I first read about this University of New Hampshire language guide kerfuffle on The Daily Beast and then linked to Holly Ramer’s Associated Press story, “UNH president offended by bias-free language guide,” on the pressherald.com.
Ramer wrote: “The president of the University of New Hampshire says he’s troubled and offended by many parts of a ‘bias-free language guide’ developed by students and staff, particularly a suggestion that using the word ‘American’ is problematic because it fails to recognize South America.”
She added: “He [Mark Huddleston] says it’s ironic that a well-meaning effort to be sensitive ended up being offensive to many people, including himself.” He made clear that “free and unfettered speech” is the policy of the university, not the language guide.
A few days later The Washington Post’s Janell Ross picked up the story in her “The Fix” column. She added a layer to the story that explained why we are now reading about a guide first published two years ago. “What has followed is a takedown of what a young conservative journalist and his editors regarded as a kind of fiendish political correctness happening at the University of New Hampshire. Of course, the guide at the center of this story is itself intended as a takedown on cultural insensitivity. Wheels within wheels.”
Peter Hasson is the “young conservative journalist,” a Texas correspondent for a conservative online publication, CampusReform.org, “wholly funded by the Leadership Institute, a Virginia-based nonprofit that aims to equip and train young conservative activists, journalists and future candidates, Morton Blackwell, a Reagan White House aide and the institute’s founder and president, told me.” [Janell Ross is the “me.”]
In addition to “American,” according to Ross, Hasson listed other words he “deemed problematic” that were flagged in the guide: homosexual; illegal alien, Caucasian, mothering, fathering, foreigners. Quoting the university’s website, the purpose of the guide is to “invite inclusive excellence in [the] campus community.” Instead of homosexual the guide recommends “same gender loving.” Preferable to “illegal alien,” is “undocumented immigrant” or better yet, “asylum seeker.”
I’m all for changes that help improve communications, which by that definition, also removes the sting of bigotry from language and maintains accuracy and clarity. Not all these examples do that. Does “Asylum seeker” address people who only come here to find seasonal work so as to send money home? What to do with Caucasian, defined by Google as “white skinned of European origin,” which I am. As Seinfeld and his cronies used to say, “Not that there’s anything wrong with that,” so if it applies, what is?
I first became sensitive to the American North/South issue after spending a summer in Chile, Brazil and Argentina as a teen. There, which America I was referring to mattered. But why delete the word “American” from everything? Isn’t the audience pertinent? If I’m writing about a family-owned company with headquarters in the same Massachusetts town for its 100 years, and I’m sending a press release about it exclusively to media in the U.S., a subsequent reference to “American company” is clear, accurate and unbiased.
Where do you come out in all of this: Should the president of a university know what’s on the institution’s website long before a controversial part of it hits the press? Are liberals the only ones who are sensitive to the impact of words? Is the converse true—that conservatives don’t care? Isn’t “bias-free language” a less opinionated description of what is also called political correctness? Do other countries associate word-choice with politics?