Did you know these terms could be deemed offensive by equity-language guides?

Have over-sensitive experts established a new orthodoxy in language without anyone really noticing?

By Shashi Tharoor

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Published: Thu 1 Jun 2023, 8:29 PM

After my columns about Stanford’s and Oxfam’s language guides, the latest entrant in the fray is the environmentalist group the Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide. This goes even farther, discouraging the use of the words “stand” (since not everyone can stand), blind (insulting to those unable to see) and crazy (offensive to mentally challenged people). This is what’s known as “people-first language,” under which “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”

The guide is one more document that seeks to cleanse people’s use of the English language, in order to eliminate suggestions of bias, racism, or exclusion. But the Sierra Club goes too far in dismissing “urban”, “vibrant”, and even “hardworking” as reflecting subtle racism, and banning even “empower” as condescending! Speaking of “the poor” is classist (you have to say, apparently, “people with limited financial resources”.) And what’s wrong with “migrant”? The Club doesn’t say, but it disapproves.

Equity-language guides are all the rage these days, and every university, non-profit institution and civil society organisation seems to be sprouting one. They all seem to be based on the same activist template but vary in their degrees of intolerance, each group seemingly striving to find something offensive that the others didn’t think of. It seems to me unlikely that such hyper-sensitivity actually exists amongst ordinary people, even in “woke” American society. How many people would follow the dictum of the San Francisco Board of Supervisors to replace “felon” or “accused criminal” with “justice-involved person”? It is making a mockery of the language, and of common sense.

Interestingly enough, a backlash has begun. The general public reacted just as badly as we did in this space to Stanford’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, and the criticism of the University was so severe that it has scrapped the initiative altogether —not for being absurd and unnecessary, but, according to the University’s announcement, for being “broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity.”

But the truth is that the language if equity has already crept into the conversation and writing of most of us who pride ourselves on our linguistic common sense. In my childhood I was comfortable with the gender distinction between “actor” and “actress”; today applying the word “actor” to a woman still jars my sexagenarian sensibilities, but I use it nonetheless, for fear of giving offence otherwise. Similarly “chairman” was seen as a gender-neutral term, but the clunky and non-sexist “chairperson” now rules the roost.

Perhaps nothing is really lost in these changes, especially if something is gained in the self-respect felt by the beneficiaries – female actors and chairpersons, in these instances. But it worries me that over-sensitive experts have established a new orthodoxy in language without anyone really noticing. In America, some changes were politically needed: “Negroes” became “Blacks” and now is being overtaken by the more generic “People of colour”. Of course one must address people as they wish to be addressed, but the desire to avoid giving offence sometimes deprives language of the exactitude and colour that communicates most effectively. Would you prefer to learn that X was imprisoned, or that he was “a person experiencing the criminal-justice system”? What on earth does that even mean?

The truth is that the path to “equity language” is paved with good intentions but takes people to a place of euphemism, fuzziness, and disconnection from reality. Sometimes blunt and direct is better than inoffensive and circumlocutious. Vivid writing can sometimes hurt – to say “that leader is blind to the problems of us ordinary people” or that “he was crippled by indecision” or “paralysed by fear” evokes a specific impact on the reader that more “acceptable” alternatives to blind, crippled and paralysed would not. Intent matters: when it’s obvious an expression is a figure of speech rather than a deliberate slur, it cannot be equated to someone deriding an entire community with a nasty term (like the “n” word in America for black people or the “P” word in Britain for brown ones).

Avoiding insults, taking care not to inadvertently slur whole communities, and treating others with dignity in your speech are all valuable practices in any decent society. But you don’t have to destroy the power and beauty of your language to ensure that.

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