This past summer, the University Office of Human Resources released guidelines on inclusive language for official communications. The purpose of these guidelines is to ensure that no gender-based words, such as “chairman” or “businessman,” be used to describe mixed-gendered groups or in contexts in which gender identity is unknown or irrelevant. The University’s commitment to foster inclusivity on campus is commendable, but the regulation of inoffensive vocabulary terms represents a disturbing trend toward restricting the marketplace of ideas, starting with the language that comprises it.
While these guidelines are not official regulations, they do carry the weight of University authority and thus could have a chilling effect on word choice that would effectively mount to a ban in practice. A worst case, but not inconceivable outcome, might be that students self-censor their class writing for fear of possible retribution in grading. Such a result would be antithetical to the University’spurpose as an open place for respectful discourse and the free exchange of ideas.
The Editorial Board recognizes that vulgar or threatening language has no place in University discourse. However, the University must draw a distinction between expletives that have no meaningful contribution to the exchange of ideas, and commonly accepted English vocabulary such as “freshman.” The former are intended to cause harm. The latter has no pejorative denotation or connotation. In a modern context, “freshman” is universally understood to refer to both men and women.
The University guidelines prioritize the anticipated reactions of select individuals over widespread community norms in determining the language of the university community. The henceforth frowned upon terms “chairman,” “mailman,” and “spokesman” have a gender-neutral definition in a modern context.
Finally, one of the premises of this latest set of guidelines and the claim made in our colleagues’ dissent is that women or other individuals who do not identify as malemay feel so excluded by words that include the term “man” (ex. chairman) that they choose not to pursue leadership roles on campus. The suggestion that a female student would be dissuaded from following her passion by something as simple as its title (which is again properly and commonly understood as being gender-neutral and not exclusive) presents a condescending and demeaning attitude towards Princeton women. Accordingly, such parsing of language is harmful for promoting female agency and achievement on campus.
The instance of students who feel offended by commonly-used and accepted language is a poor indicator of an inclusive campus, since individuals can always find cause for offense. Rather, inclusivity means fostering an intellectual climate in which all parties can freely exchange and challenge ideas. Censoring the English language through dissemination of lists of acceptable vocabulary is contrary to the values of the University and a sinister first step towards Orwellian restriction of language and speech.
We believe that gender-exclusive language underpins implicit but pervasive gender biases and norms. Further, we believe that recommendations for language use issued as a means to the end of communal inclusivity are not an assault on free speech. For these reasons, we respectfully dissent.
The majority is particularly concerned with the shift from the use of “freshman” and “mailman” in favor of “first year” and “postal worker”; however, the real impact of the University’s recommendation is on opportunities and leadership for women and students who do not identify within the gender binary. Even the most ambitious women already experience a phenomenon known as the confidence gap; accordingly, they perceive themselves as less qualified than their male counterparts pursuing similar opportunities. Couple this with tacit presumptions generated by casting leadership and career opportunities in gender-exclusive language, and the implication is that pursuit and obtaining of these positions by females is even less normalized than it is when similar positions are cast in gender-neutral language. The majority opinion misses the nuance of this argument, incorrectly characterizing evidence about implicit biases as condescending and demeaning.
With respect to the issue of free speech, we believe that the University is committed to an open exchange of ideas between all members of the academic community. Inclusivity is a necessary condition for the free and open exchange of ideas. Given that gender-exclusive language has the real effect of excluding and silencing women, gender inclusivity actually brings more underrepresented ideas into the academic exchange.
This debate is not about sensitivity or hurt feelings. It’s about community inclusion so all individuals may and do pursue opportunities to make their own contributions to academic discourse.
Signed by Carolyn Liziewski ‘18, Cydney Kim ‘17, and Daniel Elkind ‘17
Connor Pfeiffer ‘18 abstained from the writing of this editorial.
TheEditorial Boardis an independent body and decides its opinions separately from the regular staff and editors of The Daily Princetonian. The Board answers only to its Chair, the Opinion Editor, and the Editor-in-Chief.