Recently, the right discovered an insidious plot by a “woke” university to seize control of the English language once and for all. A list of “oppressive language” published by the Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center (PARC) at Brandeis University has been smugly shared on social media as an example of Orwellian overreach by the academic left.
An article from The Daily Mail seemed to kick off the outrage, focusing on a few questionable entries. The article dishonestly stated that certain phrases, such as “trigger warning,” were “banned” at Brandeis because of their violent or otherwise insensitive connotations. The Mail’s lie fooled writer Joyce Carol Oates, who complained about the supposed banning of language on Twitter.
I’ve come to expect reactionary rhetoric from the right, but the oppressive language list has gotten a lot of criticism from the left as well. One prominent example was John McWhorter’s response published by The Atlantic. Unfortunately, McWhorter seems to miss a large amount of context when it comes to The List: The fact that the list was created by a resource center that works with people who have been impacted by violence. And he missed this context despite quoting PARC: “suggestions are brought forth by students who have been impacted by violence or who have worked with others who are healing from violence.” The recommendations on PARC’s list should be read in this light.
But McWhorter, normally a careful and thoughtful critic, doesn’t slow down long enough to consider the context. Instead he chastises Brandeis University and claims that “we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.” This is quite the accusation considering that no one would know about this list of oppressed words if some reactionary hadn’t stumbled upon it buried in the “Holding Ourselves Accountable” sub-menu on an advocacy center’s web page. When did anyone from Brandies attempt to “preach” to McWhorter or anyone else?
McWhorter never gives PARC the benefit of the doubt. Instead of people who are genuinely interested in listening to what people impacted by violence have to say and then presenting those opinions to a wider audience for consideration, McWhorter has convicted them of a kind of linguistic totalitarianism. He claims, without evidence, that PARC would consider “a choice not to observe” the language recommendations to be “backward and even abusive.”
Ultimately, McWhorter makes a number of good points about the futility of attempts to change the language. But in his eagerness to demolish the questionable items on the list, he fails to consider the intent, even when it’s presented to him in plain language.