Pamela Paul’s funny (and trenchant) op-ed on campus free speech (trigger warning: many harmful words!)

February 3, 2023 • 9:30 am

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Her piece this week (click below to read, and I see it’s been archived here) is about the woke Language Police at Stanford, and about the chilling of speech in general on American campuses.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 quadriplegiccrippled 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 lunchpowwow 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.

37 thoughts on “Pamela Paul’s funny (and trenchant) op-ed on campus free speech (trigger warning: many harmful words!)

  1. There are indeed some bright spots, but hardly encouraging is the news being reported on several websites concerning the requirement by the campuses of SUNY that all new students take a course in “DEI/social justice” beginning in the fall.

    1. Honestly in terms of what’s actually being taught it’s likely not going to be anything much different. Departments will just tag all their domestic diversity and international diversity courses (practically all liberal arts colleges have these requirements) as also DEI. It’s not much more than a shell game.

  2. I like the term “illiberal left” because of its precision: there is a political left and sometimes people on the left can express illiberal ideas. Perfect. But “woke”? I still like the old (original) definition of the word and will forever resent the right’s retooling or redefining of the word. Also, I still don’t understand the alleged distinction between being “woke” (re the pejorative use of the word) and being “politically incorrect.” A helpful essay:

  3. Excellent article.

    It prompted me though to see if I could think of counterexamples — common words or phrases which were socially discouraged in order to engineer a more just world which weren’t just performative but had a good point. Leaving aside slurs — “chinks,” “retards,” and, once upon a time, “queers” — the best example I can come up with is the deliberate strategy of changing “man” or “mankind” to “human beings” or “humanity.” This revision was rather heavily promoted sometime back in the ‘70’s, I think. The idea was to help minimize sexism in a culture which too often treated women as second-class variations of the True Person by using language as a tool. As far as I know, nobody was arrested for writing phrases like “the future of Man” but editors and eventually custom frowned on it. We really only encounter this use of “Man” in historical documents.

    I don’t have a problem with this and my impression is that it helped. But it didn’t directly appeal to women being “offended” so much as women wanting to be included. “Humanity” is also technically more accurate than “Man” and less confusing. Are there nevertheless people who think this particular example of social engineering through language is also a bad idea? On principle — or for other reasons? I don’t know.

    1. How about the short name for Richard – I’m not sure how it became something else, but…

      There’s another one : but.

      Juvenile, but that’s the point.

      There’s another one – point. It’s violent.

    2. Another one, though not as weighty as your examples, would be “actor”. That used to be masculine, while “actress” was the feminine. But then the term “actor” became gender neutral and is used for everyone I don’t know when that happened, but i think it is a good idea.

      1. I agree, Mark. The logical conclusion to this development is to have men and women compete against each other for best actor, just like we do in the classical music world, for example, at the International Chopin Competition, where men and women compete against each other for best pianist.

        1. “Actress” is still in use. The Oscar for Best Actress in a Leading Role in 2022 went to Jessica Chastain. That’s the official title of the award. Ditto for Supporting Role. The Powers that Be want it that way.

          The roles that actors and actresses play on screen and in real life are so different that it seems sensible to have a winner for each sex. Chopin is still Chopin no matter who plays it. “Best female pianist” would imply that she wasn’t as good as the best male. “Best pianist” means she beat the whole damn lot.

          Besides if you halved the number of actor awards, the Oscars would have less time to run ads during those lucrative end-of-the-night spots and we couldn’t have that, could we. And it’s a legitimate concern of actors of either sex not wanting to double the number of people they have to beat to get an Academy Award on their resumés, or even get nominated for one. Some movies have such great chemistry between the two leads that both win Oscars. Surely you wouldn’t want to have to pick between Peter Finch and Faye Dunaway in Network or Jack Nicholson and Louise Fletcher in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, or Anthony Hopkins and Jodie Foster in Silence of the Lambs.

          As for cross-gendered actrons, I’ll let the Motion Picture Academy sort that out.

          1. You make good points, Leslie. I’m trying to spot a trend in the Academy Awards here. On the other hand, the Golden Globes subdivide their movie categories even more finely to give out even more awards.

          2. The UK’s WhatsOnStage Awards have renamed their acting awards: “Best Performer In A Female Identifying Role In A Play”, “Best Supporting Performer In A Male Identifying Role In A Play”, etc. I’m not sure how they fit the wording onto the prize that gets handed out…!

    3. Sastra,

      Another early example is the elimination of the word “girls” for grown women. When I was in college in the 1970s, some buildings still had restrooms labeled “Men” and “Girls.” Someone had used a Sharpie to change “Girls” to “Women.” I didn’t blame them. Why should an 18-year old male be considered a man, but a 21-year-old female be considered a girl? I also remember a bulletin board with schedules for Men’s and Girl’s sports; the next day it had been changed to Women’s. Some chick must have complained.

  4. I don’t understand how “seminal” reinforces male-dominated language, if women can have penises, too. Or is that a recognition that maleness is tied to the production of gametes? Woke language is nothing if not inconsistent, which I think says a lot about the logic of their goals.

    1. Seminary, as in, e.g., the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary in Louisville, KY comes to mind. (Why isn’t it a seminary instead of a divinity school at, say, Harvard and Yale? Is seminary not sufficiently hoity-toity?)

      1. Seminaries produce clergymen (or clergywomen). Divinity schools may produce clergy, but they are intended to be broader in scope, and more deeply focused on historical, cultural, etc. aspects of religion (as well as “theology”), and less on training in the performance of particular rites.


        1. I think seminaries produce only Roman Catholic clergycritters. I never heard the term applied in the (Protestant) United Church of Canada. Our ministers graduated from divinity school and then went through a religious ordainment process.

    2. Seminal derives from Latin semen, a seed. Although pollen grains (male) contribute genetic material to the embryo and endosperm of a seed, most of the seed derives from the ovule, a female part of the plant. We need to push back against male appropriation of this word!

  5. A friend of mine who is currently in law school reported to me that, in one of his classes, the professor began a discussion about whether felony convicts should be able to vote. After nearly everyone in the class said that the obvious answer was yes, one student raised his hand and asked something to the effect of, “does everyone here really think that rapists and murderers should be allowed to vote? I agree with people who committed other felonies and served their time being allowed to vote, but rapists and murderers?” Note that he was asking students not if convicts who have served their time should be able to vote, but only rapists and murderers.

    The class was apoplectic, but that’s to be expected. What’s far worse is what happened in the weeks after, everyone in the class has gone around the school saying that “[x] thinks that anyone who has ever been to jail shouldn’t be allowed to vote!” Many of them also repeatedly said that he was in favor of disenfranchising minorities generally. Despite my friend’s repeated attempts to call out these people whenever he heard them utterly misrepresenting his classmate’s views, the rumor has persisted, to the point where the student has become a pariah.

    And I realized that this is how ideological conformity is enforced: if you step out of line even one millimeter, your reputation is tarnished for the foreseeable future as people spread false rumors of your views. Once this becomes obvious to the community, people need only imagine what would happen if they verbalized a stance that was truly against the ideological grain — legitimate policy positions like decreasing illegal border crossings, allowing Americans to own certain types of guns (like those used for skeet shooting), or supporting Israel. If a single comment about not allowing rapists and murderers to vote turns into everyone telling the community that you support the disenfranchisement of minorities, then what happens if you take one of the stances listed above? The answer is that you sure as hell don’t want to find out.

    I honestly see no way out of this in the near future. I keep seeing reports like the above of “bright spots” that might show wokeness and chilling/punishment of speech on campuses waning, but they pale in comparison to the nigh-countless examples of the opposite, and the environment has now become so oppressive (ahem) that rolling it back might be impossible.

  6. I hope she’s right and that things are getting better. People of actual substance—such as most college professors—will only tolerate so much of this DEI crap. Eventually—perhaps it’s already starting—they will reach their limit and push back. College administrators—mostly weak-kneed bureaucrats who follow where the winds are blowing—will reverse course once their faculties start resisting in a serious way (by threatening to take their talents elsewhere). The weakness of college administrators is also their strength. Once the faculty has had enough—as at Hamline—the administrators will be driven back into line. I am cynical, but I remain hopeful.

    1. But what has happened on campuses is they have hired layer upon layer of DEI admins. These new hires, probably rather young, will hang on and fight for relevance until they retire. Even if a pushback results in a freezing of new DEI admins, those persons will be drawing salaries for decades to come.

      1. Drawing salaries for decades? I don’t know — employment in general is remarkably precarious in the United States … what’s to stop a college deciding on a change of priorities that leads to DEI staff being made redundant?

  7. … it becomes “anti-illiberal Left” (a bigger mouthful) …

    A mouthful it may be, though it has something of a pleasing consonance and assonance.

    1. >“[the] anti-illiberal Left”

      It’s got the right meter (an iamb followed by two anapestes) to be the last line of a limerick. Lots of possibilities:

      There once was a woman bereft
      That all of her theses lacked heft…
      So fit to be tied
      She loudly decried
      The anti-illiberal Left.
      That would get filed under “Weak Sisters”

  8. This leaves room for hope, maybe beginnings of a shift. Again one must hope. I’m a life long progressive, and I think the illiberal left is insane. Of course, the radical right is at least as insane. There’s an old Chinese curse – “May you live in interesting times.” We are there.

  9. ” The changes are made for one reason: to flaunt one’s virtue.” One reason, but there are others. In every part of Academia, there are drones who are not much interested in their nominal employment subject, and search high and low for make-work to fill time and justify their paychecks. The flood of DEI wokeliness is a godsend to this population; the compilation of forbidden word lists undoubtedly delights them even more than attending meetings of the Committee on Committees.

    Incidentally, there are plenty of forbidden word lists of the Stanford type which have
    not been officially withdrawn by the other universities which posted them.

  10. I like Norman Gilinsky’s pithy phrase for the tendency under discussion (“DEI crap”), but I
    must admit that it lacks professorial gravitas. Another phrase is in the literature.
    In “Cynical Theories”, Pluckrose and Lindsay meticulously deconstruct the academic pedigree of contemporary wokeliness, and show that it emerged, in several stages, from what used to called post-modernism. [Obvious enough, from its obsession with words, and its hostility to science.] The term Pluckrose and Lindsay come up with to describe all the DEI crap is: applied postmodernism.

    1. I love “applied postmodernism!” What we are seeing is exactly what happens when those who veer off the path of reality actually get to apply their craft.

      I’m LOL and perplexed at the same time.

  11. This Stanford list, as some have pointed out, is hardly alone. More concerning to me is the promulgation of right-speak by federal government agencies. Linked below is the “Preferred Terms” section of the CDC’s “Health Equity Guiding Principles for Inclusive Communication”. It was apparently a big priority, rolled out as it was during the Delta wave in the summer of 2021. You will find some of the same words as from the Stanford list. It is greatly disappointing, while not entirely unpredictable, that swaths of the Biden administration have been captured by the woke / performative / illiberal left.

  12. My problem with the term “illiberal Left” is that it too vague and doesn’t distinguish between:

    1) the woke

    2) the climate alarmists who want us to eat insects and are pushing “degrowth”,of%20protein%20from%20broiler%20chicken

    3) the various types of socialists

    4) the people who want to take away our pets

    The linguist John McWhorter uses “woke” because that is the best word.

  13. When I first encountered the word “woke” it meant someone who had come to realize that they had greatly underestimated the damage society had done to black people, especially white bigots violently destroying their economic and political progress. [See Wilmington NC and Tulsa, for example]. By that definition I consider myself “woke”. The people I despise, the language police and white guilt people, I call “ultra-woke”.

    1. Ah, so you’re one of those neo-puritans, the ones who hold to all the old ideas, inherent racial/sexual characteristics, inherent racial/sexual guilt and so on and so forth that makes up so much of what passes for ‘enlightened thought’ these days.

  14. The baseline assumption of all this language policing is the extreme elevation of, well, language.

    While it’s not really true that “words can never hurt me,” as the old playground chant goes, the loonier echelons of the current safetyist craze seem hellbent on convincing everyone that words, in and of themselves, are extremely dangerous and “hurtful” and injurious.

    But step back just a little and many, perhaps most, rational people realize that this insistence is simply nonsense. One cannot perhaps control an emotional reaction to hearing certain words, but it’s clear to me that the more some people are *told* a given word is “hurtful” or “offensive,” the more their brains are trained to hear it as such.

    From there, it’s all about tapping into the absurd contemporary notion that nobody should ever have to experience any emotional discomfort, ever—nurtured, in my opinion, by decades of helicopter parenting and hyperfocus on children’s temporary feelings (which may well be a projection by parents who did not, in fact, receive much parental nurturing).

    If young brains hear often enough that the word “field” contains offensive echoes of the moral stain and pain of slavery that can cause actual harm, some of them will end up believing it and act accordingly.

    I find myself thinking of the student who *deliberately* attended the art-history lecture at Hamline University, knowing that images of Muhammad would be shown. Having been trained to believe showing such images was “harmful,” she put herself in harm’s way to … what? Bolster her sense of moral superiority? Or is it moral injury?

    Whatever it is, the student looks from afar to be a person whose brain has been *trained* to be offended … and to be aggressive in response.

    Ditto for the language safetyists.

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