Bias-Free Language Guide Has a Defender

It was only a couple months ago that the kerfuffle over the Bias-Free Language Guide made the University Near Here the well-deserved target of nationwide ridicule. (The link goes to the July 28 version of the document available from the Internet Archive Wayback Machine.) Over the span of a day or two, the document was removed from the University web server; President Huddleston put out a disavowal statement; and the furor and laughter eventually died down.

But now the students are back in town, and one of them, Ezra Temko, Graduate Student Body President, took pen in hand to defend the BFLG, and the student newspaper dutifully published said defense both online and in its dead-trees edition.

Let us take a look at young Ezra's thoughts; I reproduce them in full, lest I be accused of quoting out of context. His words are on the left with a lovely #EEFFFF background color; my comments are on the right.

This past July, a Campus Reform web post that highlighted a “Bias-Free Language Guide” on UNH’s website quickly entered the national news cycle.

That week, I was embarrassed to be a Wildcat.

Oh, no! Why?
I was not embarrassed by Campus Reform’s story. Campus Reform’s founder and president promotes right-wing orthodoxy. He has expressed solidarity with organizations that believe only Christians should be able to hold public office and that support discrimination against gay individuals. A tortured chain of damnation indeed: the (factual) news came from a website founded by a (gasp!) conservative (unnamed, but apparently Morton Blackwell) who (somehow, at some point) "expressed solidarity" with (unnamed) organizations that held certain tendentiously-characterized political opinions.

OK, well that's a good excuse to ignore criticism.

And it also gives Ezra a chance to ignore the criticism of the BFLG from just about everyone else.

I was embarrassed by our university’s official response. President Huddleston joined conservative pundits in lambasting the guide. Huddleston removed the guide from UNH’s website and declared that speech guides have no place at UNH. His statement was noticeably missing any mention regarding the importance of addressing microaggressions on our campus or of fostering inclusive language and discourse. True enough. President Huddleston said X; Ezra wanted him to say not-X instead. Ezra claims to have been embarrassed, but since he's making his feelings an issue, it seems more accurate to say he feels betrayed.
Language and behavior can reproduce social inequalities and de-value people. […] Language can also inflate trivial assertions into pretentious and vague claptrap. As here.
Last year I witnessed white students casually calling each other n—-r and a swastika painted on a campus building. […] Neither of these—not even casual use of the N-word—was addressed by the BFLG. Now, if those white kids had been calling each other "Negro": the BFLG would have deemed that "problematic".
I heard stories from other Wildcats of rape jokes and disparaging remarks about transgender persons and persons of varying ethnicities. […] Could we just stipulate that young people say all sorts of stupid, filthy, and insensitive crap?

But this is a diversion: the actual language the BFLG was written to inhibit is far less obvious…

I also heard more subtle put-downs, some of which were likely made by individuals who were not even aware that their language was exclusive or stigmatizing. As someone who endorses UNH’s goal of striving towards “a culture of inclusion and diversity” (one of UNH’s six “Visions and Values” in our strategic plan), I appreciated having a toolkit that encourages thoughtful expression that upholds and affirms the diversity present within our community. Now (finally) we're getting to it: the BFLG is (allegedly) a well-meaning "toolkit" to implement "a culture of inclusion and diversity".

And what kind of toolkit? Well, mostly a hammer: one you can use to beat the heads of those who speak or write at variance with what Ezra and his ilk consider to be the Official University Ideology.

And, lest you doubt, Ezra is correctly quoting UNH's Strategic Plan. "A Culture of Inclusion and Diversity" is in the list of "Six Visions and Values" (although it's not clear whether it's a "Vision" or a "Value").

And (unfortunately for us all) the Strategic Plan makes no mention of, say, "A Commitment to Free Expression and Reasoned Discourse", either as a "Value" or a "Vision".

That's (as they say) problematic.

President Huddleston’s statement also bought into the right-wing framing of the language guide as being about free speech. These charges were associated with misleading headlines like “[UNH] Bans Word ‘American.’” The guide, however, was not in a policy handbook; it was on UNH’s Inclusive Excellence page under a section entitled Resources. The guide explicitly states that it is about “starting a conversation about word choice” and encouraging critical and reflective thinking, and that it is “not meant to censor… [or] represent absolute requirements.” I am not the first to point out that those who claim to want to "start a conversation" are often the first to get really, really annoyed when people talk back to them.

In truth, the BFLG makes no explicit disciplinary threats against those who violate its guidelines. But its tone is unmistakeably didactic and ex cathedra: 10 "avoid"s; 6 "should"s; a whopping 55 "problematic"s. Ominously, the document is shot through with references to "aggression", "assault", "violence": the fuzzy conflation of language acts with terms used to refer to actual physical brute force certainly implies that certain language should be sanctioned/punished, even if that's not (yet) explicitly stated.

Should our administration be taking cues regarding how to realize our vision from Campus Reform? Or should our administration take its cues from the students and community members who are on the receiving end of microaggressions, and from the researchers and practitioners on our campus who understand these issues and are on the front lines of working for a campus climate that engenders inclusive excellence? If we're giving cue-taking advice to President Huddleston:
  • It might be too much to hope for, but the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education (FIRE) has an excellent suggestion: UNH should work to improve its current "red light" rating there.

  • Recommended additional reading: "The Coddling of the American Mind" by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt, in the September issue of that well-known right-wing hate mag The Atlantic.

  • At all costs avoid advice from anyone who uses the term "microaggressions" without giggling.

President Huddleston, whose side are you on? That's not a very "inclusive" question, Ezra. Doesn't "diversity" suggest that President H listen to diverse opinions, not just one side? This side, that side… can't we all just get along?
In the coming months I will look to the UNH administration’s actions for an answer to that question. Hey, like all of us.

(My previous posts on the BFLG: here, here, and some here.)

Last Modified 2018-03-25 5:48 AM EDT