Sticks and Stones

Tom Cardella
Tom Cardella

Columnist George Will once wrote that “the Constitution does NOT guarantee our citizens the right NOT to be offended.” Apparently, George Will is not required reading at American universities. In May, Stanford University published a lengthy index (10 separate categories) of words they’ve labeled as “hurtful” language Stanford believes the terms are “racist, violent, and biased.” The university is eliminating these terms from its IT and websites. The project is called The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. Sounds like something out of George Orwell’s 1984.

Some friends and I discussed hurtful language recently during a weekly Zoom session. All of us are older and white. Our politics are liberal to varying degrees. One of the group said that he would never use a term that he knew would be hurtful to another person. Indeed, that is a guideline all members of the group have honored all of our lives. But the Stanford study is telling us that these times are not so simple. None of us are sure of what is no longer appropriate language. And that’s a problem that the Stanford study has not only not solved, but made worse.

Stanford’s index of hurtful language is divided into 10 categories. The sheer enormity of the document raises questions about its credibility. Credulity – mine anyway — is challenged beyond belief when I see some everyday words and terms Stanford feels should never be used. “American” is being replaced by “U.S. citizen” for fear of discriminating against North, Central and South Americans. “Walk in” becomes “drop-in” because we don’t want to trivialize people with disabilities. “Master” will no longer be used because of slavery connotations. Say goodbye to your “master” bedroom. Instead, “primary” or “main” should be used. No one may write a “white paper” on any subject. The color white is obviously racist. Make that a “position paper.” If you’re performing multiple tasks at the same time, you’re no longer “killing two birds with one stone.” That’s animal cruelty, if you do. You’re just doing “two things at once.” Apologies to all the sparrows out there. You’re not “tone deaf.” Just unenlightened.

The Stanford list of all things offensive goes on forever. The folks who worked on the Stanford initiative are sort of detectives finding harm behind innocent words in the Merriam-Webster dictionary such as “grandfather.” With one tap of the “delete” button, Stanford has eliminated the world of “prostitutes” and replaced it with “sex workers.” The most innocent terms are hiding the most sinister ability to hurt someone or something in the world. And by golly, Stanford has found that sinister ability in all of them. All this reminds me of a kid named Lenny with whom I spent sixth grade. Lenny bragged that he could turn any phrase into something dirty. Who knew that Lenny was ahead of his time?

The Stanford Initiative is not some cartoonish effort by the Political Correctness Police. It represents a trend that’s growing like a fungus on our culture. Like many causes, it began with good intentions. The goal was to eliminate the usage of obvious racist and other offensive language. But even here some of the language cops would not be easily satisfied. Before we knew it, schools were removing Mark Twain’s HUCKLEBERRY FINN from their libraries because it contained the “N” word.

Banning books has become more and more common. The Right tends to ban books because of references to alternative lifestyles and sexual references. The Left rants against some words in books because, it says, they’re harmful. In the meantime, the real problem is that our kids don’t read any books at all.

Stanford is just an example of the way our universities are growing more restrictive in the guests it will allow to speak on campus and the scrutinizing of language. In the last couple of weeks, both the University of Michigan and the University of California have taken steps to prohibit the use of the word “field.”

Michigan has labeled “field” (as in “field hand”) racist. The university suggests replacing “field” office with “community/local office.” The U of C believes that the use of “field” is “anti-black” (the label “black” itself is problematic in many circles) and “anti-immigrant.” The school’s suggestion for replacing “field” is “practicum.” I’m not sure how California came up with “practicum,” but I dare them to use it in a sentence.

Comedian Bill Maher in his stand-up routine, “Why liberals are hated,” cites one of the primary reasons as the group’s insistence on politically correct language. Perhaps it’s unfair to blame liberals for the PC police. All liberals are not prissy users of all things PC. But pretty much all those who insist on the type of PC nonsense promoted by the Stanford Initiative and such seem to be politically liberal. PC issues may not only be costing liberals personal popularity, but elections as well. I’m not advocating that we return to the days when “sticks and stones might break my bones, but names will never hurt me.” But I suggest we don’t find offense where none was intended – when the person or group that we’re supposedly protecting isn’t offended at all. We shouldn’t give words that kind of power.

In the meantime, we should resist silly attempts such as the Stanford Initiative to find offense where there is none. “I’m an American grandfather who walked into a field office” is a sentence that shouldn’t offend anyone. Even those folks at Stanford.