Words Matter!

   Posted by: Robert   in Uncategorized

News broke yesterday that the University of Michigan spent the tuition paid by nearly three of their undergraduates on something known as the Inclusive Language Campaign.  The ILC is a program that first appeared a few years ago at the University of Maryland and appears to be in the process of making its way around the country. Although the news out of Michigan only recently came to light, the program actually began with the start of the Fall term in September last year.

The professed goal of the ILC is “to educate students about hurtful phrases that are not inclusive and eliminate language that perpetuates hate and prejudice.”  In simpler terms, it’s a speech-code campaign aimed at removing certain words and phrases from college campuses.  They describe the campaign as educational, rather than regulatory, meaning that, at least for now, nobody is going to be officially punished for uttering one of the disfavored bits of language.  That’s good, because while we would certainly be better off without some of these words and phrases, we should not be so quick to cast all of them into the tides of history.

In the first category of language, we have words like “downsy”, which I suppose is something that someone, somewhere, must say.  Although my exposure to that word is new, it’s apparent that it’s meant as a reference to Down Syndrome and is probably not all that flattering to people with that disorder.  If used exclusively, it also pays very little respect to the Upsys.  Other words on the list are generally known to be pejorative (“tard” comes to mind), and otherwise just difficult to use in an intelligent sentence.  Such words add little to our public discourse, and it’s likely we could do just as well without them.

More difficult to call are phrases like “hebe-jebes,” which are supposedly tied to some history of cultural insensitivity (anti-Semitism, in this case).  Whether or not that such ties are accurate, the reality is that nobody uses that phrase in that way.  Whatever air of insensitivity that phrase may have had has been so thoroughly lost to history that it’s doubtful anyone would be offended without having been told that they ought to be.  While cultural insensitivity is bad, teaching people to be offended by non-offensive things is worse.  Teaching people to be offended in that way does nothing but turn them into victims of a distant past in which neither they nor the people around them played any part.  This is the antithesis of social progress.

Of course, social progress is almost certainly not the point.  The inclusion of “illegal alien” and “terrorist” on the list of disfavored language make clear the political leanings of the entire exercise.  The phrase “illegal alien,” we are told, may be dehumanizing to “someone who is living in the US without authorization.”  Fortunately, the recommended alternative phrase “unauthorized migrant” is not at all dehumanizing, so we can just move forward with that.  The word “terrorist,” of course, is offensive to Arabs, because not all of them are terrorists.

Speech codes can be one of the most effective ways to change the course of a political discussion by placing off-limits the language needed to fully talk about a situation.  Restrictions on speech are tool as old as language itself, and self-censorship has long been recognized as the most effective form of control.  Even if it could be said that the word lists are politically neutral, policing speech would still be bad.  The University’s endorsement and funding of the campaign is especially troubling, as open discourse is essential to both academic freedom and the intellectual development of the student body.  It also raises the spectre of more official sanctions coming in the future which would cut directly at the heart of free speech.

All that being said, I do believe it important that we avoid offending people where we can.  To help promote a more civil discourse, I have found a listing of words which may be offensive.  I would suggest that we all strive to modify our speech accordingly.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, February 11th, 2015 at 7:00 am and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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