Did you hear about Stanford University’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative? Apparently, it was a thing back in the fall, and is no longer a thing. Which is a thing, itself.
I can’t keep up with all the things, anymore, can you? There are just so many of them. I came to this thing late, so bear with me as I provide a few details you may already know.
According to Stanford’s announcement – which has now been officially removed, but is still out there, since nothing ever dies on the Internet – “The goal of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative is to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code.”
They call the initiative EHLI for short, which I imagine is pronounced “Ellie.” I have a niece named Ellie – short for Elizabeth – so I’m not entirely comfortable with the acronym. But, as always, I digress.
To be fair, EHLI was an in-house initiative, meant only for Stanford, but since what happens in The Academy never stays in The Academy – but always trickles down to us plebs – it’s been the source of much controversy.
Here are some examples of language that Stanford has deemed harmful, along with their suggestions for replacing it:
Instead of “basket case” they recommend using “nervous.” Why? Apparently, basket case originally referred to someone “who had lost all four limbs and therefore needed to be carried in a basket.”
Yikes! Who knew? My guess is: nobody.
Instead of “mentally ill,” they recommend using “person living with a mental health condition.” Why? According to EHLI, “Using person-first language helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics.”
Meanwhile, stand-alone descriptors like “queer,” “Black” and “transgender” are perfectly acceptable – encouraged, even – so this argument seems disingenuous. Why not just say, “Calling somebody ‘mentally ill’ might hurt their feelings?” If this is what they mean, anyway… ?
Instead of “tone deaf,” Stanford recommends using “unenlightened.” Why? Because tone deaf is “ableist language that trivializes the experiences of people living with disabilities.”
Okay, but what about my friend who can’t carry a tune in a bucket? She’s now to be called “unenlightened,” even though she’s perfectly intelligent and spiritually aware?
Stanford recommends ditching the noun “Brave” and offers no alternative. “This term perpetuates the stereotype of the ‘noble courageous savage,’” they say, “equating the Indigenous male as being less than a man.”
Eeek! For starters, that’s not how you use “equating.” Moving on, I get how the word “Brave” implies noble and courageous, but how does it imply “savage,” exactly?
(Granted, when I hear the word “Brave” used as a noun, I immediately think baseball. And baseball is never bad. Ask my husband.)
Instead of “tribe,” Stanford prefers we use “friends, network, family, support system.” Why? “Because tribe was historically used to equate indigenous people with savages.”
Really? Don’t indigenous people, even to this day, call themselves “tribes”? And don’t they take pride in their tribal affiliations? I think Stanford needs to get over its weird obsession with savages.
But instead, they suggest we trade in the beautiful, evocative phrase “Indian summer” in favor of the prosaic “late summer.” Their reasoning? “This term infers that Indigenous people are chronically late.”
Does it really? I dare you to research the term “Indian summer” and see if it has ever meant – or even implied – such a thing. And by the way, Stanford, that’s the word you’re looking for: “implies.” Words do not “infer” anything. Words imply. Readers infer. That’s what you’ve done with “Indian summer.” But nobody else does. Stop projecting!
Turning to gender – instead of using the pronoun “she,” Stanford recommends using the person’s name, or “they,” saying, “unless you know the person you’re addressing uses ‘she’ as their pronoun, it is better to use ‘they’ or to ask the person which pronouns they use.”
In most instances, I believe this advice represents an over-abundance of caution. And if you’re “addressing” someone, wouldn’t you use the gender-neutral “you,” anyway? EHLI may be a stickler about harmful language, but she’s surprisingly imprecise about usage.
(Okay, in this case, maybe “they” is the appropriate pronoun. But in my head, I’m saying “Ellie,” remember?)
Here’s a fun one! Instead of “ballsy” Stanford suggests we use “bold, risk taker.” Why? “Because ‘ballsy’ attributes personality traits to anatomy.”
Huh? Does that mean “brainy” is out, too? I think what they meant to say is that “ballsy” attributes boldness to men, as opposed to women, but they’re so far down the gender etiquette rabbit hole now, they can’t even think straight, much less write clearly.
I don’t know much, but I do know that unclear writing usually reflects unclear thinking. If you can’t translate your idea into language that can be read and understood, you might want to rethink your idea.
Speaking of which . . . Stanford wants people to stop using the sleek, efficient verb “master” and start using the clunky phrase “become adept in,” because, “historically, masters enslaved people, didn’t consider them human and didn’t allow them to express free will.”
The word “master” dates back to 12th century France and has many connotations, most of them having nothing to do with American slavery. (Anybody out there study art history?) In its verb form, it implies (not infers) the acquisition of skill, excellence, and… well, mastery. I believe it would be a shame to lose this good word just because a contingent of contemporary scholars – who can’t even use English properly – insist on making everything in the world about American history.
Let me state for the record that I appreciate Stanford’s good intentions, but this is all just silly. And most people know it’s silly, which is why Stanford recently withdrew its list amid a flurry of negative feedback.
Poor EHLI. She was just trying to be nice.
I would never argue that language is static. Language is highly fluid. But attempting to control that fluidity is folly. Words come and go as they please. The best way to ensure words you don’t like stick around is to tell people they shouldn’t use them. The best way to get rid of words you don’t like is to stop using them yourself. Be the change!
For instance, there are words and phrases I almost never use anymore because I believe they’re lazy expressions that flatten complicated ideas and shut down productive discussion. If you see me use any of the following terms, chances are I’m being ironic, because I find them all beyond useless at this point – woke, social justice warrior, problematic, racist, white supremacist, intersectionality, cancel, trigger . . .
That’s just a short list off the top of my head. I don’t traffic in that language personally. But I would never tell you that you shouldn’t. Unlike Stanford, I like a rich and vibrant lexicon!
To that end, instead of getting rid of language, I say we bring some back! I recently came upon a list of delightful words that have fallen out of use, some of which seem due up for a revival. For instance:
Snollygoster – A shrewd, unprincipled person. Especially a politician.
Kakistocracy – Government by the least qualified or worst people.
Grumbletonians – People who are angry or unhappy with their government.
And one from the 19th century that seems tailor-made for our age: Ultracrepidarian – Somebody who gives opinions on subjects they know nothing about.