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.
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.”
Before you get worked up, know this: A webmaster has taken the site down and the program has been aborted for re-evaluation. Last month, in a welcome display of clear leadership, Marc Tessier-Lavigne, Stanford’s president, said the policy, brainchild of a select committee of IT leaders, had never been intended as a universitywide policy and reiterated the school’s commitment to free speech. “From the beginning of our time as Stanford leaders, Persis and I have vigorously affirmed the importance and centrality of academic freedom and the rights of voices from across the ideological and political spectrum to express their views at Stanford,” he wrote, referring to the school’s provost, Persis Drell. “I want to reaffirm those commitments today in the strongest terms.”
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.”
It’s hard to know how much these shifting prohibitions distress students, whether freshman or senior, given how scared many are to speak up in the first place.
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.
“You can’t say that” should not be the common refrain.
According to a 2022 Knight Foundation report, the percentage of college students who say free speech rights are secure has fallen every year since 2016, while the percentage who believe free speech rights are threatened has risen. Nearly two-thirds think the climate at school prevents people from expressing views that others might find offensive. But here, too, let’s convey some good news: The number of students who say controversial speakers should be disinvited has fallen since 2019. And one more cheering note: The editors of The Stanford Review, a student publication, poked gleefully at the document before it was taken down, with the shared impulse — irresistible, really — of using a number of taboo terms in the process.
Surely my ancestors from the ghettos of Eastern Europe couldn’t anticipate that their American descendants would face this kind of policing of speech at institutions devoted to higher learning. (While we’re on history, per the document, but news to all the Jews I know: “Hip hip hooray” was a term “used by German citizens during the Holocaust as a rallying cry when they would hunt down Jewish citizens living in segregated neighborhoods.”)
Consider what learning can flourish under such constraints. In a speech last fall celebrating the 100th anniversary of PEN America, the novelist Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie noted: “Many American universities are well-meaning in wanting to keep students comfortable, but they do so at the risk not just of creating an insular, closed space but one where it is almost impossible to admit to ignorance — and in my opinion the ability to admit to ignorance is a wonderful thing. Because it creates an opportunity to learn.”
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.
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