The Horrors of Trying to be Kind
The WSJ doesn't like Stanford's attempt to make its website more inclusive.
So, I noticed the following from the WSJ editorial board, The Stanford Guide to Acceptable Words: Behold the school’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.
Parodists have it rough these days, since so much of modern life and culture resembles the Babylon Bee. The latest evidence is that Stanford University administrators in May published an index of forbidden words to be eliminated from the school’s websites and computer code, and provided inclusive replacements to help re-educate the benighted.
Call yourself an “American”? Please don’t. Better to say “U.S. citizen,” per the bias hunters, lest you slight the rest of the Americas. “Immigrant” is also out, with “person who has immigrated” as the approved alternative. It’s the iron law of academic writing: Why use one word when four will do?
You can’t “master” your subject at Stanford any longer; in case you hadn’t heard, the school instructs that “historically, masters enslaved people.” And don’t dare design a “blind study,” which “unintentionally perpetuates that disability is somehow abnormal or negative, furthering an ableist culture.” Blind studies are good and useful, but never mind; “masked study” is to be preferred. Follow the science.
Ah yes, the horrors of it all. I know this is the time of year wherein media outlets are looking for some filler, but at the end of the day, all that is being done here is some self-editing by an entity of its website. In the realm of national newsworthiness, it ranks pretty low. That the WSJ editorial board has the time or inclination to worry about such things is a bit of self-parody in and of itself, to be honest.
They did try and tie into the cost of higher education:
We can’t imagine what’s next, except that it will surely involve more make-work for more administrators, whose proliferation has driven much of the rise in college tuition and student debt. For 16,937 students, Stanford lists 2,288 faculty and 15,750 administrative staff.
Because, of course, one of the most elite private schools in the world is the exemplar from which we should make generalizations about the cost of higher education.
What strikes me about the piece is that it is just another example of what I consider a highly unfortunate propensity of contemporary conservatism to use ridicule and exaggeration as a major part of their rhetorical toolbox. This is supposed to be the nation’s elite financial newspaper and their editorial board is emulating the late Rush Limbaugh in this piece.
Fundamentally is not the great sin here that Stanford wants to be kind to people? Ultimately, that is what inclusive language is supposed to do. We can certainly debate the linguistic elegance of “person-first” language like “person who has immigrated” instead of “immigrant.” But the intentions are hardly problematic. To quote the policy:
The use of person-first language helps everyone to resist defining others by a single characteristic or experience if that person doesn’t wish to be defined that way. Some people may not mind having the term(s) applied to them or may even prefer having them used. It’s always preferable to ask a person how they want to be addressed instead of making assumptions.
That kind of sounds like something Mr. Rogers would teach.
And I hate to break it to the WSJ editorial board, but “American” can be an ambiguous term, and “US Citizen” is more precise.
Setting aside the fact that one would have to readjust one’s word usage, it makes not one iota of difference whether a study is called “blind” or “masked.” The main difference is that people are used to “blind study” and would have to learn to use “masked study”—which suggests that the essence of the WSJ‘s conservativism is simplistic status quoism. It is as if the world must stay exactly the same because having to expend the slight energy needed to go from “blind” to “masked” is just too much to ask.
The whole list is here: Elimination of HarmfulLanguage Initiative. Brace yourself for the horrors of the initiative.
And yes, I understand how this kind of story is used as fodder in the culture wars and that it is easy to make fun of the pointy-headed academics messing with common sense language, but what words we use are choices. Just because a choice was made in the past doesn’t make it sacrosanct. And, for that matter, if an institution of higher education wants the language on its website to potentially spark a little thought, that strikes me as fulfilling its core mission.
Further, I am just weary of attempts at being nice to people being cast as objects of ridicule.
Plenty of people on this very website will claim that this will be a factor in Democrats losing elections, cos it bothers people far more than Republican authoritarianism.
Propensity? It’s pretty much all they’ve got
No, kindness is not the only possible motivation. Motivations, plural, are the rule for all human actions. A desire to control, to use power, is also likely a part of the motivation. A desire to appear virtuous. A desire to appear better than, more au courant.
And yes, nonsense like this does hurt us electorally because it, A) makes us seem obsessed with trivia, and B) People absolutely do see the motives other than kindness and react negatively to being lectured by smug ivory tower intellectuals.
Not really ‘choices’ when official guidelines are being imposed on the writers of the site. Choice is being limited, obviously, making for less choice. I despise people trying to tell me what words to use. It’s obnoxious behavior, an endless, ‘well, actually. . .’ from people who invariably know less than I do about using words to communicate.
Leave the language alone to evolve as it always does. English does not need the assistance of ‘pointy-headed academics.’
I move we replace “people who are offended by attempts to be inclusive through language that attempts not to offend others” with “assholes.”
@Michael Reynolds: “People absolutely do see the motives other than kindness and react negatively to being lectured by smug ivory tower intellectuals.”
I realize that this is your favorite hobby horse, and you will ride it like the kid in the D.H. Lawrence story, but the only people being “lectured to by smug ivory tower intellectuals” are other “smug ivory tower intellectuals.”
This is entirely an internal document, a style guide for Stanford systems laid down by the Stanford administration.
But I guess it’s terrible when all those smug intellectuals lecture people on what kind of language they use and delightful when a smug YA author does.
This is Standford saying “Look at us! We’re doing something!” rather than… well.. actually doing something.
First of all: How many people are actually offended by any of the terms that they’re banning? How many immigrants are actually offended by being referred to as an immigrant? While anecdotal, every immigrant I’ve met has referred to themselves as such–and proudly identify as “American”
Secondly: When you ban a word, it gives that word more leverage. It’s now defined as an “insulting word”–which will, of course, be used to insult people. One of the biggest tools the gay-rights movement had was taking back the insults. “We’re here, we’re queer, get used to it!” Very quickly, calling someone queer had no effect.
This is walking backwards.
Put more efforts into heterodoxy, education, outreach, breaking down exclusionary policies–things that will actually make a difference? Naahhh! Let’s just print a list of banned words, pat ourselves on the back, and call it a day.
I was unaware that you wrote content for Stanford’s web page. 😉
@Michael Reynolds: Language, and everything else, evolves because there is a random mutation, OR there is a pressure to change; a forced change, you might say. Whether its coming from pointy haired academics or not (and who standardized English spelling in the first place?), it’s still evolution. Just in this case evolution you don’t like.
Of course, sometimes evolution leads to dead ends (I suspect latinx is heading that way). I also think getting people to stop using shorthand group identifiers like “immigrants” is unlikely to make much headway. But who knows.
@Michael Reynolds: And if you can prove to me that anyone, anywhere, actually predicates their vote on Stanford University’s style guide for their website, I will gladly send you a bottle of scotch.
BTW, I hate to break to everyone, but public-facing communication platforms like web pages tend to have style guides and are subject to editing by the entity that publishes the page.
University web sites tend not to be free speech free-for-alls with out editors or policies.
@Steven L. Taylor:
Having written half a dozen style guides for corporations in more than one country… yeah. I’m aware of this. I’ve had to deal with some very specific wording–and wording limitations–backed by international licensing deals. Not to mention cultural and linguistic translations that can be fraught with trouble*.
It’s one of the reasons I find this move so silly.
* No… No… we’re not calling the rounded extension to the structure a “bell end”.
I would argue “masked study” is a more accurate descriptor of what is being done. Blind is a state of being, where masking is a process that can be evaluated for its efficacy.
Stanford is free to do what they want and attempt to influence language. But if we are also allowed to have an opinion, it’s a mixed bag here.
American is ambiguous, agreed (I tend to say Im from the States when talking to businesses acquaintances around the world). On the other hand, the word master has several meanings, including studying a subject thoroughly, which has exactly zilch to do with slavery. And has, to my knowledge, never actually offended someone who has attained a master’s.
Blind vs masked: ha, better be careful, masks are pretty offensive to some people!
@Assad K: And here’s @Michael Reynolds: right on time. And @wr: has the perfect reply to Reynold’s hobby horse. Allow me to expand on this to emphasize my own hobby horse. Stanford didn’t make this a thing, WSJ chose to make this a thing. This isn’t year end filler, it’s what they do, day in and day out. No matter how circumspect liberals may try to be, if they look hard enough FOX/GOP will find something. And they look really hard. Had any of you ever heard of CRT in K-12 before Chris Rufo basically invented it from almost nothing? And Rufo et al did it by doing the opposite of what Stanford is doing. To make CRT exist they made the definition of “CRT” so loose, so imprecise and devoid of actual meaning, that anything vaguely touching on race is included.
James, thank you for noting that much of “woke”, and before that “politically correct”, is basically courtesy. I’ll add that in many cases, e.g. “U. S.” for “American”, “masked study” for “blind study” the suggested language is more correct and precise. Most of two whole continents of Americans aren’t us. And study participants aren’t blind to what’s going on, it’s masked from them.
@Han: For example, orchestra chair auditions first began to be done “blind” with the instrumentalist behind a curtain, because it became noticed that first chairs were usually men and it was postulated sexism had a role. This mostly fixed the problem, but there was still a discrepancy in some orchestras, until it was figured out to put carpet down on the path leading to the auditioner’s chair, so you couldn’t hear the high heels click on the floor.
@Mu Yixiao: You must have an exceptionally long resume 😉
Since a double blind study is the gold standard it seems like more of a complement than a slight…
@Steven L. Taylor:
I used to work multiple jobs at once, as well as many years doing contract/freelance work–several years as my only work, and probably 15 or so as side jobs in addition to a full-time job. At one point I was working a full-time job, a part-time job, and three freelance gigs that ran from 2-weeks to 2 months (I had a lot more energy when I was young)
Yes. Trying to list all the jobs I’ve worked would be a rather lengthy endeavor. 🙂
From the linked Stanford document,
Stanford put out an internal guide, advisory, not mandatory. WSJ (Murdoch) is making it out to be pointy headed librul professors at Stanford trying to impose this on the wide world. That is a lie. Don’t help them by amplifying it.
As others point out, this style guide is solving a specific problem, not a general one. When I consider how I express myself, or might express myself, I can see myself using both “immigrant” and “person who has immigrated” depending on many other factors. Not the least of which is who I’m talking to, what idea I’m trying to convey, and how much good faith I calculate I will be credited with.
One can get exercised about these substitutions in the abstract, and how they might disrupt flow, but any good writer can alter other parts of the paragraph or essay and make them appear to be very natural and organic. Mostly.
Also, I’m my own editor. I get to decide all these things for myself. With a website, where a unified style and approach is valuable, there needs to be a collective understanding, which amounts to rules, which highlight principles.
Furthermore, Stanford holds a very powerful position of authority, so it behooves them to tread more lightly, I think.
I don’t really have any objection to “masked study”, though “blind study” does not seem to use “blind” in any pejorative way, but as a positive thing, and the association would seem to me to be a plus. Of course, not everyone is going to feel that way.
WSJ editorial writers should go out and get a real job, maybe writing style guides for HBCUs. They have waaaay too much time on their hands.
Baloney. There’s no such thing as a purely internal document, certainly not in academia. And even if that was the intent, it was not the effect, which is to once again feed the right-wing angertainment industry and signal to American voters that the lefty universities are tryna tell us how to talk. Had these rocket scientists set themselves the task of finding a way for Fox News to ignore J6 referrals and tax returns, they could not have done a better job. Objecting to the use of, ‘American,’ is the chef’s kiss. Hannity just fell to his knees and thanked Jesus for this.
And WTF are you talking about, dude? When have I ever told anyone what language they should or should not use? Exactly: never. But let’s pretend that you’re right. Now, tell me how much you want me looking over your shoulder as you work on a script telling you what words you can use.
Or maybe publish a link to their own style guide. I expect we could find some stuff to laugh at.
Headline: Silicon Valley University bans the word, ‘American’ as offensive.
Jesus Christ, does no one on the left understand how media works? Durrr, it’s the fault of those other guys, I mean, I just produce the red meat and lay it out there, I can’t be blamed for the tiger eating it. Yes, you can be blamed. Stop feeding the tiger.
Here’s a thought: how about for the next couple years academics pretend that they live in the real world, where universities are seen as Democratic strongholds, and where telling people not to use the word, “American,” for fuck’s sake, is a case of writing memes for the enemy?
When you’re explaining, you’re losing. Reality, people, is not what you intend, it’s what effect you have. What is the political effect of this story? And if you say the only effect is on the Stanford site writers, you’re. . . what’s a nice word I could use. . . naive.
The job of the Left is not lecturing, we are not teachers, our job is housing the homeless, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick, defending those unable to defend themselves. A lot more people like us when we do those things and stop playing the eternally-unsatisfied scolds talking down to the peasants from the ivory tower.
Have you not noticed that ‘woke’ Hollywood is being rolled back? As it happens, ‘woke’ Hollywood and I have exactly the same long-term goals. Goals now very much imperiled by the inability of Hollywood writers to understand how to incorporate a message into fiction.
Here’s a first clue: when you decide to use fiction in any form to change hearts and minds, maybe don’t start with a press tour where you announce that you’re going to change hearts and minds? I mean, if the goal is actually to change hearts and minds and not just impress your peers with your DEI wonderfulness?
WR is well able to speak for himself, but I expect he’d be just fine with you looking over his shoulder to the same extent Stanford wants to, which is not at all.
To repeat myself, you are accepting WSJ’s false framing of what Stanford did.
WSJ has online a monthly newsletter on style. Doesn’t seem to be paywalled. The current issue calls for “antisemitism” rather than “anti-Semitism”. They trace the latter to a late 19th century German writer who was in favor of it. The thing as well as the spelling. Tracing the history back to an antisemite seems a pretty “woke” thing to do. However only an outdated 2002 version of their Stylebook seems to be publicly available. Apparently there are such things as internal documents.
@Michael Reynolds: So we must live our lives in perpetual regression, cowed by the heckler’s veto? I disagree. Reactionaries will ALWAYS react this way when confronted with progress. Fuck ’em.
Besides which nobody really cares about this stuff. I mean, the WSJ, Fox, et al. have been pushing this line of nonsense for years and we still just went through an election that saw a century-scale historic performance by the Democrats.
@Steven L. Taylor: “And if you can prove to me that anyone, anywhere, actually predicates their vote on Stanford University’s style guide for their website, I will gladly send you a bottle of scotch.”
If I sign an affidavit swearing that this is precisely how I determine my votes, may I have a bottle of Laphroaig?
@Han: “This mostly fixed the problem, but there was still a discrepancy in some orchestras, until it was figured out to put carpet down on the path leading to the auditioner’s chair, so you couldn’t hear the high heels click on the floor.”
This was used quite brilliantly in the recent movie Tar.
Nitpick… Scrolling through the list, they suggest replacing “manmade” with “made by hand”. I understand what they’re trying to accomplish, but made by hand already has a bunch of connotations about the process of production, and as typically used is only a subset of manmade.
I anticipate at least a few conflicts between the style guide and pure technical writing. Certain terms of long standing are potentially problematic, but in the technical setting are used because everyone in the field understands the shorthand. Not quite the same, but I remember having to explain to a non-technical writer who was part of the process for external publication that “ring” was a technical term and I couldn’t use synonyms.
@Michael Reynolds: ” And even if that was the intent, it was not the effect, which is to once again feed the right-wing angertainment industry and signal to American voters that the lefty universities are tryna tell us how to talk.”
The effect comes not from Stanford’s guidelines, but from a determined, Murdoch-owned propaganda sheet that will use anything to smear liberals. And somehow you — definitely one of the most intelligent and accomplished people around these parts — fall for this every time.
If people tried to live their lives in such a way as to eliminate any chance of the right-wing media twisting something we’ve done into a nonsense accusation like this, we’d have to enter a medically-induced coma. And even then they’d claim we were sleeping all the time because we were too lazy to work and wanted a government hand out.
And you’d be out there saying exactly the same thing.
@Michael Reynolds: “And WTF are you talking about, dude? When have I ever told anyone what language they should or should not use?”
Should we start with your response today and work backwards? Are you really so completely un self-aware?
And Stanford’s job is…?
@Michael Reynolds: “When you’re explaining, you’re losing.”
Couldn’t agree more. That’s why the proper response to this is not an explanation, but a simple: “Hey, assholes, maybe you could take some time away from poring over our style guides to check your own site and see that you have never quite gotten around to mentioning that you thought the attempted violent overthrow of the US government was a bad thing. We’re not going to be lectured to by a bunch of treasonous fucks whose only care in the world is to see more poor people suffer and die so that your billionaire buddies can get another tax break. Oh, and if you really want junior to get a space in the class of 2024, maybe tell him to get better grades instead of offering to endow a building.”
@Steven L. Taylor: “And Stanford’s job is…?”
Personally I think it’s training the next generation of entitled tech assholes to believe that the only thing that matters in the world is their own genius, and thus everyone who helps them is really just a parasite waiting to be crushed.
Of course, MR is going to call them all progressives as they churn out next week’s version of Musk and Thiel…
I’ve argued for a while now that what we call “political correctness” is really just a modern form of age-old etiquette, which has been defined as “making others feel comfortable in our presence.”
A lot of the critiques of etiquette are applicable, and have some merit. The rules of etiquette, of what forms of expression are mandatory or forbidden, are an exercise of power by the social group making the rules.
And further, the rules are often gamed and weaponized by those in power.
But overall, freedom of expression relies upon the existence of a civil and well ordered society. While etiquette should rightly be challenged, and should evolve to suit the needs of the society it orders, there will always be a need for some form of it.
@wr: I think the proper response is just to ignore them.
When stuff like this comes out, here’s what happens: some small percentage of Americans, infested with the right-wing brain worms, will howl in performative outrage. Another small percentage of Americans will look a little deeper, learn what is *actually* going on, and move forward with additional understanding. But the great majority of Americans? For them it’s just lost in the noise. There are literally a million things in every American’s life that are more relevant than whatever Stanford U. suggests in its internal style guide.
So when the Murdoch propaganda sheets and Fox “News” and the rest start spinning up about things like this, just say “fuck ’em” and keep moving forward with what really matters to John Q. Public.
The Democrats are finally starting to learn this, and so we see what we saw on November 8.
@Mikey: That, too. The fact is, anyone so poisoned they would actually care about the vocabulary choices Stanford suggests for its websites is never going to vote for anyone not endorsed by Tucker.
I approve of a desire to appear virtuous.
Someone who acknowledges that doing the right thing (for some definition of right) is good, and that understanding the consequences of one’s actions and words is good, and trying to not be cruel is good… that’s a better person than most.
Even if they are being hamfisted about it, or a little daft. Even if I want to smack them upside the head and shout “The word ‘butterfly’ isn’t ableist you lactose-intolerant freak!” or whatever.
Between virtue signaling and performative assholery (and, regrettably, those seem to be the options), I’d rather side with the former, even if my heart lies a little bit with the latter.
Also, as an aside, we should never be referring to “war criminals”, we should use people-first language to avoid dehumanizing them — people who have committed war crimes — there was so much more to Hitler than just his genocide, and it would be wrong to reduce him just to that.
@wr: hold out for the 25-year Macallan.
(Also, if you have access to a Trader Joe’s, they’ve got an Islay Malt which is a pretty good poor man’s Laphroaig).
@Steven L. Taylor:
Oooh, from beyond the blue line. Taylor shoots! HE SCORES!!!!!!
Road trip to Vancouver WA…
@Michael Reynolds: I don’t know how long universities have been trying to get people to stop using “American” but they were doing it when I started grad school at Alabama 30 years ago. As a Latin American specialist, I suspect Steven is less prone to do so than I am. And yet: We’ve both taught courses in “American (not “United States”) Government.” And Steven has co-edited a volume entitled A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. So, it’s rather clearly a losing effort!
At the same time, it’s worthwhile for US citizens to be aware that some in Latin American find our exclusive use of the word grating. The Canadians, Europeans, and others are just fine with it and routinely use the same practice we do for the same reasons we do: “United States” doesn’t roll off the tongue as easily as “America.”
@grumpy realist: “hold out for the 25-year Macallan.”
I was deliberately aiming low…
And unfortunately here in NYC, with its liquor laws written by corrupt distributors, TJ’s can’t sell liquor. And in fact there are no discounters at all. Ah, how I miss BevMo!
Hey, now, co-authored! 🙂
And, FWIW, I am not advocating for never using the word America or American to describe things in the USA. I do nevertheless understand why there might be an interest in differentiating between America, broadly defined, and the USA.
But I will also note that when speaking to others in the hemisphere, one can be accurately away that telling someone from Latin America, that one is “from America” as opposed to “from the United States” can be a little insulting. As with all things, context can matter.
Again, depending on the context, it no hard to see how basically saying that we in the US are the true Americans and the rest of y’all don’t have a claim to the name, despite living in South America, for example, can be potentially insensitive, if not insulting. It can have self-centered, big bully energy (especially given the US’ relationship to the hemisphere, especially with Mexico, Central America, and the Caribbean).
@Steven L. Taylor:
Ha. Fair enough. I had misremembered how the book was structured, incorrectly recollecting that it was a series of country chapters rather than organized along institutional design chapters.
Agreed. While the practice developed without malice as a shorthand for an otherwise long name, it’s doubtless grating for some Latin Americans for reasons you state.
A substantial fraction of US adults feel that being kind to those people is both sinful and icky. There is no greater entitlement than feeling entitled to choose whom to be kind to.