Sabharwal | Was the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” really that bad?

Opinion by Diya Sabharwal
Jan. 11, 2023, 7:46 p.m.

“And so I think, what happens if we alter our language? Where would our future be? Where will we grow towards, if we start to think differently about how the world is?” – Ocean Vuong (2020)

On Dec. 19, the Wall Street Journal published an opinion piece calling out Stanford’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. The article criticized Stanford’s detailed index of inclusive words and stoked discussions surrounding the initiative, which have been largely negative; following the WSJ article, the list was criticized by outlets such as Fox News and USA Today. All this negative media coverage ultimately culminated in Stanford withdrawing the list for reconsideration. 

To be fair, certain words listed as “to be eliminated” were even in my view unnecessary — such as “seminal” being forbidden for promoting the patriarchy, or “master” being banned because “historically, masters enslaved people.” However, amid all this negative backlash I did want to provide an alternative view — I truly believe Stanford meant well and that, especially since this list was a guide and not a mandate, it would have had an overall positive impact on its readers, educating them on the connotations that certain words could have. Why must there be limits on our wish to be inclusive? Isn’t “too careful” always better than “too brash,” if it means we can protect another person’s sense of self? Overall, I believe that the list made some excellent suggestions for inclusive alternatives to common phrases. 

The general view of opponents of the initiative appears to be that words are shallow, and should not be given outsized importance. For example, the WSJ editors called out the University for wasting tuition dollars on useless “make-work” for the University administrators who are responsible for this initiative. But in thinking this way, what the opponents fail to recognize is that this list is about a lot more than a shallow attempt to appear “politically correct” — as studies have shown time and time again, words matter. The way we talk about the things around us shapes how we perceive them. For example, the list recommends using the phrase “person who has immigrated” instead of the word “immigrant”. This recommendation is disparaged in the WSJ article, which says sarcastically — “It’s the iron law of academic writing: Why use one word when four will do?” But the article fails to consider the large impact that these few additional words can have on immigrant identity. This change is recommended by Stanford because “using person-first language helps to not define people by just one of their characteristics.” People who have immigrated are multidimensional people who should be able to lean into their immigrant identity as much or as little as they want, without feeling defined by it. This slight change in wording empowers them, every time it is uttered, to make this choice — and to me, as a person who has immigrated, it truly feels great. 

Psychologist Robert Rosenthal famously coined the term “Pygmalion Effect,” (1968) to describe the phenomenon in which others’ expectations about oneself can influence one’s behavior and performance. As part of his research, he designed an experiment where he randomly assigned lab rats the labels of “smart” and “dumb,” and examined the effects of these labels on their performance as they competed against each other in racing through a maze. As discussed in an episode of The On Being Project, “The reality was that they were both normal mice.” There was nothing special about either of them. “But the one labeled the superior mouse always went through the maze faster.” That phenomenon is still under study, but one theory is that the “smart” labeled mice succeeded because the human beings who attended them subconsciously treated them differently — the mice that had the “smart” label were tended to with more care. This study shows the importance of the words we use to describe different kinds of people – not only does it affect self-image, but also affects how others treat you. 

Thus, recognizing the importance of our words is an important step in changing the way we associate with language. Being deliberate about how we articulate our world can have an immense impact on how we exist within it. Stanford’s Elimination of Harmful Language initiative is an essential step in making the university environment a place where everyone can feel welcomed and accepted. I am optimistic that, in its next installment, the administration will do an even better job of creating a true index of inclusive language. And I urge you to look at even the current version with a fair eye, cutting through the negative media coverage and giving it the benefit of a doubt. 

Diya Sabharwal is an undergraduate studying Computer Science with minors in Feminist Studies and Creative Writing.

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