting outer space, thanks to dominance by rich white businessmen and politicians." Jumping off from Trump's laughable recent comments about a "space force" and some followup comments by Pence, Haskins writes that "Trump is far from the first or only person to use the language of colonization to make a pro-space venture argument. Elon Musk famously describes his plans for a Martian settlement as a 'colony,' and a long lineage of space pundits, politicians, and thinkers invoke the history of colonizers and colonization in order to frame the future of humanity in space."

Here and elsewhere, Haskins' biggest gripe appears to be with the use of the term colony itself. As she explains, human colonies—which of course tend to be inhabited by people who could, definitionally, be described as "colonizers"—have committed some terrible atrocities. British colonizers led by William Bradford, governor of the frequently lionized Plymouth Bay Colony, for example, "massacred four hundred soldiers, non-soldiers, and children."

One fairly straightforward response to this is that humans intuitively understand that words can be used in different ways. Imprison can be used both to describe the over-incarceration of Americans, disproportionately darker-skinned ones, on nonviolent drug charges, but also by an exasperated parent telling a visiting friend, "The 3-year-old is imprisoned in his room until he chills out a bit." Few people would view this parent's use of imprison as problematic, because humans language is marvelously, wonderfully flexible. We can use a word to describe something horrible one second and then use that same word, in a different context, to describe a quotidian annoyance the next. I can describe a grisly murder in one gchat box and then flip to another and say that work is murdering me.

So of course, the type of colony being discussed matters a great deal. Many colonies, have, as Haskins notes, been used as staging points for mass atrocities—slavery and massacre and endless territorial expansion. Other colonies, such as those that exist in Antarctica or in outer space or (for very brief periods, so far) on the moon, are used as staging points for scientific exploration, for the gathering of bacteria or core samples or lunar dust and other forms of intriguing material. Much like imprison, in other words, colony can be used in different senses to describe different situations.

Haskins' article—and this entire style of discourse—mostly ignores this fact. Some colonies are bad, the argument goes, so the use of colony is inherently bad. It's similar to how the term biological sex is increasingly frowned upon in some lefty communities. Despite the fact that, unusual edge cases aside, everyone knows what "biological sex" means and the male/female divide is an obviously useful and important concept, it can also be used to harass or ridicule transgender people by jerks who say, "You're not really a (wo)man because of your biological sex!" The term itself, therefore, has to go. Or take the thankfully fringe but common-on-Twitter position that calling something "stupid" is offensive. Again, even though everyone knows that stupid simply means something like "not thought out intelligently," the thinking goes that because it could also be used to describe people with developmental disabilities, the term itself is offensive.

At heart, "This term, used in a totally different context, could be offensive" isn't an actual argument for not using a term in a non-offensive way. If it were, we'd be banning thousands of words. But generally speaking, overzealous language cops either don't bother to make any other coherent argument as to why a given term in question is offensive, or make one that is so gloopy with academic-speak that the average person likely won't grok it. So it goes in Haskins' article. Only twice does she offer true causal arguments as to what concrete harm is done by using certain types of language to talk about space exploration, and in both cases it's simply difficult to understand or buy what she's selling.

First (emphasis added):

Based off of what we know right now, the Moon and Mars are devoid of life, so this colonizing language is not actually putting other beings at risk. But, there is the risk that the same racist mythology used to justify violence and inequality on earth—such as the use of frontier, "cowboy" mythology to condone and promote the murder and displacement of indigenous people in the American West—will be used to justify missions to space. In a future where humans potentially do live on non-earth planets, that same racist mythology would carry through to who is allowed to exist on, and benefit from, extraterrestrial spaces.

Haskins seems to be saying that there is a risk that colonial ideology—which in the past went something like We have a right to rape and plunder our way west, whatever the human cost, since these Indians are inferior to us and we need their resources—could be used to justify missions to space. But by her own acknowledgement, there is no one in space to harm, rape, or plunder resources from. Plus, where is the evidence that the people running our present-day space exploration endeavours have a murderously racist ideology? Haskins seems to be worried about the potential for a crime with perpetrators, motives, and victims that are all hypothetical at this point, and she doesn't even explain why using a term like colony would make such a crime more likely than using a replacement. (Surely if someone is hell-bent on using outer space to oppress others, it won't bother to them what we call their evil lair on the moon.)

Here is Haskins' only other specific, causal claim about the harm of using "colonizing" language to describe space travel and, well, colonization:

Even when people aren't explicitly referring to settlements in space as "colonies," they still use the rhetoric of colonizing the New World and the American frontier, which erases the stories of and violence against the people of color who lived and ranched in the region.

There are, of course, academic uses of erases that differ from everyday ones. But The Outline is a mainstream publication, and surely author and editors alike assume that this sentence is going to mean something comprehensible to the average reader. But what could that meaning be? "Conquering" outer space is a perfectly innocent, colorful way to discuss the situation: Humans are, in fact, trying to set up a presence in a place they don't normally belong, and which they don't currently inhabit. The same goes for "taming" outer space, another commonly used word in outdated stories about New World colonialism that are today seen as offensive: Humans are, in fact, hoping to "tame" an utterly inhospitable environment to the extent they can live there for long stretches of time.

Because I am an adult human with (arguably) intact cognitive language-processing hardware in my skull, I find I can talk all day, rather effortlessly, about "conquering" or "taming" space without such talk threatening to undermine my understanding of colonialism's horrors. Nothing is erased in any way: After I'm done talking about "taming the wilds of space so humans can finally conquer it," I can check out a library book about Christopher Columbus's horrors and tweet for a while about what a bastard that guy was. My views on Columbus are shaped by my ideology and by my read of history as filtered through that ideology—not the linguistic choices I use to describe space exploration, which is an entirely different thing.

Interestingly, Haskins doesn't provide any suggestions for how we should describe space exploration and colonization. That could be because if you try to do so, you'll find you get hurled rather quickly and violently from the euphemism treadmill. Just about every possible alternative is freighted with its own historical baggage—explore instead of conquer doesn't work, because explorers laid the groundwork for or participated directly in massacres of their own, base instead of colony has militaristic connotations, settlement instead of base doesn't work for obvious reasons, and so on.

In short, what's going on here is that Haskins and others who make this sort of argument are fundamentally misunderstanding human language and cognition and taking way too conservative and delicate an approach to the ostensible power of isolated word choices to influence one's beliefs and behavior. As limited and flawed as our Homo sapiens brains are, we really don't have trouble understanding that the same word can describe very different situations. I like the idea of "conquering" space, because I favor peppy over inert language. That doesn't mean I think it was good that the Americas were largely "conquered" in genocidal fashion. I'm not gonna yell at the mom who "imprisoned" her cranky toddler.

When we're determining which linguistic battles to fight, we should be strategic. A microscopic focus on language can cause people who think they are bettering the world to engage in damaging acts of misprioritization, like cops who arrest a parade of low-level pot dealers while the homicide clearance rate in their precinct flutters around 15 percent.

Because it's not as though there's zero cost to declaring words unacceptable. People react negatively to such restrictions. Sometimes, that's fine, because the tradeoff is justified. I'm glad my mom told that guy from her vacation he shouldn't say "jew down," and I'm happy to remind writers not to use "gypped." There are clear, coherent explanations for why these forms of language are offensive.

But what's the point of inciting a backlash if there's no real gain? Having people shift from colony to something else to describe bases/outposts/habitats in outer space or on extraterrestrial bodies in no way alters or has any effect on the sociological and psychological and political and economic forces that will determine whether and to what extent space exploration benefits, rather than harms, humanity on net. If anything, harping over such innocent uses of language distracts from the actual issues. Banning the word stupid will not ensure that people with developmental disabilities get the funding they need to live happy lives. All that these forms of overzealous language policing do is annoy people and make them feel as if they can't use the their full linguistic faculties. It's time to rein in the language cops a bit; this colonization fight looks an awful lot like a false arrest.