Durham, We Have a Problem: A Failed Quest for “Bias-Free Language.”

July 30, 2015

By James Taranto at The Wall Street Journal

“Language has been described as complicated, intriguing and beautiful.” So opens the University of New Hampshire’s “Bias-Free Language Guide,” whose unstated purpose is to make language a lot more complicated and less beautiful. “We offer this guide as a way to promote discussion and to facilitate creative and accurate expression,” the authors assert. “This guide is not a means to censor but rather to create dialogues of inclusion where all of us feel comfortable and welcomed.” See what we mean?

The guide apparently dates to 2013, but suddenly attracted national notice this week when CampusReform.org published a piece on it. We first heard of it when we read this tweet from Greg Lukianoff of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education: “So referring to anyone as ‘Arab’ is itself offensive? Did Michael Scott from The Office write this?” The reference was to the U.S. series’s second episode, “Diversity Day,” in which Michael attempts a dialogue of inclusion with employee Oscar Martinez:

Oscar: Both my parents were born in Mexico. . . . And, uh, they moved to the United States a year before I was born. So I grew up in the United States. . . . My parents were Mexican.

Michael: Wow. That is—that is a great story. That’s the American Dream right there, right? . . . Um, let me ask you, is there a term besides “Mexican” that you prefer? Something less offensive?

Oscar: “Mexican” isn’t offensive.

Michael: Well, it has certain connotations.

The UNH guide doesn’t address the “Mexican” question but does offer the “preferred” term “Latino people or Latino/a people, Latin@.” (Yes, that’s an at-sign.) “Spanish People” is “Problematic/Outdated” because it is “only appropriate for people from Spain; and, therefore, imprecise when referring to people from Latin, Central or South America.”

As for “Arab,” UNH’s preferred term is “Western Asian, Northern African people.” “Arab” is problematic because “the people of these regions of the world identify according to their genealogical, linguistic, or cultural backgrounds. When applicable, tribal affiliations and intra-tribal relationships play an important role in their identity.” Left unexplained is how the terms “Western Asian” and “Northern African” address that problem.

Some of the guide’s entries simply describe common usage. “Black” and “African American” are the preferred terms; “negro, negroid, colored person, dark” are problematic. But how much of a problem are they? The term “Negro” fell into desuetude 40 years or so ago; do Americans of college age really need to be told to avoid it?

The guide’s general bias—you’ll pardon the expression—is in favor of new coinages as opposed to old ones. The authors frown upon most terms that were in common usage in, say, 1950. One exception is “white people,” which (along with “European-American individuals”) is preferred to “Caucasian people”—though the problem with the latter is not disclosed.

There are also a few terms that have been or are being “reclaimed,” to wit: “old people,” “fat” (“a historically derogatory term”) and “queer.” The first of these provides perhaps the guide’s most fascinating passage:

Old people has been reclaimed by some older activists who believe the standard wording of old people lacks the stigma of the term “advanced age.” Old people also halts the euphemizing of age. Euphemizing automatically positions age as a negative.

Even the people who write the rules have trouble following them. That reference to “older activists” immediately follows a listing of “problematic” terms that begins with “older people”! (Also “elders, seniors, senior citizen.” “People of advanced age” is preferred.) And the guide’s introductory paragraph quotes but does not problematize the following observation from 82-year-old Edward de Bono: “Language is an encyclopedia of ignorance. Old perceptions are frozen into language and force us to look at the world in an old-fashioned way.”

Shouldn’t that be “perceptions of advanced age”?

Then there is the observation that “euphemizing automatically positions age as a negative.” As Michael Scott might say, “Well, it has certain connotations.” But the guide’s authors seem to lack the self-awareness to recognize that their entire enterprise is an exercise in euphemizing.

Correction: almost the entire enterprise. One exception is the term “rich.” We were going to observe that some persons of material wealth (the preferred term) are reclaiming “rich”—such asDonald Trump, who said last month: “I’m really rich.”

But it turns out “rich” is problematic because it excludes persons ofnonmaterial wealth: “Being rich gets conflated with a sort of omnipotence; hence, immunity from customs and the lawPeople [sic] without material wealth could be wealthy or rich of spirit, kindness, etc.”

It hardly needs saying that “poor” is also problematic: “Some people choose to live a life that is not connected to the consumer world of material possessions. They do not identify as ‘poor.’ ” But get a load of one of the preferred terms: “low economic status related to a person’s education, occupation and income.” Try saying that to someone’s face and see how comfortable and welcomed it makes him feel.

“Identities are personal,” the guide explains. “It is important to realize that each person will define their [sic] own identity. . . . If you don’t know what to say, just ask the individual how they prefer to be identified.”

We’re glad you asked. Like most people from the United States, we identify as American. Would you call us that, please?

No, the guide answers. It has to be “North American or South American.” It seems “North Americans often use ‘American’ which usually, depending on the context, fails to recognize South America.” Also, “American” is problematic because it “assumes the U.S. is the only country inside these two continents.” To us who identify as American, such bias is highly problematic.

A similar rule applies to Africa, where “citizens prefer to identify with their country of origin, such as Ethiopian or Nigerian.” But “African American” is preferred. So is “Asian American”—as well as “Asian people.” Australia is both a country and a continent, which is so problematic that the guide omits it entirely.

On Tuesday we had some Twitter fun with the guide. In response,Bernie Gilbert tweeted: “Do you notice there’s no mention of baldness? [Phooey on] sensitivity; it’s always open season on guys with thin hair.” That brought to mind a different situation comedy, “Curb Your Enthusiasm,” in which Larry David once tried to report a hate crime against “the bald community.”

Not six hours later, we came across a piece slated for today’s New York Times titled “Four Women Bond Over the Beauty in Their Baldness,” a first-person essay by Helen Phillips that discusses (among other things) identity, language and microaggressions:

“I hate when people say that I ‘suffer’ from alopecia,” Rachel says over mimosas. We murmur our agreement. “And I don’t even like it when it’s called a disease or a disorder.”

“I always say a ‘hair-loss condition,’ ” I add.

“I say ‘situation,’ ” Rachel says, and we all laugh.

“I always hesitate when people are like, ‘Wait, what’s alopecia?’ ” says Brittany Myers, 30, a branding specialist. “And then I’m, like, ‘It’s an autoimmune thing that happens,’ because I don’t want to say disorder, I don’t want to say disease.”

When Rachel’s father, who happens to be an immunologist, explained to her as a child that her body was essentially attacking its own hair follicles, she took it to mean that she had an extraordinarily energetic immune system, and began to think of herself as a “Superhuman Alopecian.” . . .

Despite our inner evolutions toward the decision not to cover our heads, we still live in a hair-normative culture, with hair directly connected to femininity. A bald woman threatens the typical norms of beauty. We have all experienced varying degrees of familial pressure to wear wigs and makeup.

On Rachel’s passport application, the options for hair color did not include “bald” (she went with “blond”).

Megan has had people tell her (unsolicited) that they are growing their hair out to make a wig for her. Since we do not necessarily perceive our lack of hair as a problem, it can be both funny and a bit offensive when the outside world does.

Meanwhile back in New Hampshire, UNH president Mark Huddleston “said Wednesday he is troubled and offended by many parts” of the language guide, WMUR-TV reports:

“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,” he said. “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.”

Irony upon irony: When we returned to the language guide this morning, the page said “Access Denied.” (Now it redirects to the “Inclusive Excellence” homepage.)

Free and unfettered indeed! Rather than declare his outrage and suppress its source, Huddleston might have done well to follow the example of the Superhuman Alopecians—or, for that matter, Larry David. They may lack hair, but they have a sense of humor.

Fox Butterfield, Is That You?
“Trophy Hunting Big Business in Africa Despite Threats to Vulnerable Species”—headline, Associated Press, July 30

We Blame Global Warming
“These NYC Streets Are Located in the Middle of the Pacific Ocean”—headline, Gothamist, July 29

The Soft Bigotry of Low Expectations
“GOP Leader: ‘This Is 2nd Most Effective Republican-Majority Congress in Modern History’ ”—headline, CNSNews.com, July 29

Problem and Solution—I

  • “Under Oath, Donald Trump Shows His Raw Side”—headline, New York Times, July 29
  • “Trump Is Toast”—headline, Commentary website, July 19

Problem and Solution—II

  • “U.S. Dentist Should Be Hanged for Cecil the Lion Killing, PETA says”—headline, Associated Press, July 29, 2015
  • “Quick Tip: Use Dental Floss to Hang Art”—headline,ApartmentTherapy.com, Jan. 8, 2012

Question and Answer—I

  • “What Justice for Cecil the Lion Would Actually Look Like”—headline,Washington Post, July 30, 2015
  • “Justice William Brennan, a Liberal Lion Who Wouldn’t Hire Women”—headline, Washington Post, Oct. 17, 2010

Question and Answer—II

  • “Microsoft Now Supports the Middle-Finger Emoji. What’s Holding Up Everyone Else?”—headline, Washington Post, July 30
  • “Donald Trump: Middle Finger of the Republican Base”—headline,Washington Post website, July 15

Look Out Below!
“Shell Icebreaker Moves Out as Protesters in Portland Dangle From Bridge to Block It”—headline, Seattle Times, July 29

It’s Always in the Last Place You Look
“Researchers Find Vulnerability in Skoda Vehicles”—headline, SCMagazine.com, July 28

News of the Tautological
“Study: More Reliable Vehicles Last Longer”—headline, Associated Press, July 29

Bottom Story of the Day
“Author Ronald Kessler on Bill Clinton: ‘He Has a Blonde, Busty Mistress’ ”—headline, CBSLocal.com (Philadelphia), July 29

No More Mr. Nice Guy
“Donald Trump is not shy about stating his strengths as a candidate,” observes Susan Jones of CNSNews.com:

So when Fox News’s Greta Van Susteren asked him, “What’s your weakness?” on Tuesday night, Trump responded this way:

“Some people think I’m not a nice person, and I actually am. I love people. You know I’m a nice person. But some people think, maybe it’s the ‘you’re fired’ and ‘The Apprentice.’ Who knows? But some people think I’m not a nice person.

“But you know what I tell somebody that said that, that really wants me to win. He said, Mr. Trump, can you be nicer?

“I said, look, I don’t think this election is going to be won by a nice person. I think people want competence for a change. We need compet—we need really, really, smart, competent people. And if we don’t get that kind of leader and leadership in particular at the level of the president, this country is in big trouble.”

According to Trump, (1) he is a nice person, and (2) a nice person is not going to win the election. It follows logically that Trump does not believe he is going to win the election. Some good news for a change.

Schools: University of New Hampshire