In recent years, the policing of language has acquired a seemingly unstoppable momentum. Almost every week, the public is informed about yet another word that must not be used. But who would have imagined that the term ‘trigger warning’ would become the target of the language police?
Until now, trigger warnings were promoted by zealous supporters of the project of the policing language. Now Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts has decided that the term ‘trigger warning’ should be dropped in favour of the term ‘content note.’ The University’s ‘Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center’ argues that the “word ‘trigger’ has connections to guns for many people; we can give the same head’s up [sic] using language less connected to violence.”
Getting rid of the phrase ‘trigger warning’ because the word trigger has a connection with guns is truly bizarre. If the language police at Brandeis were consistent in their objective of purifying language to the point of censoring words that have a connection with violence, then usage of the term ‘violence’ itself would have to be dropped.
However, the advice offered by the Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center is not motivated by logic and consistency, but by the aspiration to control and re-engineer the way people speak and think. Its guidance on re-engineering “oppressive language” comes across as an exercise in self-parody.
Brandeis warns against using the word picnic because this word is “is often associated with lynchings of black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating, referring to them as picnics or other terms involving racial slurs against black people.”
The claim that the word picnic is “often associated with lynchings of black people” is ridiculous. 99.99% of people talking about going on a picnic have no idea that the term has even the slightest connection to lynchings. They are using this term in exactly the same sense that informed its original 18th century usage, which referred to the sharing of food outdoors.
If the word ‘picnic’ has got to go, is it any surprise that we are also not allowed to use the phrase ‘rule of thumb’? You and I might imagine that this term is a synonym for a general rule. But Brandeis has discovered that ‘rule of thumb’ conveys connotations of violence. Why? Because it claims that it “comes from an old British law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb”. It requires a formidable jump in imagination to associate ‘rule of thumb’ with wife beating. But then the crusaders against linguistic common-sense at Brandeis have adopted the approach of making it up as you go along.
The long list of words targeted by Brandeis includes terms such as ‘tribe,’ ‘mentally ill,’ ‘addict,’ ‘disabled person,’ ‘crazy,’ ‘wild’ and ‘insane.’ It is evident that the whole point of the exercise is to claim authority over what can and cannot be said. Through encouraging people to change their linguistic behaviour, the project of re-engineering verbal communication ultimately aims to control how people think and behave.
This project is now widely pursued by numerous institutions and advocacy groups. In the UK, the LGBT campaign group Stonewall has recently advised teachers to stop using the words ‘girls’ and ‘boys.’ It claims that these words are too gendered, and wants teachers to refer to boys and girls as ‘learners’ in order to further its cause of gender neutrality. Predictably Stonewall also wants to ditch ‘he’ and ‘she’ in favour of the woke approved term ‘they.’
In the case of Stonewall, the connection between the re-engineering of language and the goal of subverting conventional attitudes regarding the distinction between boys and girls is very clear. It hopes that if it is able to discredit gender-specific language, then it can normalise its ideal of gender neutrality.
The demand to constantly re-engineer language has a profound implication for public life. It continually puts pressure on people to distance themselves from their own taken-for-granted vocabulary. If you can no longer use a word like ‘picnic,’ what other words need to be ditched? Not surprisingly, one of the consequences of the language wars is that many people who do not share the social-engineering outlook often struggle to give voice to their views.
It is increasingly common to encounter people who say, “I’m not sure if I’m allowed to say this…” In the current climate, where there is little cultural support for the robust exchange of competing views, many people self-censor and allow the language police to intimidate them. That is a dangerous development; people who self-censor may soon forget the beliefs and sentiments that they held in the first place.
So when you plan to go outdoors with friends and lovers to drink some wine and eat nice food make sure they know that you are inviting them to a picnic. If you want to preserve your freedom, don’t let them control the words you use.
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