The University of Michigan has spent $16,000 on a campaign to get students to use “inclusive language” and stop using certain words and phrases. Around campus, posters give examples of the now verboten words like “crazy,” “insane,” “retarded,” “gay,” “tranny,” “gypped,” “illegal alien,” “fag,” “ghetto” and “raghead.” In fairness to the school and students, there program is broader than just the listing of offensive terms and phrases. The campaign is also featured on Facebook.
What is interesting is that some of these words are quite offensive like “rag head,” “jewel” and “fag” among others. However, the list also reinforces that concern that, once schools begin to list approved and disapproved words, there is a slippery slope toward the inclusion of any word that could possibly insult any person or group. For example, most of my friends who are homosexual refer to themselves as “gay.” Likewise, “ghetto” is a long standing word that was used in Europe and other places to refer to impoverished areas. However, the posters ask “If you knew that I grew up in poverty, would you still call things ‘ghetto’ and ‘ratchet’?”
“I wanted to die” is listed as offense to “people who have attempted or committed suicide.” Putting aside the question of how you offend someone who did not simply attempt but actually committed suicide, some would contest the view that the phrase implies that “self-harm is laughable or not a real problem with which many people deal with.”
The University of Maryland has spent $15,000 on a similar campaign three years ago.
Once again, there is much to support in this program. It is an educational campaign without any threat of punishment over the use of these words. It is primarily asking for people to think about the impact of their words — a commendable goal. However, the list itself shows how easily such campaigns can become over-inclusive in words deemed offensive by some one and raise concerns over de facto speech codes. For example, if these words are now deemed offensive, then presumably they could be used against speakers for violating the university’s stated rules and responsibilities. These include such violations as:
“Stalking, harassing, or bullying another person–physically, verbally, or through other means”
Two of those terms are defined as:
Harassing: (1)to annoy persistently (2) to create an unpleasant or hostile situation for, especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct
Bullying: (1) to frighten, hurt, or threaten (a smaller weaker person), (2) to act like a bully toward (someone), (3) to cause (someone) to do something by making threats or insults or by using force, (4) to treat abusively, (5) to affect by means of force or coercion
It is not clear when words publicly listed as being offensive can be used as the basis for charges under such rules. Likewise, it is not clear where free speech rights trump popular sensibilities. The term “illegal alien” is used in legal opinions and many still view the term as accurate and contest the removal of the reference to illegal status in describing this group. It is a matter of intense public debate but the question is whether the university should take a position on such a question. The handbook for Michigan states “The University has a long tradition of student activism and values freedom of expression, which includes voicing unpopular views and dissent. As members of the University community, students have the right to express their own views, but must also take responsibility for according the same right to others.” That can be an uncertain line to draw in the midst of a campaign over offensive terms and phrases.
Below is the poster from the campaign: