STANFORD — From the Internet to the national media to the holiday dinner table, much of the country has appeared to be furious in recent weeks over Stanford’s newly discovered “language guide” that discourages the use of words like “American,” “survivor” and “newbie.” Steps too far for many weary of the culture wars.
While politicians and the media continue their ongoing debate about critical race theory, LGBTQ debates in schools and other cultural issues, liberals and conservatives seem to be on the same page about one thing: Stanford’s “language guide” goes too far.
Written by Stanford’s Eliminating Harmful Language Initiative in partnership with People of Color in Technology and the Stanford CIO Council, The Language Handbook is part of a multi-phase, multi-year project that addresses harmful language—in information technology (IT) use only—at the university. Its goal is to “eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased language… in Stanford University websites and symbols.”
“The purpose of this site is to educate people about the potential impact of the words we use,” says the guide’s introduction. Language affects different people in different ways. We do not attempt to assign damage levels to the terms on this site. Nor do we attempt to address all informal uses of language.”
The 13-page guide discourages the use of what it calls capable, presbyterian, colonial, and culturally appropriate language among others, and urges code writers to avoid words from “redneck” and “spaz” to phrases that might sound harmless, such as “brave,” “American.” ‘, ‘Spanish’, ‘Outing’ and ‘Homeless’.
The members of the committee that produced the guide cannot be reached, but the guide itself gives context as to why language was not used. For example, the word “prisoner” should be replaced with the word “imprisoned/imprisoned person” because “using person language first helps not to define people by only one of their characteristics.” This word has been specifically singled out by the abolitionist movement as a dirty word for similar reasons. But “America”?
In the guide, IT writers suggest using “National American” instead, in part because “American” often refers to people from the United States only, thus insinuating that the United States is the most important country in the Americas,” ignoring the other 42 On the Continent. For many on social media, including Dr. Jay Bhattacharya — a professor at Stanford University School of Medicine — the evidence sometimes goes too far. He called it “really disappointing” on Fox News’ recent “The Ingraham Angle” .
“It actually doesn’t promote people’s respect,” he said. “It just makes people think about what went wrong with great universities like Stanford.”
Bhattacharya was not alone in his disdain for “manual language”; Dozens of other right-wing media outlets and commentators dug into Stanford for its publication. He got a quick response from Twitter boss Elon Musk, who said, “Stanford don’t agree saying you’re proud to be an American? Whoa.”
In a statement, Stanford CIO Stephen Gallagher said the university actually encourages the use of the word “American.” He sought to distance the organization from the work of its IT experts.
The website “does not represent the university’s policy,” the statement reads, nor is it “a mandate or requirement.” The website was created “and is intended for discussion with the Stanford IT community” and “provides suggested alternatives to the various terms and the reasons why those terms may be problematic in certain uses.” Its goal has always been to “support an inclusive community”.
The statement read, “We have particularly heard concerns about the Guide’s treatment of the term ‘American.’ We understand and appreciate these concerns. To be very clear, the use of the term ‘American’ is not only prohibited at Stanford, it is entirely welcome.”
The statement also stated that “The University’s Information Technology Community Guide is under constant revision,” and that “the spirit behind it, from the outset, has been to respond to feedback and consider modifications based on those feedback.”
University of Washington computer science professor and author Pedro Domingos said in an interview that no university should “try to limit the language its members use.”
“Many of the terms the guide finds harmful and the proposed alternatives are downright hilarious,” said Domingos. “The way Stanford handled the whole issue is an embarrassment.”
While Domingos acknowledges that the tech and IT world should be aware of the kind of language he uses, this evidence — published at the University of Wisconsin — is flawed, he says.
“There’s a lot the tech community can do to improve language use, but Stanford Language Manuals and the like (such as UW’s) are neither the right way to do it nor are they correct in content,” said Domingos. “Above all, technologists should strive to be ideologically neutral, not to push a particular ideology, whatever it may be.”