STANFORD — From the Internet to the national media to the holiday dinner table, much of the country has seemed confused in recent weeks by Stanford University’s new “language guide” that encourages the use of “American” words. “Survivor” and “Freshman” are steps too far for many tired of the culture wars.
As politicians and the media continue their ongoing debate over critical race theory, LGBTQ discussions in schools, and other cultural issues, liberals and conservatives seem to be on the same page about one thing. This Stanford “language guide” goes too far.
Written by Stanford’s Harmful Language Initiative in collaboration with People of Color in Technology and Stanford’s CIO Council, the language guide is part of a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language; is only used in information technology (IT). – at the university. Its goal is to “eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased language … on Stanford’s websites and code.”
“The purpose of this site is to educate people about the potential impact of the words we use,” the guide’s preface reads. “Language affects different people differently. We do not attempt to assign levels of harm to the terms of this site. We are also not trying to address the informal use of the language.”
The 13-page guide encourages the use of, among others, what it calls ableist, ageist, colonial and culturally specific language, and urges coders to avoid the obvious “retarded” and “spaz” words to phrases that can be more seem harmless, e.g. “brave,” “American,” “Hispanic,” “cakewalk,” and “homeless.”
Members of the committee that produced the guidelines could not be reached, but the guidelines themselves provide context as to why the language should not be used. For example, the word “prisoner” should be replaced by the word “person who is in prison” because “using individual language helps people not to be defined by only one characteristic of them”. For similar reasons, the word has been singled out as a dirty word by the prison abolition movement. But “American”.
In the guide, IT writers suggest using “US citizen” instead, in part because Americans “often refer only to people from the United States, thereby implying that the US is the most important country in the Americas,” ignoring the other 42 countries on the continent. For many on social media, including Dr. Jay Bhattacharya, a professor at Stanford School of Medicine, the guideline sometimes goes too far. He called it “really disappointing” on a recent Fox News show, “The Ingraham Corner.”
“It doesn’t really promote respect for people,” he said. “It just makes people wonder what happened to great universities like Stanford.”
Bhattacharya was not alone in his disdain for the “language guide”. dozens of other right-wing media accounts and commentators dug into Stanford for publishing it. He got a quick response from Twitter CEO Elon Musk, who said: “Stanford doesn’t approve of saying you’re proud to be an American. Whoa!’
In a statement, Stephen Gallagher, Stanford’s chief information officer, said the university actually encourages the use of the word “American.” He sought to distance the institution from the work of his IT experts.
The site “does not represent university policy,” the statement said, and “does not represent mandates or claims.” The site was “created and intended for discussion with the Stanford IT community” and “offers ‘suggested alternatives’ for various terms and reasons why these terms may be problematic in certain uses.” Its goal has always been to “support an inclusive community”.
“We particularly heard concerns about the guidance’s treatment of the term ‘American,'” the statement said. “We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, the use of the term ‘American’ is not only not prohibited at Stanford, it is perfectly welcome.”
The statement also said that “the guidance for the university’s IT community is under continuous review” and that “the spirit behind it from the beginning has been to provide feedback and consider adjustments based on that feedback.”
University of Washington computer science professor and author Pedro Domingos said in an interview that no university “should try to dictate what language its members use.”
“Many of the terms in the guide are considered harmful, and the proposed replacements are frankly amusing,” Domingos said. “The way Stanford has handled the whole thing is embarrassing.”
While Domingos acknowledges that the tech and IT world needs to be aware of the language they use, these guidelines, similar to those published at the UW, are flawed, he said.
“The tech community can do a lot to improve its language use, but Stanford’s language guide and similar guides (such as UW’s) are neither the right way nor the content,” said Domingos. “Above all, technologists should strive to be ideologically neutral, not to advance a particular ideology, whatever that may be.”