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Neutering Language

Language guidance is all the rage at academic institutions and nonprofits. Some of it could fall under the rubric of traditional style guidance for formal writing—think of the Chicago Manual of Style, the MLA Handbook, the venerable Elements of Style by Strunk and White for example—but that is secondary to the imperative to ferret out and purge words and phrases that might somehow be construed to be offensive, distressing, or otherwise objectionable by someone, somewhere. Language used in public communication, press releases, articles on websites and in print, etc., reflects institutional values. As a practical consideration, use of outdated terms and metaphors now considered offensive risks alienating people from academic institutions seeking to attract students, in effect customers under a paradigm of higher education presently in vogue, and nonprofits pitching their causes to a broad audience. The new language guidance showcases institutional commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, social and racial justice, and the like. These values are then pursued with puritanical zeal that undermines the whole project.


I reviewed three guides—Sierra Club's Equity Language Guide, Columbia SPS Diversity, Equity, Inclusion, and Accessibility Guide, and the short-lived Stanford IT Community Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative—after reading a column by old-line conservative George Will, who wrote hopefully:

Sometimes in politics, which currently saturates everything, worse is better. When a political craze based on a bad idea achieves a critical mass, one wants it to be undone by ridiculous excess. Consider the movement to scrub from the English language and the rest of life everything that anyone might consider harmful or otherwise retrograde. (Woke word-policing)

Matt Bai, also writing at the Washington Post, indulged briefly in hyperbolic rant against "Maoist dictates" that "seek to forcibly modernize speech" before getting to the relevant point:

Many of these old terms should be retired on the basis that they’re bad writing anyway, but the left isn’t after cleaner prose. The actual goal is to make writing a kind of performance, something people use to signal that they are better and more compassionate than those who insist on writing without an equity guide. (The Sierra Club doesn't want to offend)

The guidance is more about establishing progressive bona fides than good writing.


A substantial portion of Bai's column is devoted to explaining why language calibrated not to offend can fail persuade anybody of anything. Bai draws on linguist George Lakoff's study of connections between language and brain activity to support his argument that pursuit of virtue conflicts with the mission to persuade the public. His explanation of Lakoff is blessedly concise and not overly technical. The gist of it is that "all aspects of cognition—sensory function, motor skills, abstract thought—are deeply interwoven." The new language guidance replaces language that over time has become so embedded in the brain that it automatically triggers a visceral response and replaced it with anodyne words and phrases that do not.


George Packer examined the phenomenon in the April 2023 issue of The Atlantic (The Moral Case Against Equity Language):

Equity-language guides are proliferating among some of the country’s leading institutions, particularly nonprofits. The American Cancer Society has one. So do the American Heart Association, the American Psychological Association, the American Medical Association, the National Recreation and Park Association, the Columbia University School of Professional Studies, and the University of Washington. The words these guides recommend or reject are sometimes exactly the same, justified in nearly identical language. This is because most of the guides draw on the same sources from activist organizations: A Progressive’s Style Guide, the Racial Equity Tools glossary, and a couple of others. The guides also cite one another. The total number of people behind this project of linguistic purification is relatively small, but their power is potentially immense. The new language might not stick in broad swaths of American society, but it already influences highly educated precincts, spreading from the authorities that establish it and the organizations that adopt it to mainstream publications, such as this one.

Absurdity is piled upon absurdity in guidance for navigating the treacherous terrain of ableism, ageism, classism, racial and ethnic identity, gender and sexuality, and a host of other social and political minefields. Fine advice to use respectful, thoughtful language and to avoid language that suggests that racial, ethnic, generational, and other groups are monolithic in views, characteristics, and experience is all but lost in the frenzied purge. Picking out examples is like shooting fish in a barrel. (To my surprise, a search of the three guidance documents reviewed for this essay did not turn up a prohibition against the words "shoot" or "shooting." Perhaps an oversight.) Bai is right that there is nothing noble about taking down easy prey for the sport of it. However, a few examples are in order to illustrate what I find annoying, goofy, blockheaded.


A favorite comes from the short-lived Stanford IT guidance (paraphrasing here for sarcasm and satiric effect): Try to avoid using the term "trigger warning" to signal a trigger warning because the word "trigger" can trigger stress about what is to follow. The suggestion to use "content note" instead is fine, but one need not be an insensitive lout to wonder if it is necessary. The tendency in modern style guidance has until the recent wave been to advise minimal capitalization that in bygone eras had been left to the judgment of the author, presumably on the basis of whether words are considered important or significant, as in the preamble to the the US constitution:

We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Sierra Club, Columbia School of Professional Studies, and others counsel capitalizing identity words such as "Black," "Tribe," "Native," and "Indigenous" to signify respect while noting that use and preference vary. Columbia capitalizes "White" consistently with the general rule. Sierra Club however uses "white" because the capitalized term is associated with white supremacy, which leaves the group impaled upon the horns of the acknowledged dilemma that by not capitalizing white, whiteness is designated as the default category. Should one infer from this that Sierra Club policy is to show disrespect for white people as a group because some are racist blockheads? The question is posed with tongue somewhat in cheek to illustrate the corners into which the new language mavens paint themselves. Reputable writers and groups will avoid language that might give rise to the perception of alignment with white supremacy. This is usually clear from context. Explicit clarification can be made in the odd instance when it is not.


In a similar vein words like "black" and "dark" should not be used to express negative concepts, as in "a dark day in history." "Brown bag" as in brown bag lunch somehow has

racist associations. "Lame duck" as in lame duck session is to be consigned to the dustbin because "lame" is not inclusive. "Stand" as an expression of solidarity, to stand with, is not inclusive of people who cannot stand. "Cripple," and "hamstrung" are similarly listed as slurs under the heading of ableism. "Denigrate" has a racist history. "Chief" is "culturally appropriative" when used about any "non-indigenous person." "Native New Yorker" is likewise proscribed. These are not isolated instances. Far from it. The process of purification trivializes genuine issues rather than addressing them in a manner that might be conducive to bringing about the desired effect.


Stanford backtracked on the IT department's Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative after it was subjected to withering criticism within and outside the university. Steve Gallagher, chief information officer, wrote that EHLI was created to address "racist terminology in technology," such as "master" and "slave" to describe aspects of systems, and later expanded to cover "harmful language in technology." Stanford leadership was particularly sensitive to criticism of the initiative's treatment of "American," which the guidance held should not be used to refer to people from the United States alone because that implies the US is the most important country in the Americas. Sierra Club also finds "American" problematic in this context. "US citizen" and "US resident" are suggested alternatives. "To be very clear," Gallagher writes, "not only is the use of the term 'American' not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed." The EHLI site was taken down, the Stanford IT community's commitment to the university's values of diversity and inclusion was affirmed, and the university's academic and administrative leadership vowed that all efforts going forward will be guided by Stanford's commitment to academic freedom (Gallagher, Update on Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative).


A single paragraph in Sierra Club guidance suffices for discussion of people who do not share the group's viewpoints or values. The admonition to be respectful and the caution against treating groups as if they are monolithic are thrown by the wayside: "If you are struggling to find a respectful framing for conservatives or opponents of the Sierra Club, you could refer to them as holding 'anti-environment' views." This is neither fair, accurate, nor respectful of conservatives who believe that the focus of environmental action should be on personal and individual responsibility, property rights, and market-based solutions instead of government regulation. The conservative approach fails to take into account the nature and scope of environmental problems. It provides cover for the usual suspects in the fossil fuel industry who use this agenda to resist policy that might hinder pursuit of maximum profit to the exclusion of other considerations. For these reasons ConservAmerica, formerly known as Republicans for Environmental Action (James, Green GOP) and like-minded groups can be rightly criticized. It does not mean that their concern for the environment is not genuine, much less that they are anti-environment. Labeling them as such is no better than resurrection of "communist" as an epithet, and it has the perverse effect of closing off possible avenues to constructive engagement and efforts at persuasion.


How much does any of this matter? Are Packer, Will, Bai, and your oft humbled scribe bent out of shape over sophomoric excess of little substance and dubious impact? Language matters. On this point the self-anointed commissars are right. The new language guidance is implemented under the aegis of commitment to diversity, equity, inclusion, social and political justice, with little examination of what this entails in practical terms that would amount to something more than a vague utopian project which does more to suppress dissenting speech and restrict diversity of opinion than to promote its avowed goals.


The impulse to police speech and language in accordance with the dictates of ideology is a feature of the times, manifestation of an all too human instinct to deny legitimacy or good faith to views contrary to one's own. The process gives rise to Orwellian contortions and contradictions that betray thoughtlessness about what is being said when, for instance, I urge readers to stand with Ukraine. Surely no one thinks that I am asking people to rise to their feet. The nautical command "all hands on deck" is not an instruction to sailors to place their hands on the deck. Words can have multiple meanings, sometimes with an evident relation to one another, sometimes not, sometimes literal, other times figurative, as with metaphor, simile, metonymy, or synecdoche. The meaning of a word is a matter of convention, not some transcendental essence inhering in the word itself by virtue of a mystical bond.


Packer concludes his essay with the observation that what he has described is not just a problem of the left. "The far right has a different vocabulary, but it, too, relies on authoritarian shibboleths to enforce orthodoxy. It will be a sign of political renewal if Americans can say maddening things to one another in a common language that doesn’t require any guide." On both ends of the spectrum these guides serve to distinguish between comrades and adversaries. How much harm might be done before a hoped-for political renewal remains to be seen.


Memo from the editorial desk: Minor, nonsubstantive revisions were made in the paragraph about conservatives and the environment after this piece was initially published.


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