Bias-Free Language Obscures the Real Issue: Character

This week the University of New Hampshire found itself the subject of controversy over a document its Office of Diversity Initiatives put out: the “Bias-Free Language Guide” [cached link]. The guide operates on three main assumptions: that hierarchy and oppression are “truths,” that language embodies this oppression, and that we must “free ourselves of bias.” Language can oppress, it says, by characterizing people as “other” and reducing them to one aspect of their identities.

The guide goes on to list “problematic” and “outdated” words and their “preferred” euphemistic substitutes. Older people should be called “people of advanced age.” Overweight people should be called “people of size.” Freshmen should now be called the gender-neutral “first-year students.” Bizarrely, “American” was labeled “problematic, because it fails to differentiate between North and South America.

The linguist Stephen Pinker named this phenomenon in 1994: it’s the euphemism treadmill. As time goes on, politically correct terms begin to take on the very same negative connotations they were invented to sidestep. He said, “Using the latest term for a minority often shows not sensitivity but subscribing to the right magazines or going to the right cocktail parties.”

UNH’s Bias-Free Language Guide is a free invitation to the right cocktail party. But UNH president Mark Huddleston is staying home. He released a statement clarifying that the guide does not express campus policy, and that the “well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.” His statement came after conservative bloggers at Campus Reform lampooned the Guide and presidential candidate Donald Trump posted an appalled comment on Twitter. President Huddleston directed Jaime Nolan, the associate vice president for community, equity and diversity, to remove the Language Guide from the university’s website, which she did yesterday.

President Huddleston did the right thing in removing what looked very much like a ban on certain words. That’s a win for campus freedom of speech. But why did the diversity office feel the need to publish such a document in the first place?

Identity, race, gender, and everything in between are, according to the guide, personally selected. We must, “[w]hen appropriate, ask how a person wishes to be identified.” But asking explicitly how to refer to someone’s identity might actually widen the gap of otherness the guide seeks to close. The act of asking is reductionist, focusing only on a few particulars of a whole person.

Perhaps a broader problem is that most students are self-centered and pay little attention to the struggles of people around them. What about a person who does care for others’ needs but does so in ignorance of current correct labels? If you run a program to support and improve the lives of the homeless, but fail to refer to them as “people experiencing homelessness,” are your actions invalid? The way to show genuine concern for others is not by carefully constructing neutral, “bias-free” language, but by intentionally caring for a person’s needs.

Language will always create surface-level categories. University administrators’ efforts in pursuit of inclusion would be better spent in the formation of students’ character toward virtuous action, not language games. 

Image: "Pok Pok" by Luz Bratcher / CC BY

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