Ridge Runner Chronicles: The Speech Police Are At It Again
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By Bill Hoagland
I wrote a column several weeks ago regarding Stanford University’s list of prohibited words and phrases. You might think I am “beating a dead horse” by continuing to talk about this list of prohibited words and phrases which, by the way, includes the phrase, “beating a dead horse,” but the truth is that stand-up comedians regard these speech police prohibitions as job security; they will be able to joke about these lists for years to come.
For example, one of the words on the Stanford list is “master” or any phrase that incorporates the word “master,” such as “master bedroom.” So does this mean that Stanford is no longer awarding a “Master’s Degree?” Is it now to be known as “the degree you get after the undergraduate degree and before you get the doctorate?” And do folks who have a Master’s Degree from Stanford have the option to get a revised diploma with the acceptable language on it free of charge? Not to be outdone, the University of Southern California recently jumped into the fray; the Department of Social Work there has officially stated that they will no longer use the word “field,” because it is allegedly offensive to anyone connected to farm labor. Instead of “field”, the speech police at USC say we should use the term “practicum.” Really? So instead of “playing the field,” I guess we are supposed to say “playing the practicum”—which sounds like something you might have done in ancient Rome but not on the campus of USC. Even my alma mater, the University of Michigan, has published a list of prohibited words that includes the words “picnic” and “brown bag.” Does this mean you can still bring a brown bag to a picnic but you are forbidden to say what you have clutched in your hand or where you are going with it?
On one hand, these pronouncements by the college speech police are humorous and will keep stand-up comedians in business for a long time but on the other hand, maybe they are not really that funny. That’s because some experts say that societal changes—good or bad— can sometimes be activated by modifications of language. If certain words are intentionally prohibited and eventually eliminated, does this also eliminate debate on topics related to the prohibited words? George Orwell certainly thought so. In his novel, “1984,” Orwell talked about “Newspeak,” the new acceptable language enforced by the speech police in his fictional society in lieu of “Oldspeak,” the newly prohibited language. As a government character in the book explained, “Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought. In the end we will make thoughtcrime literally impossible because there will be no words to express it… The Revolution will be complete when the language is perfect.”
For sure, we are a long way from a revolution resulting from the demands of the speech police, but it is interesting that George Orwell was referring to his own observations of not a fictional society but a real one.
• Bill Hoagland has practiced law in Alton for more than 50 years, but he has spent more than 70 years hunting, fishing and generally being in the great outdoors. His wife, Annie, shares his love of the outdoor life. Much of their spare time is spent on their farm in Calhoun County. Bill can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.