The administrator who added a confusing, tin-eared Bias-Free Language Guide—a 4,500-word assault on the English language—to the University of New Hampshire’s website as a resource for students and faculty must have been crazy.
Wait, did I say “crazy”? Sorry, I meant to call the administrator a “person with a mental health condition”—the politically correct, non-problematic way of telling people they’re insane, according to the guide.
Just rolls right off the tongue, doesn’t it?
The Bias-Free Language Guide is a massive wall of text that explains why common word choices, phrases, and modifiers are unwelcome in polite discourse. Its purpose is to assist in the creation of “an inclusive learning community” by raising awareness of trivial slights in everyday language that, “for some, feels like a form of violence.”
Its authors, UNH Coordinator of Community Equity and Diversity Sylvia Foster among them, intended the guide as tool for molding a more feelings-conscious campus. But if their advice had ever been followed by a significant number of students and faculty members, everyone would have soon found themselves walking on eggshells 100 percent of the time.
Some examples are in order.
Instead of referring to the elderly as senior citizens (or even as the elderly), members of the UNH community are encouraged to embrace the most up-to-date politically-correct terminology: “people of advanced age” in this case, according to the guide. This is supposed to be somehow less derogatory than “senior citizen,” which of course was once the politically correct of saying “old.”
A poor person is not a poor person; he or she (or ze! At least according to the section on gender-queer pronouns) is a “person living at or below the poverty line.” OK, fine. But by the same token, one should say that the rich are “persons of material wealth,” since persons living at or below the poverty line may be rich in character, or spirit, or any number of other things.
Fat people are not fat, overweight, or obese; they are “people of size,” a decidedly abstract description. Are all of us not people of size, in some sense?
Midgets are “someone(s) of short stature.” Illegal aliens are “persons seeking asylum.” (Then again, what if they’re not seeking asylum?) A blind person is a “person who is blind.”
The microaggression generating the most media attention, however, is the guide’s contention that the word “American” is problematic when used to refer to U.S. citizens, since this excludes South Americans. For similar reasons, the word “Arab” is an insufficient and callous substitution for “Northern African people,” presumably even those who do not hail from Northern Africa.
The guide’s advice is occasionally contradictory. It notes that some of the supposedly derogatory terms are no longer considered derogatory in certain circles. The word “fat,” for instance, “is increasingly being reclaimed by people of size and their allies, yet for some, it is a term that comes from pain.”
So, the guide is contradictory. It’s also mostly terrible. While it’s never a bad idea to familiarize oneself with the shifting standards of acceptable parlance, everybody who took this guide seriously would be tripping over their tongues just trying to say hello to a stranger—sorry, a “person of non-familiar circumstance” (OK, I made that one up).
For one thing, most of the suggested terms are significantly wordier than the old-fashioned, problematic terms. This is a significant flaw: The point of language is to communicate ideas as effectively and quickly as possible. A critical component of successful expression—particularly written expression—is brevity. This is especially true in our age of text messages, blurbs, and listicles: the shorter, the sweeter. Some generalizing—i.e., referring to a group of people as “you guys” and not “you guys and girls and… others” saves critical time.
The guide recently came to the attention of Campus Reform, a right-leaning college news site that mocked it to no end. Soon after, National Review and New York magazine joined in as well. As NY magazine’s Jonathan Chait observed: “A UNH student or faculty member determined to avoid any linguistic missteps would have to pore over the list of terminology until they go blind[in strikeface] become visually impaired.”
UNH was quick to clarify that no one is required to obey these suggestions. In a statement, UNH President Mark Huddlestone insisted that speech on campus is “free and unfettered”:
“While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in this guide are NOT the policy of the University of New Hampshire. I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term ‘American’ is misplaced or offensive. The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses. It is ironic that what was probably a well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.”
UNH’s speech situation sounds similar to the one at the University of California, where faculty were recently asked to attend seminars on how to voluntarily police offensive language in classrooms and around campus.
It’s good that these public universities aren’t explicitly requiring the use of inoffensive language, because that would be both illegal and impossible. It would violate the First Amendment rights of students and faculty while failing to protect everyone’s delicate ears from words that hurt them. Everything is offensive to someone, and some things that are offensive to some people aren’t offensive to others. One man’s “fat” is another man’s “person of size.” The great war on hurt-feelings at American university campuses is unwinnable, and the casualties are significant.
In any case, universities should be careful not to confuse students about their right to speak their minds. They should also take better care to ensure that friendly speech reminders don’t become unfriendly speech mandates over time. Censorship-creep is all too real a phenomenon at universities all over the country.
In just the last month, I have covered cases where students were formally disciplined for engaging in political activism, calling another student a “psycho,” and making idiotic statements on Facebook. Each of these students should have enjoyed a right to free speech, and yet each met with suspension or expulsion for speaking out of line. That’s just crazy.