It’s not ‘woke’ to use more specific language

by David L. Ulin

I’m trying an experiment in one of the courses I teach. The goal is to stop using the phrase “you guys.” I announced the plan at our first class meeting; now, the students laugh each time I slip.

This is not an undertaking driven by “wokeness,” itself a glib, amorphous coinage to be avoided. Rather, it’s meant as a gesture of respect. The majority of these students are women, and I want to be precise.

Language is a tool — even, for good and ill, a weapon — and in order for it to be effective, it needs to be consciously deployed. The “invasion of one’s mind by ready-made phrases,” George Orwell wrote nearly 80 years ago in his essay “Politics and the English Language,” “… can only be prevented if one is constantly on guard against them, and every such phrase anesthetizes a portion of one’s brain.”

Such an idea seems to be one many of us have overlooked in the battle over what language is appropriate or inappropriate to use.

“Appropriate,” I’ll admit, is another word to circumvent. In my experience, it’s applied primarily as a bludgeon, to shame and silence divergent points of view. Yet what if we imagined appropriateness more broadly: as a matter of intention rather than opprobrium?

Every one of us, after all, makes choices about what to say in certain circumstances. We communicate one way in a classroom and another way in a bar. We speak to our families differently than we do to our co-workers. We gauge the situation, read the room.

From where I sit, this is a matter of courtesy, of specificity.

In January, Stanford University took down a website supporting its IT department’s “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” The website listed more than 150 words or phrases deemed “racist, violent and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias.)” There’s been much gloating over this, on the internet and elsewhere, among those who style themselves as absolutists for free speech.

But those absolutists (yet another problematic word; how does one find common cause with an absolutist?) have it wrong.

I don’t mean to suggest that Stanford, or any institution, should mandate language. I don’t believe in cancel culture and I’m not calling for the elimination of any words. Like many people, I was outraged by the recent decision on the part of Puffin Books, in England, to bowdlerize the works of Roald Dahl because of their purportedly offensive language. Dahl has his issues, that’s for sure, as both an author and a human. But when it comes to his writing, as anyone who’s read him understands, offense is part of the point.

At the same time, it’s important to recognize that our relationship with language is continually evolving, that language is alive and that we must be attuned to it.

Think about it: There are coinages we simply no longer use, phrasings that have been rendered obsolete. In many cases, they represent the very sort of “racist, violent and biased” words Stanford sought to mitigate. Was the university’s initiative ham-handed? Without a doubt. But I’m all for choosing consciously the words we use, for thinking before we speak.

Freedom of expression is an inalienable right, but like all rights, it comes with responsibilities. How we use language says a lot about us — what we value, and who we do and do not wish to include. Substituting a word like “firefighter” for “fireman,” to cite a particularly innocuous example from the Stanford list, may seem a matter of semantics. But if language has power — and if it doesn’t, why are we even discussing this? — then we must remain aware of its effects.

Consider your own list of words, those that bother you for whatever reason, those that set your teeth on edge. The reasons can be myriad, personal or cultural or political. For me, such a list would include “unique,” so overused that I wince to hear it. And my current target, “you guys” — which is inaccurate. “Everyone” or “you all” or “all of you” sounds better to me now.

If this is the case with language that’s inoffensive, then what about the words we know are not? I think of Scott Adams, whose comic strip “Dilbert” was discontinued over the weekend by hundreds of newspapers after the cartoonist went on an internet tirade full of racist tropes.

Everyone can say or write whatever they want, of course. The Constitution guarantees it. But it’s neither suppressive nor woke (that word again) to suggest there could be consequences. Similarly, it’s not self-censorship to be thoughtful. It’s an expression of how you choose to carry yourself in the world.

David L. Ulin is a contributing writer to the Los Angeles Times’ opinion section.