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The Language Wars

Is wokespeak, equity and inclusion talk, and safe speech endangering campus free speech?

October 27, 2021
 
 

Is academic freedom on the ropes, as a recent essay in The Chronicle of Higher Education proclaims? Is free speech on college campuses at risk?

Or is the concern exaggerated, the product of media desperation, spawned by the absence of President Trump as clickbait and the need to find something else to feed upon?

After all, I’ve yet to see a single tenured faculty member resign from a major university to protest a violation of academic freedom.

Donor or gubernatorial interference? It should concern us, but, of course, it’s been going on for decades.

How about campus diversity efforts? Have these become draconian? Are white men closed out of coveted positions? Not that I can see.

Except for Amherst and Hopkins, no comparable institutions have abandoned legacy admissions, and even if they did, the replacement students would no doubt resemble the legacies, at least in terms of family income. Meanwhile, the pipelines from certain elite private schools persist.

Then there’s critical race theory. Is CRT invading every aspect of campus life? Not really. Certainly not on my campus.

None of this is to say that higher education shouldn’t be vigilant about threats to academic freedom and free speech. But let’s not give in to exaggeration and fearmongering.

To be sure, there are egregious cases of overreach in which faculty or students have been unfairly brought before punishment boards and chilling cases of cancellations. But rather than seeing faculty cringing in fear, we have soaring demand to enter the very elite institutions where, supposedly, academic freedom and free speech are most threatened.

That’s, of course, what’s behind the Varsity Blues scandal. For all our society’s democratic pretensions and absence of a hereditary aristocracy, affluent Americans have long sought ways to demonstrate their superior status. An elite college pedigree is now the answer.

And what are those elite institutions doing? They’re widening the moat: soliciting ever more applications and breeding false hopes of admission.

It’s a good thing that Amherst’s spending on financial aid is significantly increasing. But, I wonder, wasn’t Amherst need blind in the past, and didn’t it promise to cover all demonstrated financial need?

As a colleague observed, it’s not enough for Amherst and its peers to augment their financial aid budgets (while simultaneously raising tuition). What we need instead is a higher education system that makes higher education affordable for all students, not just the lucky few who get into Amherst or Princeton.

Abuse can take many forms. In addition to physical, emotional, sexual and verbal, there’s the abuse of degrees -- filtering out fully qualified job candidates from application pools. There’s also the abuse of tuition -- charging a premium for online classes and burdening master’s students with unrepayable debt.

But what about the abuse of language?

As you’ve no doubt noticed, word choice has become an arena of conflict.

At first, shifts in language occurred almost invisibly as public values shifted. Words that struck many as inappropriately gendered -- like “actress” or “chairman” -- faded quietly into disuse.

Over time, contestation increased. An early example involved the use of the term “enslaved person” as opposed to “slave.”

This debate was pretty civil. Did the word “slave” reduce an individual to a category and remove the elements of coercion and exploitation that lies at the heart of enslavement? Or did its replacement erase etymology and history and undercut the connection between those held in bondage in the ancient and non-Western world and in the 19th-century South? (Note here that Frederick Douglass referred to himself in one of his autobiographies as “An American Slave.”)

Now, the debates have become more heated. Does the term “pregnant person” show respect for transgender people, or is this an example of political correctness run amok?

Then there’s the use of new gender or sexual pronouns, which grows out of students’ demand to have their personal identities recognized, but also to “denormalize” conventional categories (for instance, through the use of a term like “cisgender”).

Concept creep is yet another source of controversy.

Alongside cost-push inflation, demand-pull inflation, built-in inflation, stagflation and grade and credential inflation, we have yet another kind of inflation in our society: semantic. This is the application of terms relating to harm, like “trauma” or “oppression,” like “triggering” and “bullying,” to interpersonal interactions.

In the eyes of critics, concept creep weaponizes language, using words to stigmatize, call out and assert power.

When someone accuses a speaker or writer of inflicting violence, is that an abuse of language? Or is the abuse of language the opposite: being insensitive to the impact of words? To take one example, is it problematic to use a phrase like “willful blindness” (which might offend those who are sight impaired)?

Concern about offensive and insensitive language is not new. Discussion of the irresponsible use of words like “fascist,” “rape” or “lynching” date back decades. Ditto for the loose use of analogies to Hitler, Nazism and the Holocaust. The term “political correctness” was widely used in the 1970s.

Remember: Diane Ravitch’s denunciation of The Language Police that sought to root out racist, sexist and elitist words from textbooks appeared in 2003.

What is different now are:

  1. Social media, which has made it much easier to widely and publicly air grievances involving insensitive or offensive language, and
  2. Campuses offices charged with ensuring a safe and supportive learning environment -- offices that can be appealed to by the aggrieved and that sometimes, at their own prerogative, issue “oppressive language” lists.

There’s certainly something to be said for making debates about language usage public. But to use a public platform to inflict is an ad hominem attack on a classmate who was thoughtless and injudicious in speech is, to paraphrase the old saw, worse than a crime; it’s hurtful and boorish.

In matters of language, I’m a proponent of what I regard as common sense, or what used to be called civility. To be civil is to be courteous, respectful, gracious, sensitive and considerate. That’s a form of virtue ethics that campuses, in particular, should cultivate.

But our campuses should also cultivate a love of written and spoken language, whether formal or vernacular or novel or traditional. The more whimsical, edgy, vigorous or evocative the better, from my point of view. As Ravitch and, more recently, the linguist John McWhorter have argued, the obsessive policing of language risks stripping it of its color, vitality, dynamism and emotive power.

I find it odd that some of our society’s most heated debates -- for example, about cancel culture or critical race theory or language usage -- are, for the most part, not taking place in the classroom. Is it because these debates strike instructors as too political or too volatile? Or is it because of higher education’s overemphasis on a rather narrow definition of disciplinarity?

These are precisely the timely topics we should discuss, dispute and debate. Isn’t that what a college campus is for?

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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