Stanford University hit the news recently for its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, a 13-page document listing offensive words and idioms that ought to be avoided. All right-thinking people will be grateful to those who compiled the list, because insensitive language is everywhere. For example, did you know that it’s offensive to describe US citizens as “Americans”? I sure didn’t. As Stanford helpfully explains, this term demeans all the other countries that make up the Americas. Who would have known?
After criticism from dimwits and Neanderthals — excuse me, from wit-impaired persons and distant human relatives — Stanford locked the document to keep unauthorized persons from reading it. Fortunately, you can still see it here.
In the spirit of Stanford’s bold initiative, I’ve tried my hand at devising an index of forbidden words and idioms for proposal to my own university. Composing a language ban may seem easy, but let me tell you, this sort of thing is much more difficult to do than you might think.
I have far greater sympathy and respect for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) administrators at places like Stanford than I did before. The task of purifying language is so challenging that it might be better to stop using words altogether.
To mention but a single category of forbidden words, Stanford’s 13-page index prohibits terms that define people by just one of their characteristics. “Prisoner,” for example, defines people by the characteristic of being, or having been, in prison. Instead, Stanford says, one should say “person who is/was incarcerated.” My first, uncharitable thought was that Stanford’s DEI experts hadn’t gone nearly far enough, for as you will see if you think deeply about it, the expression “person who is/was incarcerated” still identifies people according to just one of their characteristics, the characteristic of being incarcerated.
On the other hand, think how difficult it is to do better. For the time being, instead of “prisoner” I’m suggesting “person who at one time was incarcerated but at other times was not, and who does, or has done, many other interesting things besides.” However, this is a bit long, and by the time one remembers all the words, the conversation has usually gone somewhere else. Work in progress.
Another of the banned words on Stanford’s list is “prostitute.” Anyone can see why. Who wants to be called a prostitute? The Stanford DEI administrators suggest substituting the phrase “person who engages in sex work,” which is considerate of them. After thinking it over, however, I thought “Oho! Does not this phrase too define people according to just one of their characteristics, the characteristic of engaging in sex work?” Perhaps one might say “person who may, sometimes, perform sexual acts for money, as anyone might from time to time.” But who is to say what counts as a sexual act these days? So that’s out. This is a tough one. For now, the best substitute for “prostitute” I’ve been able to come up with is “political consultant.”
Some cases which one might think would be easy aren’t easy at all. For example, Stanford urges eliminating the idioms “beating a dead horse” and “cracking the whip,” which involve violent imagery that may be upsetting to those who hear it. Instead, we are to say “refusing to let something go” and “doubling down.” Obviously, more work is needed here too. “Refusing” sounds pretty aggressive to me. “Doubling down” conjures up the image of someone standing over another person who is in a subservient position. I also wonder why Stanford doesn’t apply the ban on violent imagery consistently. For example, it proposes the term “fire fighter” in place of the offensive word “fireman,” which “lumps a group of people using masculine language and/or into gender binary groups, which don’t include everyone.” But the expression “fire fighter” normalizes violence against fires. That shouldn’t be permitted.
Since Stanford is, after all, a university – I believe it still identifies itself in this way, though the term does carry the offensive connotation of something uniform or universal (we will have to do something about that) — I am surprised that its forbidden language list doesn’t include the terms “student” and professor.” For some people, these expressions are pejorative, although others continue to apply them to themselves. In cases like this, Stanford generally recommends asking first. Still, even if some people do refer to themselves as students or as professors, these terms pose much the same difficulty as the terms “prostitute” and “prisoner,” and some might say that’s no accident.
Suppose we were to attempt to deal with the difficulty in Stanford fashion, substituting “person who professes” and “person who studies,” respectively. Unfortunately, this wouldn’t go far enough. Not only would we still be identifying persons by just one of their characteristics, but the persons in question might not even have these characteristics. I have heard that some of those matriculating at universities do not study, and that some of those employed to stand in front of classrooms have nothing to profess.
These problems are baffling. You can easily see why my estimate of the acumen of Stanford DEI administrators has risen. Before I tried to do better, I would have said “People who police language for reasons of ideology are crazy as bedbugs.” I would never say that now. As a protective reflex prompts Stanford to explain, the word “crazy” is “ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with mental health conditions.” Besides, it’s wrong to disparage bedbugs, some of whom may be far more capable of doing something useful than the general run of college administrators.
Not that there is anything wrong with being incapable.