Although the word “woke” and its derivatives seem to trigger some readers, I still can’t find a good substitute. I just read Andrew Doyle’s new book, The New Puritans: How the Religion of Social Justice Captured the Western World, and I see that that Doyle doesn’t much like “woke” either. (His book is a good complement to John McWhorter’s book Woke Racism.) At any rate, I tried to find a replacement in Doyle’s critique, but the best replacement I could come up with for the pejorative “woke” is “illiberal Left”, which is a mouthful. And it becomes “anti-illiberal Left” (a bigger mouthful) when characterizing people like Doyle or McWhorter. So I’ll perhaps use both terms. (Remember that Doyle is the creator of Titania McGrath, who hasn’t been tweeting much lately.)
But I digress. Pamela Paul, who used to be the Sunday Book Review editor for the New York Times, now writes a weekly column for the paper. Not only is she a good and clever writer, but she appears to be
anti-woke anti-illiberal Left. That makes at least two good NYT columnists of that ideological stripe: Paul and McWhorter.
Her piece this week (click below to read, and I see it’s been archived here) is about the woke Language Police at Stanford, and about the chilling of speech in general on American campuses. The amusing bit is that her piece uses over a quarter of the words that the Stanford University IT group recommended be changed, and she’s put them in bold. Her intro (I added the link to the list, now archived):
The following is a celebration of the cancellation of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, an attempt by a committee of IT leaders at Stanford University to ban 161 common words and phrases. Of those 161 phrases, I have taken pains to use 45 of them here. Read at your own risk.
Click to read, but you may incur much harm. Her message, though, has hopeful bits.
Note that even “Hip Hip Hooray!” in the title was deemed harmful by the guide:
Paul uses 20 “harmful” words in the first three paragraphs alone:
Is the media addicted to bad news? It’s not a dumb question, nor are you crazy to ask. After all, we follow tragedy like hounds on the chase, whether it’s stories about teenagers who commit suicide, victims of domestic violence or survivors of accidents in which someone winds up quadriplegic, crippled for life or confined to a wheelchair.We report on the hurdles former convicts face after incarceration, hostile attitudes toward immigrants and the plight of prostitutes and the homeless. Given the perilous state of the planet, you might consider this barrage of ill tidings to be tone-deaf.
Well, I’m happy to report good news for a change. You might call it a corrective, or a sanity check, but whatever you call it — and what you can call things here is key — there have been several positive developments on American campuses. The chilling effects of censorship and shaming that have trapped students between the competing diktats of “silence is violence” and “speech is violence” — the Scylla and Charybdis of campus speech — may finally be showing some cracks.
Matters looked especially grim in December, when the internet discovered the 13-page dystopicallly titled “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. A kind of white paper on contemporary illiberalism, it listed 161 verboten expressions, divided into categories of transgression, including “person-first,” “institutionalized racism” and the blissfully unironic “imprecise language.” The document offered preferred substitutions, many of which required feats of linguistic limbo to avoid simple terms like “insane,” “mentally ill” and — not to beat a dead horse,but I’ll add one more — “rule of thumb.” Naturally, it tore its way across the internet to widespread mockery despite a “content warning” in bold type: “This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.”
By using those words, Paul of course emphasizes the inanity of claiming that they’re “harmful.” She does add that the Stanford list has been taken down (the link above is to a WSJ copy), and considers this good news—part of a salubrious trend that she sees in American education. But she can’t resist using perhaps the dumbest “harmful word” on the list (save “American”):
Could this be a seminal moment for academic freedom? Consider other bright spots: Harvard recently went ahead with its fellowship offer to Kenneth Roth, the former head of Human Rights Watch, which was earlier rejected, allegedly owing to his critical views on Israel. M.I.T.’s faculty voted to embrace a “Statement on Freedom of Expression and Academic Freedom.” At Yale Law School, which has been roiled by repeated attempts to suppress speech, a conservative lawyer was allowed to appear on a panel with a former president of the A.C.L.U. after protests disrupted her visit the year before. And Hamline University, which had refused to renew an art history professor’s contract because she showed an artwork that some Muslim students may have found offensive, walked back its characterization of her as “Islamophobic.”
Finally, when an office within the School of Social Work at the University of Southern California banned the terms “fieldwork” and “in the field” to describe research projects because their “anti-Black” associations might offend some descendants of American slavery, U.S.C.’s interim provost issued a statement that “The university does not maintain a list of banned or discouraged words.”
And here is a form of linguistic conflict that I hadn’t noticed:
The chilling effects of censorship and shaming that have trapped students between the competing diktats of “silence is violence” and “speech is violence” — the Scylla and Charybdis of campus speech — may finally be showing some cracks.
From the guide (not the column):
She continues, causing a lot more harm but making a point at the same time:
But we do know two things: First, college students are suffering from anxiety and other mental health issues more than ever before, and second, fewer feel comfortable expressing disagreement lest their peers go on the warpath. It would be a ballsy move to risk being denounced, expelled from their tribe, become a black sheep. No one can blame any teenager who has been under a social media pile-on for feeling like a basket case. Why take the chance.
Yet when in life is it more appropriate for people to take risks than in college — to test out ideas and encounter other points of view? College students should be encouraged to use their voices and colleges to let them be heard. It’s nearly impossible to do this while mastering speech codes, especially when the master lists employ a kind of tribal knowledge known only to their guru creators. A normal person of any age may have trouble submitting, let alone remembering that “African American” is not just discouraged but verboten, that he or she can’t refer to a professor’s “walk-in” hours or call for a brown bag lunch, powwow or stand-up meeting with their peers.
Now that you know woke language guidelines, you’ll be able to figure out why the Puritans see all the words in bold as harmful. (Having trouble with “African American? Go here.)
Paul then gives the worrying statistics about the drop over time in the proportion of students who think that free speech rights are secure and notes the frightening 2/3 of students who think that college climates prevent people from expressing views that could be seen as offensive.
In the last two paragraphs she drops the use of “harmful words” and makes her serious point:
It is reasonable to wonder whether any conceivable harm to a few on hearing the occasional upsetting term outweighs the harm to everyone in suppressing speech. Or whether overcoming the relatively minor discomforts of an unintentional, insensitive or inept comment might help students develop the resilience necessary to surmount life’s considerably greater challenges — challenges that will not likely be mediated by college administrators after they graduate.
Rather than muzzle students, we should allow them to hear and be heard. Opportunities to engage and respond. It’s worth remembering how children once responded to schoolyard epithets: “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but names will never harm me.” Narrow restrictions on putatively harmful speech leave young people distracted from and ill-prepared for the actual violence they’ll encounter in the real world.
And this type of bowdlerization is performative. In the end, it accomplishes nothing. The people who promulgate these changes are the Entitled Woke, and the tut-tutting directed at people who will continue to use the old argot. The changes are made for one reason: to flaunt one’s virtue.