The language standards in any society normally change slowly, evolving over many years based on cultural priorities. There is a clear connection between language and thought. The word choices used in any society guide cognition related to that society’s values and principles.
Having standards of acceptable language change gradually through cultural evolution is one thing. But having those standards imposed by authoritarian muscle is quite another. Limiting and distorting the accepted meanings of words through abrupt designation creates chaos and disruption in a society. The British philosopher G.K. Chesterton wrote a century ago that it was absurd to think a society “can introduce anarchy into the intellect without introducing anarchy into the commonwealth.”
That is happening today, however, at colleges across America where language manipulation — and, thus, thought control — are being imposed. The most recent example comes from Brandeis University in Massachusetts, which has issued an “Oppressive Language” list. Included on the lengthy list of words to avoid are “policeman,” “African-American” and “homeless person.” Students are also warned against saying “you guys” or “Ladies and Gentlemen,” and instead are recommended to use terms such as “Y’all” or “folx.”
Brandeis has clarified that the language list is not an official university policy or requirement. The signal is clear, however, that users of incorrect language are to be considered oppressors, a pretty bad designation on a college campus these days.
Brandeis is hardly unique in this collegiate venture into word/thought control. The University of Michigan’s “Words Matter Task Force” issued its version of troublesome words last winter. That list famously included the words “picnic” and “brown bag.” Other colleges are also on this track, and even the ones that haven’t created lists of unacceptable words mostly have “bias response teams” that swing into punitive action against students who use “wrong” words or expressions.
A broad-based initiative to promote civil discourse on college campuses would normally be considered a good thing, given today’s contentious and polarized times. Sadly, however, these language lists are ideologically driven power plays designed to stifle open dialogue and impose perceptions. Telling people on campus to avoid a word such as “picnic” only intimidates speakers, leaving them to wonder how to avoid cracking the next eggshell.
Word lists devised to sincerely promote rational and open discussion would necessarily include terms that might be offensive to a wide range of students. These “oppressive language” lists, for example, show no consideration for how veterans, students from rural America, or pro-life students on campus might be demonized. The list of terms to be considered offensive must go way beyond what these colleges have identified thus far, which makes the creation of such lists a fool’s errand from the get-go. Anybody wanting to promote civil discourse should at least include the “f-bomb” on a list of bad words, a word missing from the list, of course, along with other common vulgarities.
Manipulating word choices fails to instill reasoned and effective thought into civil discourse, but instead leaves college students and employees puzzled about which word choices are acceptable and which are not. Such a condition becomes perpetual because a word allowed one day in polite conversation (picnic?) could be poison tomorrow, based on the whim of an administrator in the student affairs office.
It is understandable that a college should support cultural harmony and create an environment in which students can learn, but any effort in this regard should be on behalf of all students. Further, creating lists of approved and unapproved word choices is a propagandistic effort to use language as a cudgel in limiting robust thought.
These kinds of manipulative antics prompt government leaders to want to insert themselves unnecessarily into academia’s free speech struggles. Congressman Greg Murphy (R-N.C.) this summer introduced the “Campus Free Speech and Restoration Act,” saying in a statement that “Students learn best when they’re taught how to learn, not what to learn. Unfortunately, many institutions teach diversity in all things except opinion.”
Murphy is generally on target, but Congress should have no more role in the free speech environment of a campus than a high-priced dean in student affairs.
Let the college students, as the adults they are, “take their best shot” (a phrase to be avoided, according to the Brandeis list) at managing their own free expression principles. The nation’s future leaders should figure out for themselves how to express — and think — without imposition from authorities.
Jeffrey McCall is a media critic and professor of communication at DePauw University. He has worked as a radio news director, a newspaper reporter and as a political media consultant. Follow him on Twitter @Prof_McCall.