Not Just Semantics: Stanford’s “Harmful Words” Problem Is Serious

‘When I use a word,’ Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, ‘it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.’

‘The question is,’ said Alice, ‘whether you can make words mean so many different things.’

‘The question is,’ said Humpty Dumpty, ‘which is to be master — that’s all’.

Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking-Glass


Unfortunately, that is not all. If Lewis Carroll were writing at Stanford University today, he would be strongly advised not to use the word master, because “Historically, masters enslaved people, didn’t consider them human and didn’t allow them to express free will.” (Full disclosure: I am now the somewhat embarrassed recipient of a Master of Arts degree from Stanford.)

By now everyone who follows the woke wackiness that permeates higher education—and even some who are usually shielded from it by mainstream media outlets such as Newsweek/MSN and USA Today—are familiar with Stanford’s recent attempt to blacklist 150 or so “harmful words.” (My advice to anyone offended by my use of one of them: get over it.)

Much of the coverage consists of gleeful mockery, such as the Daily Beast’s characterization of the list as “sheer insanity.” This mockery was all but unavoidable, inasmuch as the list contained many terms in common usage far removed from any association with bias (blind review, chief, peanut gallery, cakewalk, grandfathered, brown bag) or with violence against vulnerable groups (rule of thumb, whipped into shape, war room, even trigger warning).

The most controversial is the injunction to use the term “US Citizen” instead of American, in order to avoid “insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas.” We are also instructed, however, to use “Black” instead of African-American. Although the reason given is that “Black people who were born in the United States can interpret hyphenating their identity as ‘othering,’” “African-American,” by the logic of the Stanford list makers, could refer to any black person in the western hemisphere. Chauvinistic insinuators that we are, most Americans would be thoroughly confused by anyone referring to a dark-skinned Brazilian as an African-American, and I strongly suspect that most African-Americans do not feel “othered” by the hyphen. Language, fortunately, does not always submit to logic.

Also targeted are terms that should not be used to identify or describe people. Thus, instead of immigrant, one should use “person who has immigrated”; instead of prisoner, use “person who is/was incarcerated”; instead of disabled person, use “person with a disability.” Why? Because “using person-first language helps to not define people by just one characteristic.”

Ignore the split infinitive (everyone does these days). Is there any evidence that “person without housing” is any more respectful than homeless person,” or that anyone cares? Unavoidably, there are interesting exceptions to the “Person-First” rule. “First-year student,” for example, is preferred over freshman without any recommendation to use “first-year person who studies” instead. “White” is used frequently, even “White Supremacist,” without any thought that “white” tends to define melanin-deprived people “by just one of their characteristics.”

“Euphemism Treadmill”

Stanford, of course, is not original or unique in its effort to black mark (“Assigns negative connotations to the color black, racializing the term”) “harmful words” and send them to linguistic purgatory. As it happens, “I have a bit of personal experience in these ongoing word wars,” I explained here, referring to “an odd job (in several respects)” I had way back in 1980

working on a revision of the Thesaurus of ERIC Descriptors, a companion to the Education Resources Information Center (a part of the National Institute of Education) database of educational literature. This was back when political correctness was just getting launched in a big way, and indeed one of the reasons for that particular revision of the Thesaurus was to dump newly politically incorrect terms such as “handicapped” for their politically correct replacements, such as “disabled.”

Although the Thesaurus was revised from time to time, the one I worked on, the 1980 revision, 8th edition, was massive: “over 600 new Descriptors, over 1,000 deleted Descriptors, and over 1,400 new or modified Scope Notes. This edition of the Thesaurus also reflected deliberate changes in sexist terminology.”

[Related: “Reinvigorating the American Dream with Individual Agency”]

I had, at the time, and still have serious problems with this effort to force usage to conform to current notions of political correctness. The dumping of “handicapped” in favor of “disabled” nicely reveals one of them—ignoring or twisting plain meaning. The Cambridge Dictionary, for example, defines the verb “handicap” as “to make something more difficult to do” and the verb “disable” as “to stop something (such as part of a machine) from working.” If you were lost, driving alone in an old car on an isolated mountain road, I argued to no avail, “would you rather be in a car that was handicapped or disabled?”

“What is producing all of these verbal transitions,” I noted here in further reflections on my ERIC experience occasioned by the effort to replace “liberal” with “progressive,” is that “the group to whom the term refers is ‘disadvantaged’ in some way . . . so that the term that applies to it takes on the same negative connotations. The new, substitute term reflects a determination to improve the image of the group, but over time it, too, comes to reflect the little-changed reputation of its referent. So it must be changed again … and again.”

In “What’s In A Name?” I noted in 2014, “the American Association for Affirmative Action, which contains a no doubt un-diverse collection of college ‘diversity’ apparatchiks, has just changed its name to the American Association for Access, Equity and Diversity. Looks as though the bad reputation of affirmative action finally caught up with its implementers.”

I am not and have never been a linguist, and thus I did not know in 1980 when I was first engaged in the word wars—or when I wrote about that experience 25 years later—that I had stumbled upon a concept developed by someone far more knowledgeable than I. “The bewildering feature of political correctness is the mandated replacement of formerly unexceptionable terms by new ones,” Harvard’s Steven Pinker wrote in the New York Times in 1994. “‘Negro’ by ‘black’ by ‘African-American. …’”

To a linguist, the phenomenon is familiar: the euphemism treadmill. People invent new “polite” words to refer to emotionally laden or distasteful things, but the euphemism becomes tainted by association and the new one that must be found acquires its own negative connotations. The euphemism treadmill shows that concepts, not words, are in charge: give a concept a new name, and the name becomes colored by the concept; the concept does not become freshened by the name. (We will know we have achieved equality and mutual respect when names for minorities stay put.)

In short, these word wars are far from new. In “Dark Words of Disapproval,” William Safire argued in 1990, also in the Times, that it is “taking anti-racism” too far to banish words because older, long-abandoned connotations were unpleasant. “Language is like a great coral reef, built of the fossils of millions of organisms; to go back through the language’s development and to ‘correct’ what we now see as wrong or cruel unnecessarily hacks away at the reef.”

Similarly, in 2003 Diane Ravitch filled a book, The Language Police, with examples of clueless education bureaucrats vetoing references to such terms as “African slave” or “Brazilian tribes,” cutting a story praising a blind climber of Mount McKinley “because it suggested people who are blind are somehow at a disadvantage compared to people who have normal sight,” and refusing to accept a biography of Gutzon Borglum, who designed the Mount Rushmore monument, “because Mount Rushmore is offensive to Native Americans.”

The word war may not be new, but it is definitely worse than before, and it is being waged on many more battlefields, not only elite universities. Thus, the Department of Diversity Initiatives at the University of South Carolina Aiken has a creative list of “inclusive language” (e.g., Use “Alumnx” instead of “Alumni”; “Do Not use the term minority to refer to individuals/students from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. Instead, use ‘people of color/students of color’”). The longest-tenured curator at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art was fired for using the term “reverse discrimination.” Intuit, publisher of TurboTax and QuickBooks, boasts that it is “committed to creating an anti-racist culture by using language that champions equity and inclusion,” and its “specific word guidance” is worthy of the wokest of colleges.

From the Word War to the Woke War

As the linguist John McWhorter has noted, “language policing has reached a near fever pitch, out of a sense that labeling common terms and expressions as ‘problematic’—that is, blasphemous—is essential to changing society.” But since not everyone wants to change society, and those who do don’t agree on what changes they want, the pitched battles over words have simply become one of many fronts in the culture wars—canceling words is just another way of telling the unwoke to shut up.

Take “Latinx,” which Stanford instructs us to use instead of Hispanic. Where did that come from? Not from, well, Hispanics. “Latino groups want to do away with ‘Latinx,’” Axios argued recently. “Elected officials, a major newspaper and the oldest Latino civil rights organization in the U.S. have all spoken out strongly in recent weeks against the continued use of ‘Latinx,’ the gender-neutral term promoted by progressives to describe people of Spanish-speaking origin.”

[Related: “More Employees Than Students at Stanford: Give Each Student a Concierge!”]

Axios quotes Rep. Ruben Gallego (D-AZ), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus’s campaign arm, announcing that his staff is not allowed to use “Latinx.” Several days later, Domingo García, president of the League of United Latin American Citizens, did the same. “‘The reality is, there is very little to no support for its use, and it’s sort of seen as something used inside the Beltway or in Ivy League tower settings,’ García told NBC News.”

Pew (August 2020), Bendixen and Amandi International (November 2021), and Gallup (January 2022) have confirmed that Hispanics do not like “Latinx.” Pew found that “only 23% of U.S. adults who self-identify as Hispanic or Latino have heard of the term Latinx, and just 3% say they use it to describe themselves.” Bendixen and Amandi found “Only 2% of Hispanic voters chose the term ‘LatinX’ to describe their ethnic background,” and Gallup found that “Only 4% of Hispanic Americans surveyed by Gallup preferred ‘Latinx’ as the label of choice to describe their ethnic group.” It quoted Hispanic columnist Angel Eduardo, who “called the use of the term ‘lexical imperialism,’ adding that it is ‘almost exclusively a way to indicate a particular ideological leaning.’” Gallup concluded that “Overall, to the extent there is a controversy, it is apparently not so much generated from the bottom up — that is, discontent in the ranks of Hispanic Americans over the labels used to describe them — but rather a controversy developed by thought leaders and activists from the top down.”

Which brings us back to Stanford, and the question of how and why it came to recommend the use of “Latinx,” an odd term rejected by an overwhelming majority of Hispanics, instead of the much more popular Hispanic.

In December 2020, the Stanford CIO Council and the Stanford People of Color Affinity Group issued a “Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Action” affirming their “stand in solidarity with the Black community at large and, specifically, at Stanford,” and announcing “a long term plan that puts actions behind mere words.” The first item in that plan, however, dealt with “mere words”: a determination to “Purge racist terminology in technology.” Subsequently, Stanford announced the resulting Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI), “a multi-year effort that identifies and aims to address language on all technology web pages and in the code written across the CIOC organizations. As part of this initiative, the phrase ‘racist terminology in technology’ was clarified from the original commitment and expanded to ‘harmful language in technology.’” Its target was language that:

• is ethnically offensive

• contains disability, gender, age, sex, or implicit biases

• represents institutional racism

• is violent.

The list of harmful words that has generated so much controversy was the result.

Responding to that controversy, on December 20, 2022, Steve Gallagher, Stanford’s chief information officer and co-chair of the CIO Council, issued a statement attempting “to provide clarification.” “Firstly and importantly,” Gallagher insisted, “the website does not represent university policy. … [It] was created by, and intended for discussion within, the IT community at Stanford. It provides ‘suggested alternatives’ for various terms, and reasons why those terms could be problematic in certain uses. Its aspiration, and the reason for its development, is to support an inclusive community. … To be very clear,” he added, “not only is the use of the term ‘American’ not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed.” (Emphasis in original) That was the only entry on the list he criticized.

That did not work, and on January 4, 2023, Gallagher issued another statement announcing that the website was being taken down, at least temporarily. “The Stanford IT community remains steadfast in its commitment to the university’s values of diversity and inclusion,” he concluded. “The primary motivation of this initiative was always to promote a more inclusive and welcoming environment where individuals from all backgrounds feel they belong. The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark.”

Gallagher’s clarification and apology also “missed the mark.” The criticism Stanford received was not that the harmful words list was “counter to inclusivity,” but that it was inane, offensive, and over the top. In addition, the EHLI was not created solely for, or only to provoke “discussion within, the IT community at Stanford.” In any event, the IT community, i.e., the CIO Council, was not simply a bunch of computer enthusiasts; its 23 members represented all “major Stanford units that manage one or more substantial IT enterprises”—the Schools of Law, Earth Sciences, Medicine, and Engineering; the Graduate Schools of Education; the Graduate School of Business; the Humanities & Sciences; Stanford Libraries, etc.—and determined web style and usage for them.

[Related: “Affirmative Action at Stanford, Then and Now”]

Incidentally, the CIO Council describes itself as “comprised of the senior-most technical leaders from Stanford schools and units.” Since this controversy is all about language usage, perhaps it will not be regarded as too churlish to point out that “the correct use of [comprise and compose] is simple but increasingly rare. The parts compose the whole; the whole comprises the parts. … The phrase is comprised of is increasingly common but has long been regarded as poor usage.” (Bryan Garner, Garner’s Modern English Usage, Fourth Edition [2016], p. 191, Fifth Edition [2022], p. 234)

Stanford: Woke or Wuss?

Also on January 4, Stanford president Marc Tessier-Lavigne issued his own “missed the mark” letter to the Stanford community, in which he insisted that “The initiative was undertaken by well-intentioned staff as they sought to promote an inclusive community.” He also emphasized, “to reiterate: At no point did the website represent university policy.”

I think both these points are not only wrong but reveal that Stanford’s problem is much more serious than clumsy semantics.

First, what “mark” was “missed”? We’re not, after all, talking about slurs or slander. Telling everyone to watch what they say and write and recommending the adoption of often weird, awkward words and phrases to foreclose the possibility that someone, somewhere might complain about not being “included” strikes me as more like bullying than a “well-intentioned” effort.

Finally, of course the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative was university policy. It purported to state what language was preferred on all Stanford websites.

A few weeks ago, I argued here that President Tessier-Lavigne’s apology for Stanford’s policy restricting Jewish admission in the 1950s was flawed because it did not explain why restricting the number of Jews was bad but restricting the number of Asians and whites today is not. His most recent apology is also flawed, this time by his awkward and unpersuasive attempt to distance Stanford from an initiative promulgated by the council made up of all the university’s chief information officers. In addition, he seems to assume that anything done in the name of promoting “inclusion” is by definition “well-intentioned,” no matter how much it reeks of ideologically rigid political correctness.

It is not clear—nor does it really matter—whether President Tessier-Lavigne and other campus leaders are themselves thoroughly woke or are simply unwilling to challenge the woke orthodoxy that now dominates their campus. In fact—and, from my point of view, this is the unkindest cut of all—he reminds me of President Biden. EHLI was not “university policy”? Sure, in the same way that there is no “visitor log” of visitors to the president’s houses, just information on all who visited. President Tessier-Lavigne, like President Biden, either agrees with the far-left wokery running amok under his administration or is afraid to criticize it. No enemies to the left.

“Well-intentioned?” Again, it doesn’t really matter. As Justice Louis Brandeis observed, “The greatest dangers to liberty lurk in insidious encroachments by men of zeal, well-meaning but without understanding.” [Olmstead v. U.S., 277 U.S. 438 (1928)]

Image: Adobe Stock


3 thoughts on “Not Just Semantics: Stanford’s “Harmful Words” Problem Is Serious

  1. Stanford engages in research for military-related technology used in wars that have killed thousands of people. But they can’t ban that. Just words.

  2. I am always amused at how the permanently and terminally offended try to claim that the term “American” has ever referred to anybody from anywhere but the USA. For over two centuries, the people of the US have been called “Americans” by the rest of the world (well, and maybe “pinche gringo” by Mexicans), and they are the only ones who have been called that. Also, it is only people from the US who refer to themselves as American; I have never heard of a Canadian, Mexican, Honduran, Nicaraguan, Guatemalan, etc. all the way down to Argentinian refer to himself as “American”. Never. Not once.

  3. UMass Amherst attempted to develop a similar list of banned words over 30 years ago — and failed because they were never able to finish the list. Every time they thought they had it done, someone came up with a few more words they wanted added.

    But Stanford’s list raises the thing I predicted would happen if UMass were ever to finish and publish its list — you are going to give a list of words to (then) 5,000 freshmen, tell them that people will get upset if they say them, and honestly expect not to have them screamed out of dormitory windows at 2AM?

    Maybe Stanford’s students are more civil — the term “Masshole” exists for a reason — but understanding the developmental psychology of 19-year-olds, I have no doubt that they will try to creatively use the banned words — not because they are racist bigots but because of the eternal goal of youth to defy their elders.

    Politics aside, I would say that having such a list is both obtuse and asinine — except that I doubt most administrators would understand the first adjective and likely mistake the second for something else. Same thing with the word “niggardly” which is a perfectly good word with a specific meaning that ain’t what most people think it is….

    And as to the politics of this, I’d add another word — fascist — although few people understand what that word actually means as well. (People tend to forget that Hitler was a National Socialist — that’s what (in German) his party called itself, and where the term Nazi came from.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *