Why Stanford does not approve of the word 'addict'

Shashi Tharoor's World of Words is a weekly column on language

Shashi Tharoor
Shashi Tharoor

Published: Fri 31 Mar 2023, 7:16 PM

America is where the entire notion of “political correctness” was invented, so it comes as no surprise to learn that the distinguished private university in California, Stanford, has launched something called the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”. This is a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language at Stanford, and responds to various requirements to express solidarity with victims of such language.

But what exactly is “harmful language”? Slur words and insults — such as the notorious “n” word about Black people — are, of course, known to everyone and for years have been unusable in polite company anywhere. But Stanford’s project is considerably more far-reaching. “The goal of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative,” says the Stanford announcement, “is to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites.”

It is necessary, Stanford says, to educate people about the possible impact of the words we use, even while it acknowledges that language affects different people in different ways. But it then proceeds to issue a 13-page list of words that should be avoided, and to suggest alternatives to them that it considers less offensive. It’s impossible to do justice to the list in the space we have available, but here’s a flavour of some of the terms you can’t use at Stanford, along with an idea of what Stanford things you might say instead:

Instead of “addict”, for instance, you should consider using “person with a substance use disorder”. “Using person-first language,” Stanford helpfully explains, “helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics.” Don’t call a nervous person a “basket case”, since the expression “originally referred to one who has lost all four limbs and, therefore, needed to be carried around in a basket”. Never call someone “crazy”, “nuts” or “insane”, because that is “ableist language that trivialises the experiences of people living with mental health conditions”.

Ableist? That term is defined too: “Ableist language is language that is offensive to people who live with disabilities and/or devalues people who live with disabilities. The unintentional use of such terms furthers the belief that people who live with disabilities are abnormal.” Words like “crippled”, “dumb”, “lame,” “retarded”, “senile” or “handicapped” are typical ableist terms, because they treat disabilities as deviations from the norm. They should be replaced by “person with a disability”.

So far, so good. These are all words we use unthinkingly, in casual conversation, often for no other reason than that they are terms in widespread use and we employ them in unconscious imitation. None of us actually intends to speak offensively of people with actual disabilities when we use such terms as “crazy” or “nuts” not literally, but figuratively, to describe people whose conduct we think isn’t acceptable or even normal. If you say someone had a “lame” excuse you aren’t actually trying to put down a person with a walking disability. But by using such words you are even unintentionally hurting people, Stanford feels, you must not do so. After all, political correctness must prevail.

Similarly, with unconscious gender bias: some of us think “chairman” is a position, like “president”, rather than a gendered term, and find “chairperson” a clunky alternative, but we must use it to avoid excluding women chairpersons. Fair enough. Speaking of a mixed group as “guys” is also wrong: the term “reinforces male-dominated language”. And, of course, “mankind” should be rendered “humankind”, if you want to include all human beings.

But some of Stanford’s strictures seem far-fetched even to the most liberal and accommodative person. I often refer to someone who has completely missed the spirit of a conversation or an exchange as being “tone deaf”— that is, that the person was completely insensible to the occasion in what he said or did. If I used that term in Stanford, it seems, I would fall afoul of the harmful language code, because of the same all-purpose objection: it’s “ableist language that trivialises the experiences of people living with disabilities”. I’m sorry, Stanford, but it’s not: the speaker’s intention surely has some relevance here?

It gets worse. More next week!



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