I just became aware of the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative webpage at Stanford. You may not be able to see it if you are not affiliated with Stanford. I would love to post a pdf printout of it but I am sure someone at Stanford would claim I violated some rule. I will report one interesting exclusion and one interesting inclusion.
A Stanford professor once sent me an email that began “YOU LITTLE [piece of fecal matter]”. My sense of proper etiquette for public writing prevents me from spelling out the word. However, that word is not on the Stanford list of Harmful Language. There is a category called “Imprecise Language”. That word should be in that category because it is “Imprecise”. For example, in that message, the professor did not specify if I was bovine, porcine or chicken … . At the time, I was mostly amused. I knew he would not like my email because it raised important issues concerning proper management of a journal. I was most insulted by his use of the word “LITTLE”. Because of the scholarship issues, I bounced his email to some top Stanford people. They found nothing wrong with any part of the message, not the use of that word, not his insults of my work, and not his insults of my student’s work.
However, the category “Imprecise Language” included the word “American”. Yes, using the word American is on this list of “potentially harmful terms used in the United States”. That-word-I-am-not-going-to-spell-out is not on the list but American is. The explanation is “This term often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the US is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).” This raises some questions.
I looked at the Merriam-Webster meaning of “insinuate”: “to introduce (something, such as an idea) gradually or in a subtle, indirect, or covert way.” Whoever thinks that we use the word “American” in a subtle, indirect or covert way doesn’t know Americans.
Some Iranians love to shout “Death to America!” Does anyone think that they are referring to Cuba? Mexico? Brazil?
Herbert Hoover directed the American Relief Administration. It delivered millions of tons of food and relief supplies to post-WWI Europe and was funded by $100M from Congress and another $100M from private donors. Are we now going to point to this as an example of “Harmful Language”?
Which is the “most important” country in the Americas?
My comments above are attempts at humor. Legal experts tell me that Stanford is a private entity and is not obligated to follow free speech rules. In fact, one Stanford lawyer told me emphatically that “There is no freedom of speech at Stanford.” I do not appeal to any law but to something more important: common sense and respect for our country. I do not want my tax dollars going to a university that discourages the use of the word “American” because of some imaginary possibility of confusion. Do you? Language is almost never precise. Saying that “American” is an example of “Harmful Language” reflects a deeper hostility which wants to stay hidden. I am sure that any expression of my real outrage would violate many people’s rules about proper language. I have a better plan.
First, demand that Stanford make it possible for anyone to see this webpage. Second, tell Stanford how you feel about the word “American”. You may ask how you can do this. The webpage says “If you don’t have a SUNet ID to access the suggestions form .. please contact us.” I also suggest you contact Stanford’s President (firstname.lastname@example.org) and Provost (email@example.com).
I tend to be behind when it comes to knowing about outrages like this. If you know of this happening at some other university, you should also contact them.
If this blog post motivates you to contact Stanford (or any) people, please mention my post. I have no desire to be subtle, indirect or covert when it comes to defending the American principle of free speech.