Service of Specificity: Bias-Free Language and Politics

August 3rd, 2015

Categories: Political Correctness, University, Words

 

 

Photo: sacnas.org

Photo: sacnas.org

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.

UNH unh.eduA 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?

 

Photo: worldofmaps.net

Photo: worldofmaps.net

 

 

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10 Responses to “Service of Specificity: Bias-Free Language and Politics”

  1. Lucrezia Said:

    What the president of a university may or may not do should be included in the policies of that institution.

    As for biased language, should these ongoing attempts to sanitize the written/spoken word continue, we might as well all shut up, since much of anything an individual/group may say is sure to antagonize an individual or group.

    Free speech, anyone?

  2. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Lucrezia,

    I don’t know about rules or contracts for university presidents but I think that a university president would want to know what’s on the organization’s face to the world, its website. I once had a client whose product was to be sold in a big box. Previously it had only been available through small decorating stores. He didn’t have the interest to see what shopping in a big box was like. [The business that was generations-old is closed, big surprise. In addition, his product was an inappropriate fit. Had he bothered to explore he may have noticed that and/or retrofit his product’s packaging to work in a place with little if any sales staff to advise customers.] The first time I was to represent a brand that was sold at Wal*Mart was the first time I visited one of the stores. I was curious. Nobody paid me to go.

    While I think sanitizing with a broad brush is overdoing it to the point of blurring what a speaker/writer means to say, I also think that creating awareness of potentially hurtful words is positive. For example, a friend detests hearing people speak of “Jewish mothers,” as she feels it represents a pejorative stereotype. I am glad to know this. Sure I’m free to use the expression but why fall back on it when I am capable of a description that doesn’t potentially insult others.

  3. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook:

    What bothers me about this is that many of the suggested alternatives are confusing and less clear than the original. I realize that language is evolving…but the goal is communication, not obfuscation. Some words clearly have negative, racist or perjorative connotations, and these should be avoided as a matter of course. But other words are simply descriptive. That being said–if someone is looking for an excuse to be upset, on either side of the political spectrum, they will find one. I myself dislike the term “freelancer.” I prefer “independent editorial consulant,” “contributing editor” or simply “contributor.” But am I offended when someone calls me a freelancer? Heck no! As long as they call me…..

  4. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Donna,

    Words are crucial to your trade and daily you pick and choose the most precise. I propose that putting restraints on your typing fingers won’t achieve the results the word guide had in mind.

    The guide had less to do with evolving language and more to being overly sensitive to the point of replacing with blah blah some words that have specific meanings. I did not read the guide so perhaps it noted that under some circumstances it’s important to specify North or South when using the word American, instead of striking out the use of the word altogether. Given the university president’s reaction, I fear it recommended the latter.

  5. BN Said:

    I had a great aunt who grew up on a farm, she thought the stuff was dirty, therefore. she used the word, “enrichment” instead of B.S., manure, fertilizer et cetera. The language guide reminds me of her.

    Donna’s right. The more you censor the more specificity goes out of the window. I once had a nickname at school that was not nice then, but today would rank up there with the “N” word. I survived. I certainly do not mind being called a Caucasian, a misogynist, a Luddite, or a Republican, and I have no hesitation in telling people that I had a Jewish mother.

    Use common sense. If you are selling balloons in Bolivia, call yourself a “Norte-Americano.” You will be more likely to make a sale.

    As to the university president and its web site, even if others maintain it, he is charged with ultimate responsibility for what appears on it. Therefore, it is entirely up to him the extent to which he wishes to delegate his authority to those who manage the site. That said, if I were he, I’d exercise tight control.

  6. Jeanne Byington Said:

    BN,

    With the words “common sense” you struck a nerve: It’s basic for everything from medical diagnosis to communication and so much more yet far too often overlooked. I would add sensitivity and empathy but none of these traits are recipes for success in today’s environment illustrated by the nation’s hunger for and appreciation of D. Trump.

    The two words also apply to the success of any university president.

    As for enrichment and your great aunt, had she called out to me as I left to run errands–“Don’t forget to pick up some enrichment”– I might have returned with a few books from the library.

  7. Donna Boyle Schwartz Said:

    Donna wrote on Facebook: I don’t believe that language is inherently biased…or can be bias-free. Context is crucial, and that’s why “political correctness” is simply political…and, I would argue, rarely correct.

  8. Jeanne Byington Said:

    Donna,

    Certain words such as Nazi evoke instant images or emotions. There are nasty names for groups of people such as “frogs” or “wops” where the person using them usually does not mean well and reflects a bias that implies “they are not one of us.”

  9. JBS Said:

    Jeanne I know of lots of Conservatives who are as outraged by Bias as Liberals. Liberals just get the press, while Conservatives act more quietly.

    However, my reason for sending this email to you is so that you can check out the items under Northwest Inspirations on zulily@e.zulily.com. Talk about biased, how about (at the bottom of this listing) a bracelet featuring an Indian wearing a headress! I’m apalled and sometimes shop here, so I will let them know.

    I suspect, however, that they let the vendors who appear on the site put forward whatever they want. I shall let them now that some monotoring is in order.

  10. Jeanne Byington Said:

    JBS,

    The reporter and his editor from the conservative online publication CampusReform.org “regarded [the guide] as a kind of fiendish political correctness happening at the University of New Hampshire” and they threw the gauntlet of conservative vs. liberal on the subject as much as the media. Who knows the political bent of the students and professors who created the guide? I agree with the reporter and his editor that many if not most of the word substitutions in the guide that they chose to call out were silly and I agree with you that there are plenty of people who call themselves conservatives who are aware of and avoid expressing bias in both writing and word.

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