Among the many words you might use to describe me -- some of which would likely hurt my parents' feelings and I'm certain aren't fit for print -- there are a few that I imagine would be fairly uncontroversial.
"Mother" being one. "American" being another. You might also call me "healthy." That is, until you saw my morning hip-cracking performance.
But a guide to "bias-free language" posted on the University of New Hampshire's website (until it was taken down recently) deems these words and hundreds of others problematic. That's right -- the preferred term is "parenting," not "mothering" or "fathering." "American" is biased because it, "depending on context, fails to recognize South America." (What?) And "healthy," applied to the able-bodied, implies that people with disabilities are not, and so "non-disabled" is the better term. Also, please replace "homosexual" with "same gender loving," and did you know that "old person" is somehow preferable to "older person" and "elderly"?
That sound you hear is the fast-approaching clickety-clack of the four horsemen of the apocalypse.
After blog writers noticed the guide on the UNH website -- and rightly linked to and mocked it (after vomiting, I presume) -- the university quickly took great pains to distance itself from the pages-long document that had resided there unbothered since 2013. The university first put a disclaimer on top of the webpage disassociating itself from the guide and later removed it altogether.
University President Mark Huddleston issued a statement that read in part: "I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term 'American' is misplaced or offensive. The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses."
But if it wasn't really associated with the university, which now insists it was put together by a nebulous group of "community members," it's unclear what it was doing there in the first place. The intro to the guide made it sound pretty darn associated: "An integral part of UNH's mission is to continue to build an inclusive learning community, and the first step toward our goal is an awareness of any bias in our daily language."
But putting aside questions of ownership and association, that this document was even conceived of and put to paper or HTML is a frightening affirmation that political correctness and word policing, especially on college campuses, has reached cartoonish levels, marked by a comical arbitrariness, imagined offenses, meaningless distinctions and invented boundaries.
I checked in with some of my liberal friends (yes, I have them!) to see if anyone would strain to defend this.
One emailed me: "Oh my god. This guide is the worst. Just looked at it and it makes me want to kill myself." Which is hilarious but probably includes some kind of microaggression.
My good friend Van Jones, incidentally one of the best fathers I know, was a little more, er, careful. "There are times when the term 'parenting' is probably a good, neutral option. But I don't agree that 'fathering' is a gender-neutral activity, biologically or socially. To father a child means something specific and important. Being a good father means acting specifically as a male role model -- so that both sons and daughters know what a good man looks like."
Well said -- and, I would have once thought, fairly obvious and uncontroversial. Now I'm certain something Van just said will get him in trouble with someone.
"The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect." That's a line from "1984," in which George Orwell prophesied a tyrannical government that sedulously eliminates words from the English language as a means to "narrow the range of thought." As Syme, a lexicographer at the Ministry of Truth, says, "In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it."
Suddenly this seems less like fiction and more like reality.