When 2021 began, I thought it was a year destined for quiet and change, one that I could devote to other literary pursuits. All I’d need to do, I supposed, was collect the few stories of the sort of offenders of the month who typically outwit themselves. Now, with 2021 just hours from seeping away, my report.
January to May
By now it’s conventional wisdom that it’s left-leaning professors, students, and political action groups who pose a threat to American free-speech traditions through their hypersensitivity and promotion of politically-correct culture. To a point, the charge may even occasionally be true. But every once in a while, events unfold in such a way to show that the aversion to mockery, derision, and put-downs is a universal feeling, affecting even stalwart libertarians who ordinarily exalt free-speech principles over free-speech outcomes. Witness the spectacle of Stanford University Law School’s moment of stupidity.
About three weeks after the lethal mob attack on the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, Nicholas Wallace, a third-year law student at Stanford, emailed fellow students a satirical flyer announcing a mock event titled “The Originalist Case for Inciting Insurrection.” The flyer claimed to be from Stanford’s chapter of the Federalist Society, a well-known libertarian organization, largely based at American law schools, that promotes conservative legal principles and judicial appointments. The flyer attacked, by name, U.S. Senator Josh Hawley (R-MO) and Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton, both major supporters of the laughable claim that the 2020 presidential election was stolen. The flyer’s tone was wildly over the top, advising students that they would be emailed riot information hours before the event, and calmly proclaiming that even though it conflicted with the rule of law, “violent insurrection can be an effective approach to upholding the principle of limited government.”
In late March, Federalist chapter officers protested to the university that its members had been defamed and otherwise harmed in significant ways. On May 27, five days after the society pressed the university to act (or so the university said), Stanford officials notified Wallace that his degree, due to be awarded just fifteen days later, might be held up because of possible misconduct in circulating the flyers. Six days later, on June 2, Stanford relented. According to newspaper accounts, the university’s legal counsel told its law school administrators what you might have supposed law school administrators would already know, that Wallace’s email was legally protected speech. Stanford said it would reassess its procedures for holding up diplomas under such circumstances.
Words Decreed Offensive by Faux Philologists — or, on Second Thought . . .
An office called the Prevention, Advocacy, and Resource Center (PARC) of Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, published an Oppressive Language List — words henceforth to be understood as verboten because immutably offensive. Some of the censured words you’d figure: “policeman,” “Congressman.” They ring the gender bell. Some you’d extrapolate to: “freshman.” Some you’d figure if you took your history from folklore: “rule of thumb.” Some you’d likely grin at: “trigger warning” (reeks of guns). Some are strained through the kind of conversations we all had in our college freshman, er, first year (didn’t you?), about the nature of morality and guesses about human behavior: isn’t it obvious that it makes you morally purer to refer to someone as an “unhoused person” than as a “homeless person”?
The list was almost immediately attacked. Writing in the The Atlantic, linguist John McWhorter noted its swirling inconsistencies and oddities: why is it wrong to say “homeless person” if it’s right to say “enslaved person”? Is it really better to eschew “cancer survivor” and say “a person who has been impacted by cancer”? Of the hundred, perhaps thousands, of responses that followed, many conveying a sense of incredulity or outrage, most mistakenly conflated PARC with Brandeis itself and erroneously asserted that Brandeis had actually banned these words and phrases. The list in its initial form didn’t last long. It was quickly noted that Brandeis has a university-wide institutional free-speech policy that would seemingly shatter if it came into contact with PARC’s list, and in any event PARC does not make university policy.
By September, the list was gone from the general university website, moved to a standalone space, and renamed the Suggested Language List. Some of the original taboos were retained: Say “they” unless given permission to refer to someone as “she” or “he.” Instead of “Ladies and Gentleman,” say something like “Y’all” (no advice given on whether to use with a southern inflection and whether it is therefore truly inclusive or reeks of an implied racism). Don’t say “walk-in”; say “drop-in.” Replace “handicapped space” with “accessible space.” Avoid “people of color”; say “Bipoc.” Stay away from both “victim” and “survivor”; say, instead: “person who has experienced. . . .” You should prefer “outdoor eating” to having a “picnic,” since picnic immediately triggers, er, signals, lynching (because, you nincompoops, white spectators ate picnic lunches while watching blacks being hanged; “lynching,” though, did not make the list). Don’t say “killing two birds with one stone”; say “feeding two birds with one seed” (even though the two are not equivalent thoughts). No word (that I can find) on whether anyone follows the suggestions.
In case you have an archaic view of childbirth
During July came reports that a professor “at a top medical school in the University of California system” stopped his lecture to apologize for using the phrase “pregnant women.” It seems he should have used the term “pregnant people,” since otherwise he’d be implying “that only women can get pregnant.” If you have been ignoring the language wars, or the gender terminology wars, or the conventions of early 21st-century left-wing politically-correct speak, you can be forgiven for not understanding the landmine onto which the hapless professor stepped. This particular terminological flap arises from the transgender community, in which the controversies over language are particularly white hot (beware, for example, the older word “transsexual,” now reviled by some, though apparently not all, trans men and women). Hence the claim that to say “only women can be pregnant” is offensive: it implies that a trans man is not a man, even though pregnant.
But that’s not all of it. The professor’s more astonishing assertion followed: “It was certainly not my intention to offend anyone. The worst thing that I can do as a human being is to be offensive.” Really? “The worst thing?” A doctor could misdiagnose, misprescribe. A surgeon could bollix up an operation, slice out an organ, infect a patient. A police officer could, heaven forfend, wrongly shoot, club, or strangle someone, perhaps even for appearing in an all-black holiday commercial (see November below). A politician might unlawfully cut health and welfare spending on populations that rely on the funds. Parents might abuse their children. Armies might go to war. What can you imagine that might be worse than offending someone’s sensibilities?
The personal peril of confronting Indignity one glyph at a time
You can ponder this one for yourself. Dr. Linda Manyguns, associate vp for indigenization and decolonization at Mount Royal University in Calgary, Canada, announced at the end of August that she was joining the “lowercase movement.” (Various reports spell her name “Many Guns.”) Thenceforth, she declared, she would no longer render her name, or for that matter any other word, except “Indigenous,” with a capital letter, because capital letters are “symbols of hierarchy” and are complicit in oppression. Okay, but still. For staking out her position, Manyguns was quickly awarded death and mayhem threats, perhaps 3,000 within weeks of her announcement. Not much of a contest over who placed first in the Offensiveness Sweepstakes. I’d say a tie for the first 3,000 threats. There’s a phrase from the classic 1984 movie War Games that rattles around in some portion of my head after encountering responses to announcements like Manyguns’. Would that it had been uttered this summer: “How about a nice game of chess?”
I apologize but I’d do it again
Logan Dorn is a God-fearing man, who, compelled by “righteous anger,” took it upon himself to chastise a group of nine teenage girls on a northern Colorado beach for wearing bikinis, which he likened to pornography. His tactical mistakes were two-fold: (a) He didn’t just ask the teenagers to dress more modestly; he harangued them in what was characterized by the later commentators as “body shaming” harassment, despite the girls’ repeated request that he leave them alone. (b) He allowed himself to be videoed, and the video was posted to TikTok, where inevitably it went viral, and swiftly led his employer, Mighty Hand Construction, a “Christian construction company,” to fire him. Saying he would not apologize, he then apologized, and almost immediately declared that if given the opportunity he would do it again. I’m not sure what the lesson is here; perhaps that it’s best to make up your mind and stay off the beach.
The word “master” continues to erode. In October, Adobe, makers of the venerable page layout and design program, InDesign, changed the name of one of its central features, the “master page,” to “parent page.” A master (now parent) page is a means by which the designer can apply the design features of a particular type of page (for example, the first page of each chapter in a book) without imposing those features on the rest of the pages in the document. “Master” was the name from its earliest days, used in the sense of “principal.” Users who understood the intricacies of master pages were on their way to mastery of the program; now, the word “master” and its useful variants may be taking a not very graceful exit from the vocabulary of polite English speakers (everywhere?). Adobe was not the first to chip away at the word and its cognates. Various sources suggest much earlier demands. In 2003, Los Angeles County, for example, asked vendors of computer equipment to refrain from referring to master and slave components. In 2014, Drupal, makers of content management software, switched from “master/slave” to “primary/replica.” Twitter has been working on changing a host of words that are guilty by association with racist and otherwise offensive uses: “blacklist” is morphing into “denylist”; who was once “grandfathered” now is said to have “legacy status.”
Republican ward boss offers a Christmas raspberry
Lisa Leisy, county chairwoman of a bid by Idaho’s lieutenant governor to become the Republican candidate in the upcoming gubernatorial race, tweeted around Thanksgiving her disgust at a 15-second commercial showing a black father and daughter putting chocolate candy on cookies they were baking for Christmas. Leisy’s tweet read, in part: “I don’t support the new and improved #Hersheys #christmas black only commercial. Classic #commercial and they ruined it.” Leisy, who has also objected publicly to the commemoration of Juneteenth as a federal holiday, complained: “Guess we’re on our way to be a black nation ahead.” Yes, well on our way: just a few more holiday desserts subverted by their celebrants’ skin color. Dangerous combination, those Hershey’s kisses and black families celebrating in their holiday kitchens. Perhaps Ms. Leisy would support an ordinance against mixing kisses and cookies. Just the ticket for liberty-loving Idahoans.
Oh, those Louisiana politicians, ever decorous
Jeff Landry, the attorney general of Louisiana, used his state letterhead to write the president of Louisiana State University demanding that a tenured journalism professor be held accountable for tweeting a reference to one of the AG’s staffers as a “flunkie.” The professor (who perhaps should be rapped on the knuckles for misspelling “flunky” or at least for using a sub-variant spelling) was incensed that an assistant state AG showed up at a faculty senate meeting to read a letter from her boss, opposing proposals to stiffen LSU vaccination policies. The AG, a well-known anti-vaxxer gearing up to run for governor, went to the heart of the matter. His staffer, it seems, is an LSU alumna, and here was this LSU professor publicly disparaging a graduate of the university. Oh, the insensitivity! Such a lack of decorum! The AG was, perhaps surprisingly, vague about what sort of punishment fits the crime of speaking up in a public meeting about a public matter instigated by a public official, but he communicated his “expectation for accountability” and urged LSU to “do something to punish the professor.” It took until the next day for the president of LSU to release a statement pointing to LSU’s commitment to “the freedom to debate ideas and principles without interference.” Mostly ignored in the ensuing fuss was the AG’s declaration in his original letter that it would be a violation of state law to retaliate against a student “that chooses to dissent.” Evidently, according to the AG, Louisiana law either protects only students or else students can always be presumed to be polite. The next time I’m in New Orleans having a beignet and feel like dissenting, I’ll try to remember where and who I am.
* * *
There are many more worthy contestants for Offender of the Month, but I fear you grow weary of reading. That’s because I’m tiring myself out. I thought 2021 was a quiet year on the offensiveness front, but as I scroll through the hundreds of accounts I have archived of scores of claimed offensiveness, the list seems endless. And I haven’t even mentioned Paul Gosar, Marjorie Taylor Greene, or a series of far more troublesome cases that I hope to cover in the coming weeks: the reaction to Jason Kilborn and the continuing problem of the “slur on the slab,” the Yale Law School flap over a student’s claimed misuse of a word in an email invitation, the Sheng case at the University of Michigan concerning the showing of Laurence Olivier’s movie of Othello in blackface, Gordon Klein at the UCLA Anderson School of Management, suspended for a response to a request to provide “leniency” on a final exam following the death of George Floyd, and MIT’s cancellation of a speech by University of Chicago Professor Dorian Abbott, because of his views on affirmative action, a topic wholly unrelated to his forthcoming talk on climate change.
I therefore stand corrected. Offensiveness remained a major topic during a year that began in violence, promised renewal and hope, and is ending in unease.