FRIDAY, MARCH 17, 2023
From there, it's dumb all the way down: In full fairness, George Will's column got off to a pretty good start.
The column appeared last week, on Wednesday, March 8. The Stanford Law School hecklefest hadn't happened yet.
Having said that, how prophetic! In the Washington Post, Will's new column, headline included, started at Stanford, as shown:
Woke word-policing is now beyond satire
Sometimes in politics, which currently saturates everything, worse is better. When a political craze based on a bad idea achieves a critical mass, one wants it to be undone by ridiculous excess. Consider the movement to scrub from the English language and the rest of life everything that anyone might consider harmful or otherwise retrograde.
Worse really is better in today’s America (if you will pardon that noun; some at Stanford University will not; read on) as the fever of foolishness denoted by the word “woke” now defies satire. At Stanford, a full-service, broad-spectrum educational institution, an “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” several months ago listed words to avoid lest they make someone feel sad, unsafe, disrespected or something. Problematic words include “American,” which suggests that America (this column enjoys being transgressive) is the most important country in North and South America. The list was quickly drenched by an acid rain of derision, and Stanford distanced itself from itself: The university’s chief information officer said the list was not a mandate.
The puzzling word "Woke" was right there in the headline. Meanwhile, out in Palo Alto, a certain pattern had perhaps begun to emerge:
In the matter under review, one branch of Stanford had perhaps gone a bit rogue. In response, the university’s chief information officer had jumped in with a disclaimer.
One day after Will's column appeared, the hecklefest happened at Stanford Law School. The dean of the law school—and the university's president—soon offered a formal apology, rejecting the behavior of the heckling students and of an associate dean.
The headline which sat above Will's column began with the puzzling word "Woke." Nor had some editor taken liberties with the columnist's intentions.
In the column under review, Will quickly offered this assessment of Stanford's (now defunct) “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative”—and yes, that's its actual name:
"[T]he fever of foolishness denoted by the word 'woke' now defies satire."
No one is required to agree with Will's assessment. In our view, decent people should try to avoid using language which conveys undesired meanings or implications, or which makes people feel disrespected.
We'll guess that Will would agree with that general stance. At any rate, he soon moved on from Stanford's “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” to another aspect of life on The Farm—to the school's “Protected Identity Harm” system:
WILL: Back at Stanford, more than 75 professors are opposing the university’s snitching apparatus. The “Protected Identity Harm” system enables—actually, by its existence, it encourages—students to anonymously report allegations against other students, from whom they have experienced what the system calls “harm because of who they are and how they show up in the world.”
The PIH website breathlessly greets visitors: “If you are on this website, we recognize that you might have experienced something traumatic. Take a sip of water. Take a deep breath.” PIH recently made national news when someone reported the trauma of seeing a student reading Hitler’s “Mein Kampf.”
Will seems to disapprove of this initiative too. No one is forced to agree with him, but surely everyone knows that this is the sort of thing people frequently have in mind when they tag systems or people as "Woke" or excessively Woke.
Back to the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, to which Will provides this link. When we clicked, we found an expansive document.
We found thirteen pages of words and terms which might qualify as harmful. At the very top of page one, students were offered a warning they should consider before venturing into the woods:
Content Warning: This website contains language that is offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website at your own pace.
We scrolled through the whole thing, marveling at many of the terms we were advised to avoid. For example:
Did you know that it might be offensive or harmful to say "Hip hip hooray," or even "Hip-hip hurray?"
We didn't know that either! But there the terms sat, on the endless list, with the alleged offense explained.
No one is forced to agree with Will's view—with the view that this document takes "Wokeness" past the point of satire. Our own reaction was a bit different, and we'll describe it below.
That said, one of Will's statements was factually accurate. In late December, Stanford's Chief Information Officer did issue a "clarification," saying this in part:
Tuesday, December 20, 2022
We have particularly heard concerns about the guide’s treatment of the term “American.” We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, not only is the use of the term “American” not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed. The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term “US citizen” may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.
Steve Gallagher / Chief Information Officer
The use of the term "American" is absolutely welcomed at Stanford?
At that point, we have to sign on with Will. The silliness of that clarification does seem to take us somewhere we have never traveled, beyond the reach of satire.
Two weeks later, Gallagher posted a second statement, noting that the 13 pages of recommendations had been eliminated altogether. The “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” site had been canceled—taken down.
Was something "wrong" with that initiative at Stanford? No one is required to think so.
That said, everyone knows that this is the sort of thing people will criticize as "Woke." Except when clowns perform on blue cable, there's no great mystery about this.
It's also true that criticism of this sort of endeavor isn't restricted to conservatives or right-wingers. Six days before Will's column appeared, George Packer—and no, he isn't a conservative—had published a longer essay for The Atlantic on this very same topic.
Packer never used the word "Woke." But here's the way his essay started, dual headlines included:
THE MORAL CASE AGAINST EQUITY LANGUAGE
What’s a “justice-involved person”?
The Sierra Club’s Equity Language Guide discourages using the words stand, Americans, blind, and crazy. The first two fail at inclusion, because not everyone can stand and not everyone living in this country is a citizen. The third and fourth, even as figures of speech (“Legislators are blind to climate change”), are insulting to the disabled. The guide also rejects the disabled in favor of people living with disabilities, for the same reason that enslaved person has generally replaced slave: to affirm, by the tenets of what’s called “people-first language,” that “everyone is first and foremost a person, not their disability or other identity.”
The guide’s purpose is not just to make sure that the Sierra Club avoids obviously derogatory terms, such as welfare queen. It seeks to cleanse language of any trace of privilege, hierarchy, bias, or exclusion. In its zeal, the Sierra Club has clear-cut a whole national park of words. Urban, vibrant, hardworking, and brown bag all crash to earth for subtle racism. Y’all supplants the patriarchal you guys, and elevate voices replaces empower, which used to be uplifting but is now condescending. The poor is classist; battle and minefield disrespect veterans; depressing appropriates a disability; migrant—no explanation, it just has to go.
For the record, we're very glad that "enslaved person" has generally replaced "slave." We recall how pleased were the first time we saw a major figure—the novelist Alice Walker—use the longer, less dehumanizing term in a major public forum.
That said, we're inclined to agree with Packer's assessment of these sweeping language guides, which he voiced in this passage:
PACKER: The project of the guides is utopian, but they’re a symptom of deep pessimism. They belong to a fractured culture in which symbolic gestures are preferable to concrete actions, argument is no longer desirable, each viewpoint has its own impenetrable dialect, and only the most fluent insiders possess the power to say what is real. What I’ve described is not just a problem of the progressive left. The far right has a different vocabulary, but it, too, relies on authoritarian shibboleths to enforce orthodoxy. It will be a sign of political renewal if Americans can say maddening things to one another in a common language that doesn’t require any guide.
At this site, we're not in favor of people "say[ing] maddening things to one another." But we agree with Packer's assessment of the harm of "a fractured culture," and we're inclined to agree with the claim that these lists of forbidden / permitted words reflect a culture, even here in our own blue world, in which we like to perform symbolic gestures at the expense of taking concrete actions and exploring real daily concerns.
Our own reaction to Stanford's 13 pages went a great deal like this:
We wondered who had actually spent their time assembling this braindead, voluminous list of words we paragons mustn't say. We wondered who could possibly have that much time on their hands. We wondered about the discussions in which these high-end scriveners weren't engaged as they listed the many words you can't say on TV, or for that matter anywhere else.
We shouldn't use the term "peanut gallery?" We shouldn't use the term "rule of thumb" for all the harm it might cause?
We should stay away from brown bag, gangbusters, grandfather, master (as a noun and as a verb), immigrant, trigger warning? We'll offer two thoughts as you scroll through the endless list:
The people who compiled the list seem to be monumentally clueless. Also, they may be the kinds of people who engage in these moral panics while refusing to discuss what goes on in low-income schools, or the reasons for our nation's astonishing medical spending, or what we should do at the Southern border, or what might be the best way for our own inept blue tribe to peel voters away from Trump.
We've often noted the way our elite blue tribe orgs avoid such real-world discussions. We've often suggested one obvious possible reason:
At bottom, they simply don't care. They don't care about kids in our low-income schools. They have very good health care themselves, and they don't much care about you.
Then sure enough, last Friday night, there they sat, hard at work, the corporate Disciples of Dumb. They sat on Stephanie Ruhle's "cable news" show, peopling her "Friday Nightcap" time-killer and pretending they had no idea what the word "Woke" even means.
At this site, we don't believe in terrible people. We'd advise you to follow our leadership on this point of concern.
We don't believe in terrible people! But if we did, that's what those cable stooges would be.
They aggressively dumbnify our blue tribe every single day. You aren't allowed to know how much they're paid to engage in this stupidified conduct.
The woods are lovely, dark and deep, but at the highest cultural levels, our vastly self-impressed blue tribe just isn't especially sharp. On cable, the bosses hire gangs of stooges who will feed us the pleasing gruel which sends us off to sleep.
As a group, we've been too dumb to see through this decades-old process. The truly dumb people, we feel quite sure, are the bad people found Over There!
Our tribe is profoundly self-impressed, but also perhaps a bit clueless. Despondent anthropologists keep insisting that is the hard-wired way of the world.
These experts say that these reactions are deeply bred in the bone. They say that, anthropologically speaking, there will be no getting beyond this.
It can get very dumb on red tribe cable. It can get very faux Over Here.