It's a Festivus Debunking!
I have a lot of problems with this news story! And now you're gonna hear about 'em!
[Note: sorry, I am traveling over the holidays so I dashed this off as my first monolingual post. I would love to do a German version at some point, but couldn’t find the time.]
Christmas came early this year. Or maybe Festivus. Well, to be quite honest, I could have done without a perfect-storm “cancel culture” story about my own university bubbling up during the holidays. But it did, and here is me writing to you to explain why it’s bullshit. Like an archaic torso of Apollo this story stared me down during a week I had planned to use for some relaxing and decompressing and said: “you really should change your life.” But instead, here’s my holiday debunking.
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On the other hand, Christmas came early in the sense that this is a really neat specimen. There’s a little bit of excitement in that, beyond all the exasperation. Because it happened (and what “happened” means in this context is something I’ll explain in more detail below) at Stanford, which means I can show with quite a bit more precision how and by whom it was misrepresented in the retelling. And what’s really behind it.
I don’t know if you heard, but Stanford University banned the word “Americans”. It also banned a whole bunch of other words – “committed suicide”, “blind review”, “gangbusters”, “spirit animal”. Oh, and “Karen”? My best guess as to how this one started is this piece in the conservative Stanford Review. The title was: “Big Brother is Watching You: Stanford’s New ‘Harmful Language’ Guide.” The “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” then received wider circulation through a Wall Street Journal Editorial Board piece on December 19, linking to a list of allegedly prohibited words. To be fair: The WSJ Ed Board provides more detail about what this document actually is than the writers across the globe that began cribbing from them. But they still characterize the document’s impact as follows: “You can’t ‘master’ your subject at Stanford any longer; in case you hadn’t heard, the school instructs that ‘historically, masters enslaved people’.”
From there the news item began the inevitable game of global telephone: In the UK’s Daily Mail Maureen Callahan repeated the story as proof that “The coddled American mind is now curdled and sour.” The Daily Beast presented the story as “Orwellian”. Fox News ran with the story. The People’s Gazette in Abuja, Nigeria explained that “Stanford University has replaced the word ‘American’ with ‘US citizen’.”Before long, the story wound up on Russia’s Sputnik News. As the Twitter game of telephone got started, people proudly tweeted the word “American” at Stanford, implying that they were using a word that Stanford had told people not to use – including Stanford’s own Jay Bhattacharya.
Finally, the claim wound up in a German newspaper – because how could it not? In the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung, author Thomas Thiel presented the Stanford “blacklist” as the “intensification of a trend, to purge the world of words that raise the suspicion that there could be bad things in the world.” Here is the passage in full:
“You can’t say that the blacklist on ‘harmful language’ that currently circulates at Stanford University, is really all that surprising. It intensifies a trend to purge the world of words that raise the suspicion that there could be unpleasant things in the world. If you want to stick with the prohibitions listed in [the document’s] twelve pages, is no longer allowed to speak of prostitutes, but only about sex workers. There are no more slaves, only workers…” (FAZ, 12/22/22, p. 9)
I should say that none of what I am about to write should be taken as an endorsement of the list this story is about — I simply don’t know enough to say for sure what its authors intended and what I think about their goals and their way of going about achieving those goals. My point is a much simpler one: the people freaking out about the “blacklist” know even less than I do, and maybe they should have bothered to find out before, as Michael Hobbes put it on Twitter, “repackaging Fox News outrage bait”.
So let’s take this claim apart a little: did “Stanford” ban the word “slave”? As I write in my book, it’s always worth pausing when we’re told “X University” “banned” Y, and ask: who exactly? Who exactly banned it and how exactly did they ban it? US Universities are massive operations – a mid-sized investment firm more or less closely affiliated with a country club, a catering company, a resort, and a boarding school. I say that not to excuse the US university as an institution (I am deeply critical of this arrangement), but to point out that there’s a clear dispersal of agency within such a structure. Who within that organization even has the power to ban anything in any sense that we would recognize? Whom did they ban from doing or saying certain things?
This dispersal of agency has done work for the PC-panic for decades. John K. Wilson’s terrific book The Myth of Political Correctness pointed out how the moral panic around “speech codes” in the late 80s/early 90s drew on this same mechanism: it cast drafts and proposals (many of them as absurd on their face) as really existing rules; it pretended certain words were “prohibited” when in fact their use was just discouraged; it cast prose generated by some gopher in the university administration as being the official party line of “the” university; and it failed to acknowledge if proposed speech rules had been discarded, rescinded and overruled. Well, all I can say is: plus ça change, plus reset la même chose. And if anything, the university has become more many-tentacled a kraken since the period Wilson was describing.
So who do these various articles suggest is doing the banning? The WSJ wrote that “you can’t ‘master’ your subject at Stanford any longer; in case you hadn’t heard, the school instructs that ‘historically, masters enslaved people’.” The Daily Mail had an article that basically repeated the WSJ’s information, but added some new photographic materials. For instance, a picture of Stanford’s main quad (where our administration sits – Deans and Provosts and the like – and some of our most storied humanities departments), and a picture of the university’s president, Mark Tessier-Levigne. That would certainly suggest at least visually that some pretty core outfits within Stanford were behind the “ban.” Had the president forbidden the use of the word “Americans”? Had Stanford’s Department of Philosophy banned “prostitute”? Had sociology said goodbye to “Karen”? (And again: who would they forbid from using that word?)
I imagine you can see where this is going, but it’s still pretty important to go through these steps. Because my point is not that someone like Maureen Callahan or Thomas Thiel didn’t have all the information (or that I have more information than they did when they wrote their articles). My point is that the story “Stanford banned the word ‘American’” is nonsensical on its face – there is no “Stanford” that could “ban” the word “American”, unless we extend the meaning of each of these words so far as to be basically meaningless. So it’s not that writers needed to do more research; they ought to have recognized that the very process they were describing could not have occurred as described.
When I first read the story I at first couldn’t figure out who would do such a thing. Literally. There is simply no authority within Stanford that can tell me or my students not to use certain words. I do not, for instance, believe that I am barred from using any word in class, though I imagine the university wouldn’t exactly take my side if I were to utter certain words and somebody complained. I simply don’t know who would write to me: “Dear Adrian, we need you to stop saying the word X.” Again, it’s not that I don’t think my university would send such an email; it’s that I don’t even know who would see it as their role to send it and in what context.
So that’s the first clue that “Stanford” in the breathless coverage is probably a fake pars pro toto. Somebody who was indeed at Stanford had drawn up this list, and there was a deliberate shell game going on to turn that somebody into “Stanford University” tout court. But trying to find out who made me realize that the announcement of the policy likewise wasn’t an announcement of a policy. Several articles say that the university “announced” this; the WSJ correctly says that the document they linked to was from May, but doesn’t explain why the editors would lavish such attention on this document now.
As an important piece of background, I am notorious for getting myself signed up for way too university mailing lists and I am even worse at getting myself off of them once signed up. As a consequence my inbox has traditionally been an utter shambles. I also don’t delete emails, unless they’re literally spam. I currently have 13,755 emails in my inbox, and another 16,255 in a folder called “Clutter,” which Stanford’s email system pre-sorts as suspected spam. In those 29000 emails, the acronym “EHLI” or “elimination of harmful language” doesn’t appear once. If Stanford “announced” a policy “banning” use of the word “American”, surely it wouldn’t forget to tell its tenured faculty members to please stop using the word “American”. What kind of a “speech code” is it when you forget to, you know, tell people how to speak?
Just to make sure I hadn’t missed anything, I asked a student who likewise claims to be an email hoarder, and who is on both grad- and undergrad email lists, and a member of our tech staff who is on a ton of staff email lists to similarly search their inboxes. Nothing came up. So it seems really odd for Stanford to “announce” a policy and not to communicate this policy to any of the people at a university that the administration can conceivably tell what to do or say: not faculty, not undergraduates, not graduate students, not staff. Whom does that leave?
Well, it turns out it leaves the IT department. Another colleague I asked finally found the document linked in the WSJ story on a work channel on the workplace messaging app Slack, rather than an email, specifically a Slack Channel for Stanford IT. Not the Department of Computer Science, mind you. Not a student group, or faculty group, or administrative group. These are the nice folks who set up our laptops, maintain our servers, keep our software up-to-date, and keep us from clicking on phishing emails. They are wonderful people and pretty central to a functioning university, as far as I am concerned. But they are hardly representative of “the” university, as they’d likely be the first to admit.
Three things clicked into place for me once I got to look at the Slack conversation about the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative” group and its document. (i) The conversation was from June. Far from Stanford “announcing” a policy and then the WSJ reporting about it, a group of volunteers within the IT department appears to have put together this document, talked about it a bit over the early summer and then seems to have largely forgotten about it (or at least Slack-chatter about the doc died down). Until the WSJ dug it up – I wonder about the timing, but I can’t definitively comment on it. I have a few inquiries out, and will update if/when I hear back. (ii) The document appears to be a guide, not a policy. The discussions on Stanford’s Slack (all very positive, I should note) discuss it entirely as that; they solicit suggestions for “additions and changes” from other folks on the Stanford Slack.
(iii) Most importantly: The document doesn’t regulate what members of the IT department can say – again, I’m not sure there’s anyone at Stanford who would have that power. It doesn’t even propose regulation of employee speech. The document proposes (again: proposes) to regulate something that the IT department is also responsible for: what kind of language appears on Stanford’s official websites. So whether you teach at Stanford or study at Stanford, whether you work in IT at Stanford or write for the Stanford Review: you can absolutely use the word “American”. What the document circulated by the WSJ proposes is: if you work in IT, and if you are responsible for putting standardized language on official Stanford websites, maybe you should consider using the more precise term “US citizen”. And maybe also avoid the word “tr**ny”.
All of this can be gleaned from the document the WSJ so gleefully shared: the first paragraph explains who made the document – namely the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (ELHI)” as empowered by “the Stanford CIO Council (CIOC) and People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group”. Is this all acronym salad? Why, yes, and welcome to Stanford. But what does it mean? As best as I can tell, the CIO Council “provide[s] advice and counsel on university-wide technology strategy and direction”. It describes its mission repeatedly as informational on its website. It is “comprised of the senior-most technical leaders from major Stanford units that manage one of more substantial IT enterprises”. So this appears to be entirely an intra-IT thing – it’s Stanford’s large and diverse IT-community trying to hold itself accountable. You can find that necessary or not – it’s hard to see how it’s news.
The CIOC also notes that “the council strives to be transparent by publishing agendas and supporting materials on this website.” I’m guessing that they’re ruing that decision now, as I’d guess that’s exactly what this document was: an internal document shared in the spirit of transparency. Context that the Stanford Review and WSJ were careful to remove before launching its broadside. The second paragraph also makes clear what this document is: its aim is to “eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased […] language in Stanford websites and code.” Again, this may strike you as necessary or as overkill; it certainly strikes me as that with regard to some of these words at least. But once you’ve looked at the 13-page document on which the WSJ et al based their entire freakout, you will conclude by paragraph 2 that it doesn’t do what the critics imply it does.
Why am I dwelling on this? Because once again the cancel culture-freakers out have managed to make something absolutely quotidian seem somehow scary. This document is what is called a “style guide” in publishing, and the Wall Street Journal has it just as much as the Daily Mail and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. So Thomas Thiel or Maureen Callahan ought to be very familiar with this kind of document, but they conveniently forget that fact in the interest of being “unsurprised” by censorious US universities.
Secondly, this document is not about regulating individuals’ opinion, it’s about reputation management for the organization.*) It’s PR. It’s primarily about the University being a massive corporate entity and being terrified of being at the center of any bad publicity from any corner (mission accomplished, you guys!). You can hate that or be indifferent to it – it doesn’t change the fact that this is absolutely normal. Our corporate overlords are very loath to be associated with anything anyone is mad about ever, and we spend a lot of our collective time getting mad at corporations.
I claimed earlier that I am allowed to say just about anything in teaching, advising etc. I should have said: so long as I don’t utter the words “speaking for Stanford University”, especially if I utter them in a digital space where they can be preserved and circulated and easily taken out of context. That’s when the fun stops. I wouldn’t get fired, but I would be very clearly told not to do it. But not because the university is censorious, or at least not censorious in the sense that these writers think. Rather because it is incredibly risk-averse. And I am quite confident that the same would be true if someone tweeted “speaking for Glaxo Smith Kline here is my opinion on Israel”, or “speaking for Keurig, here’s my take on police brutality”, or “speaking for Adidas here are 3 things Putin gets right”. So again: you may think that’s pusillanimous and feckless, a sign of everything that’s wrong with Late Capitalism, the neoliberal university, or whatever. But it doesn’t change the fact that this is true for the vast majority of Americans employed by large corporations. If anything, Stanford’s websites are probably a bit more freewheeling than, say, the corporate pages of a car company, or Genentech, or your trusty neighborhood reinsurer.
Now: some of this may not be known to the authors – although I can’t help but notice that they could devote some of the time they spend bloviating about the US university to actually, you know, learning how it works. But there’s a more general disconnect here: as you spend time understanding what actually happened here, you realize how much bad faith is involved in misunderstanding events in this way. And how close all of this comes to misrepresentation. In many cases, you can tell that the writers sense it too. Poland’s TVP noted that “it is unclear exactly who was in charge of compiling the list for the EHLI”. Nice try, guys, the document says in paragraph 2, the members of these groups are freely accessible. What you meant to say was: we have an inkling that it wasn’t “the” university doing any of this, but we understand that looking that up would undercut the premise for our entire article.
Thomas Thiel in the FAZ, meanwhile, writes about “a blacklist about ‘harmful language’ currently circulating at Stanford University”: The sentence is absolutely overloaded with weasel words. Who is circulating it? Who authorized it? If it’s a “blacklist”, whose authority backs the blacklist? The phrasing is so nebulous as to suggest that the author had at least an inkling he was being fed bullshit. But it confirmed his priors, so why not further disseminate it. Plus, referring directly to the WSJ piece (as he does at the very end of the short piece), you have plausible deniability. The fact that that original piece appeared as an editorial on the WSJ’s opinion page (which isn’t fact checked, and in the case of WSJ, also happens to be batshit insane), whereas in the FAZ it’s in the Feuilleton and thus in a section that actually does journalism, doesn’t get mentioned either. The WSJ’s little bit of agitprop thus arrives for the readers of the FAZ with the imprimatur of news.
Above all, Thiel and the FAZ could have realized that the basis for his article was BS because – on December 20, so at least 36 hours before the article would have gone to print – Steve Gallagher, Stanford’s Chief Information Officer, released a statement explaining the document. Which laid out everything I’ve suggested was knowable in advance:
“First and importantly, the website does not represent university policy. It also does not represent mandates or requirements. The website was created by, and intended for discussion within, the IT community at Stanford. It provides ‘suggested alternatives’ for various terms, and reasons why those terms could be problematic in certain uses. Its aspiration, and the reason for its development, is to support an inclusive community.”
Now, does that mean I think the IT department’s language guide was a stroke of genius? No, not really. But again, I’d want to know way more before passing judgment (How was this document going to be integrated into the IT department’s work? What did they hope to get out of it? Which Stanford websites use the word “Karen”?). But what is knowable, or at least inferable, about this document even before getting definitive answers to those questions, is considerable. And it’s really telling how many of the texts that used this document for a quick little “cancel culture”-freakout didn’t bother to come to know or infer any of it. And more to the point: it’s striking with how much care they ensured that their readers wouldn’t know or infer any of it either.
*) I should note that some of the proposed language adjustments don’t seem to fit this pattern. Nor do I understand exactly how these biases would come out as part of coding — did the contributors mean literal computer code, or metaphors around networks (such as a “master document”)? Unclear to me. Feel free to let me know, if you think you have an idea. Still, looking over the document, I feel like in 95% of these cases the idea of replacing a word makes logical sense only when it comes to text on a website or, say, in emails the IT-department sends out.
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