That’s Isaac Asimov above, expressing his doubts that attempts at vocabulary restriction by totalitarians actually works.
I don’t think the ethical issue is whether efforts to “compress” language are successful. The issue is what the effort tells us about the people and institutions who make those efforts. The latest is Stanford University.
Stanford’s IT department released an list x of “harmful language” that it wants erased from the school’s websites, and, by extension, campus discourse.The list is an outgrowth of the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative,” which aims to “eliminate” words that may be deemed “racist, violent, and biased.”
The IT department’s censorious document is a mess, a mixture of apples, oranges and passion fruit. Some of the words and phrases marked as unacceptable are rude and archaic. Others are completely innocent as well as useful, condemned because they might have been used somewhere, sometime, by someone in a derogatory context.
I didn’t want to write another post on this, I really didn’t. But so many readers flagged it after it had gone into my “not worth the attention” file that I changed my mind. It’s almost insulting to have to explain why a list that advises, for example, that “American” is offensive because it “often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas” should be laughed out of existence (Sorry, Stanford, but the United States is the most important country in the Americas and everybody knows it, including the other countries). However, the fact that one of the most esteemed educational institutions is endorsing such extreme political correctness and contrived language censorship is something to heed. The list is an abuse of authority. It is signature significance for a group (I might say “tribe” but the word is harmful, apparently) that does not respect personal liberty, freedom of expression, or, ironically enough, diversity.
So in addition to mocking academics like this, and they ought to be mocked, watch out for them. Beware them. They are not friends of democracy, dissent, pluralism or language. They are definitely not fit to educate our young.
I’ll leave you with a few more “highlights” of the list:
- Banned word: Hispanic
Use instead: Latinx
Justification: “Although widely used to describe people from Spanish-speaking countries outside ofSpain, its roots lie in Spain’s colonization of South American countries. Instead of referring to someone as Hispanic because of their name or appearance, ask them how they identify themselves first.”
Sure. Bite me.
- Banned phrase: Indian summer
Use instead: Late summer
Justification: “This term infers that Indigenous people are chronically late. While it may be innocently used to describe a beautiful time of year, it could have an unintended negative impact on those who hear it.”
Wow. They really had to stretch for that one.
- Banned word: stupid
Use instead: boring, uncool
Justification: “Once used to describe a person who could not speak and implied the person was incapable of expressing themselves..”
But the word now is used to mean “stupid,” which everyone understands. For example, Kamala Harris isn’t boring or uncool.
- Banned word: user
Use instead: client (Can you believe this?)
Justification: “While oft en associated with one who uses (soft ware, systems, services), it can also negatively be associated with those who suff er from substance abuse issues or those whoexploit others for their own gain.”
Ah. So I’m not a “user” of ethics analysis, but a client of ethics analysis.
- Banned phrased: brown bag
Use instead: “Lunch and learn”
Justification: “Historically associated with the “brown paper bag test” that certain Black sororities and fraternities used to judge skin color. Those whose skin color was darker than the brown bag were not allowed to join.”
Gee, and I thought that “brown bag” lunch sessions were so called because employees brought their lunch in brown paper bags.
I realize that this could be a great parlor game. Give the banned word or phrase, then try to guess why the censors find it harmful! Fun! For example…
Banned word: grandfather. Well, what’s your guess?
The answer: “This term has its roots in the “grandfather clause” adopted by Southern states to deny voting rights to Blacks.”
Uh, no, Stanford. “Grandfather” was a word long, long before blacks had any voting rights. Go hide your collective heads under brown paper bags. You embarrass yourself, academia, and the nation..
Justification: “This term can unintentionally raise religious/moral concerns over abortion.”