Language Police on the Beat — Mind Your Microagressions
“It’s that old lady, the old lady over there,” he called loudly across the airport. “Yes, that old lady down the hall.”
I cringed. He must have said “old” four or five times. He was trying to be helpful. TSA was wondering who had left a jacket behind, and a particular “old lady” just happened to be that person. This helpful bystander made the connection and was just trying to offer up a descriptor.
But for those who have been paying attention to societal norms, calling people “old” is out. It’s replaced with more politic choices, like “older,” “elderly,” “senior,” or best yet, no reference at all to advanced age. While to many in our community, “old” may be more of an honorary badge than an expiration label since we are a culture which values age rather than derides it, in broader terms, the connotation of “old” is decidedly offensive.
So is “fat,” for that matter. It’s been retired in favor of “larger,” “heavier,” “comfortable,” or again, best yet, no reference at all to extra weight. Fat is simply a descriptor no one would dare use as an adjective about another.
Reading my three-year-old a picture book that heralds back to the 1960s, I marvel at how often one particular character is described as just that, something which would never pass an editor at Random House or HarperCollins today.
And that’s because we are living in a world of ever-increasing language sensitivity, for better or for worse. This past year, a number of universities have put out updated Language Guides, and Recommendation Lists, with additional words and phrases which are now too “old and fat” to be tolerated. Some say it is emblematic of cancel culture, others, just basic consideration and sensitivity. Either way, language policing will likely continue to expand in the coming years rather contract.
Brandeis University put out an oppressive language list a few months ago, encouraging students and faculty to avoid these unsavory choices.
Much of the list focuses on violence, and encourages speakers to swap “killing it,” “take a shot,” or, ironically, “trigger warning,” for more mild options, like, “great job,” “give it a go,” and “content note.” (Even plain “warning” without the trigger predecessor is discouraged, because “‘Warning’ can signify that something is imminent or guaranteed to happen, which may cause additional stress about the content to be covered.” “Content note” is less alarming.)
“Whipped into shape” and “off the reservation” are decried for their oppressive origins, the former for its reference to punishments inflicted on slaves, and the latter for its reference to the removal of indigenous people from their lands. “Sold down the river” and “Indian giver” are similarly racist in origin, the former referring to Blacks being sold further south, and the latter to indigenous people who were characterized as having given gifts which were then rescinded. Even “picnic” is questioned, because Americans are said to have brought their lunches to town areas where lynchings were performed.
University of California’s newly released list similarly highlights words that may have racial undertones, such as whitelist and blacklist, suggesting allowlist and denylist as replacements.
Other violence-related words on UC’s list include “hang,” a term used in computing to describe a frozen system; “kill,” referring to a process that has stopped; and “nuke.” Instead, students are pointed toward “stop responding,” “halt,” and “delete.”
Even “kill two birds with one stone” is on the … chopping block? A suggested replacement is “feed two birds with one scone.”
Brandeis similarly targets certain metaphors with disturbing imagery, like, “more than one way to skin a cat,” “beating a dead horse,” and “going postal”; the latter of which is a violent reference to a postal worker who murdered his coworkers in 1986.
Another category in Brandeis’ list is language that may define a person as just one thing. “Survivor” and “victim” are replaced with “a person who has survived” or “a person who has experienced.” So if describing a cancer survivor, that would be expressed as, “a person who has survived cancer,” and a crime victim as “a person who has experienced a crime.” The reason given for this sensitivity is that “[t]hese labels can make a person feel reduced to an experience.” Wheelchair-bound, prisoner, homeless person and slave are all criticized for the same reason. Person who uses a wheelchair, person who is imprisoned, person without housing, and, oddly, enslaved person, are recommended. Even hearing impaired is questioned because “[i]mpaired implies that something has been lost or broken, insinuating that the person is less capable.”
Gendered language is similarly sidelined. Words like “master bedroom” succeed in being both masculine and racist (with undertones of American slavery). Even “master a subject/skill” is frowned upon for that reason.
Policeman, congressman, mailman and landlord are out; police officer, congressperson, postal carrier, property owner are in. Also bid farewell to “freshman.” Instead, the bulkier “first-year student.”
UC pushes words like humankind over mankind (which brings to mind Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s reprimand of a woman who asked a question using the latter to which he responded, “We like to say peoplekind”); counterpart over right-hand man, and level of effort over manpower.
Words like “grandfathered” or “grandfather clause” are racially insensitive, because they hark back to 19th century grandfather clauses used in states wanting to restrict Blacks from voting. And peanut gallery has an ugly history as well, being the cheapest area in a theatre which therefore became the seating of choice for poorer Blacks.
Even an old reprimand employed by countless frustrated mothers, “Finish your food; there are children starving in Africa,” is considered insensitive. “This expression is othering and perpetuates the stereotype that Africa is made up of countries that cannot feed their people, implying Western superiority,” Brandeis explains.
Fixing and Nixing
While some may find lists like these absurd, others may applaud them, and still many more may swim somewhere in the muddy middle, agreeing that racist metaphors should probably go but that ones with birds feeding off of scones may go too far down Pleasantville Road.
Professor John McWhorter, a linguist at Columbia University who writes and speaks extensively on “language laws,” writes in The Atlantic that “we are being preached to by people on a quest to change reality through the performative policing of manners.”
He says that lists like these are “a sign of our times, in which language policing has reached a near fever pitch, out of a sense that labeling common terms and expressions as ‘problematic’ — that is, blasphemous — is essential to changing society.”
He criticizes the list’s hypersensitive and literal read of many metaphors whose violent undertones are too far removed from the meaning to be offensive. Same for words like “crazy,” which the list rejects because of its disrespect to people with mental health issues. Brandeis supplies “it’s bananas” as a replacement, but Professor McWhorter writes that “rosters of oppressive language inevitably expand, as does the number of reasons to declare words unacceptable. One can imagine a future list condemning bananas not just because it too mocks mental illnesses but also, perhaps, because it dismisses the hard work of those who pick the fruit.”
And perhaps his most salient point — seeking out less and less offensive words will mean that those new choices will eventually fall to stigma as well. “[O]ur language crusaders miss that replacing an expression with negative connotations is like swatting away gnats, because those same connotations regularly coalesce on the new term as well. Crippled was changed to handicapped; after a while, this needed replacing, and thus came disabled; today terms such as differently abled attempt yet again to elude the negative associations some assign to physical disability.”
It’s called the “euphemism treadmill,” as coined by psychologist Stephen Pinker, and it is an infinite run.
“Couched as compassionate counsel, this list is mostly a series of prim concoctions,” he concludes.
Unapologetically dismissive, Professor McWhorter and those of his attitude may find lists like these silly, but others would and do argue back that language is the precursor to much of the world’s evil. Ugly and derogatory words inform the thinking of speakers and listeners. Prejudiced phrases and metaphors can perpetuate damaging characterizations, a phenomenon of which the Jewish community is acutely aware. More than a few of us would and do cringe at the use of “to jew someone.”
Yet even for those with more sympathy towards the concerns underlying such lists, the idea that taking a Sharpie to the dictionary will resolve societal ills seems a naïve one.
“A word can be banned in polite society as a way of showing that a certain belief is rejected,” Mark McCullagh, professor of philosophy at Guelph University, tells Hamodia. “The impulse to do this is understandable, but one worry is that this is just a way of avoiding a harder task, because telling someone they shouldn’t have a belief or attitude, or shaming them about it, is a lot easier than actually leading them out of it. I’d hope that the focus of an educational institution would be on the latter work.”
Mordechai Schiller, Hamodia’s “lexikibitzer” and language columnist (“Going Through a Phrase”), points out that there is always merit to being careful with words. “I don’t expect social or mainstream media to learn shemiras halashon or follow Hamodia’s standards of Jewphemism. As the old kosher hot dog ads said, ‘We answer to a higher authority.’ But the total deterioration of what’s ‘fit to print’ does require a reset. The question is: What are the criteria and who sets them? Today, the committee for cancellation is run by mob rule.”
Schiller says he has had work rejected for fear it might cause pain to certain people. “But I accepted it. That’s a far cry from outlawing any possible offense to groups carrying a grudge with both hands.”
Referencing an “urban legend” about how one newspaper ruled that no one could write the word “black,” resulting in some bizarre ads for discounts on “African American Friday,” he says that “true or not, it’s symptomatic of autocorrectitis and the takeover of the mindless Autobrain Wordwatching Society.”
But beyond the ridiculous, Schiller worries about a more deep-rooted danger. “We have adopted as official language what Orwell called Newspeak — ‘designed not to extend but to diminish the range of thought.’”
Harav Moshe Tuvia Lieff on Clean Speech
The Gemara in Pesachim 3B discusses the idea of clean speech. Why is lashon nekiyah so necessary? Because your speech represents who you are.
The Gemara tells a story of someone who used improper language. They researched his background and found him to be a Kohen passul.
The Torah, describing a non-kosher animal, says asher einena tehorah, rather than simply saying, temei’ah. The Torah is meticulous in every extra letter. It avoids using the word temei’ah and adds extra wordage to avoid improper speech.
Here in America, we have a saying, “You are what you eat.” We can add to that and say, you are defined by how you speak.
When I was in kollel in Telshe, a respected Rebbetzin there shared a story about how her mother once told her, “You don’t sound like yourself; you are using language you never would have used before.” It turned out that she had become friendly with another young woman whose speech was unrefined, and it had an impact on her. She checked herself, and realized she had been affected.
V’haarev na, in Birchos Hashachar, requests, “Make Torah sweet in my mouth.” The question is, it’s Torah! It’s already sweet. Why do we need to make it sweet in our mouths? If a person’s mouth is bitter, then the sweetest food tastes bitter. Nivul peh or lashon hara sours the mouth. We daven at the beginning of our day, v’haarev na — cleanse our pallet so that the Torah tastes sweet. Torah and Chazal put a very heavy emphasis on refined speech, to the extent that the Torah uses asher einena tehorah rather than temei’ah even when describing an impure animal.
We don’t set our standard by the world. The world sets its standard by us. A Jew has to recognize the need to take certain words and topics off the table. Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l, would say, people used to speak lashon hara retail, about the individual. Today it’s wholesale, about entire communities. In one stroke, you just spoke evil about 100,000 people.
Each Jew represents Klal Yisrael, and ultimately Hakadosh Baruch Hu. We need to tighten up the words that have slipped into our jargon. It’s unnecessary to get into the particulars, but rather, let’s focus on the spirit of what those words represent.
The passuk (Devarim 16:3) tells us to “remember the day when you came forth out of the land of Mitzrayim all the days of your life.” We can reflect upon the Yidden in Mitzrayim who didn’t change their language, despite two centuries in a foreign culture. They were identifiable as Jews by their speech.
When the sar hamashkim introduced Yosef to Pharaoh, he said, “He does not speak our language.” We know that Yosef spoke 70 languages, and he communicated with Pharaoh in Egyptian. How could the sar hamashkim say something so false? What did the sar hamashkim mean? He was saying, Yosef doesn’t speak our shprach. It’s not our style of communicating.
That’s the gist of what has to be done. We don’t need to pick up 50 words and put them on the no-say list. It’s about changing the flavor and style of our speech. Think to yourself, would you say this in front of your mother, your grandmother, your Rav, your morah? As Torah-observant Yidden, we have no choice. We must do better.
And about each of us, the outside world should say, “He doesn’t speak our language.”
From The Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation
Mrs. Shaindy Appelbaum, Editorial Director at Chofetz Chaim Heritage Foundation, with a few thoughts:
She clearly feels strongly about the subject, and stresses its unholy intent. “This movement within the broader culture is not about improving levels of sensitivity and kindness, but about control, victimhood, and projecting virtue while acting without virtue,” she says. “This is the same culture, the same sort of people who think it is kindness to euthanize the elderly and infirm, among other crimes. You can’t accept any aspect of their definition of sensitivity.”
She references a well-known story told by Harav Yitzchak Hutner, zt”l.
At one point during his years in Yeshivas Slabodka, Harav Avram Elya Kaplan, zt”l, had just returned from Germany, and the Alter of Slabodka, zt”l, invited him to share his impressions of German society.
Rav Kaplan described the Germans as a “kind and refined people,” citing as an example that, when asked for directions, a German will give precise instructions followed by the phrase, “Nicht wahr? (is it not so?),” although the other person obviously does not know the directions, hence the question in the first place. A German will use this deferential tone because of his cultured refinement, he explained.
This sparked a debate among the students, some of whom supported this position, while others, including the young Rav Hutner, argued that behavior and middos should be culled only from the holy Torah, the only embodiment of emes on this earth. Outside “culture,” even with its polish, might cloak something scuffed and filthy.
One student strongly disagreed, arguing that “a wise person learns from everyone,” and that the Germans’ “nicht wahr” was a demonstration of modesty and virtue.
Nearly five decades down the road, Rav Hutner was approached by an elderly man. “You don’t remember me,” he said. “I am that fellow student from Slabodka who once admired German refinement.”
Rav Hutner reached out to shake the gentleman’s hand, only to discover the hand was missing.
“I lost it in the camps,” he explained. “And when the Nazi was sawing it off, he kept repeating, ‘This is hurting you, nicht wahr? The pain is intense, nicht wahr?’ And even as I was screaming as if my lungs would burst, he was smiling all the time. Such a gentle, refined smile. Reb Yitzchak, you were right, and I was wrong.” (This story was told by Rabbi Yissocher Frand for Aish Hatorah, although it appears in different places as well.)
Mrs. Appelbaum continues. “This story comes to mind when watching today’s ‘offensive words’ lists proliferating, a veneer of polish hiding something scuffed. It is not sensitivity training, it’s cultural retraining — creating sensitivity and tolerance for what they want you to be tolerant of, however abhorrent it may be according to Torah.”
We would do well as Yidden to hold fast to our Torah and the halachos of actual shemiras halashon and onaas devarim, so that the ever-accelerating downward spiral of the world around us in its many pseudosensitive disguises does not lure us away from our upward path toward redemption, when “our mouths will be full of laughter and our tongues full of joy.”
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