Impulsive Censorship: Banning Words and Prescribing Expressions to Protect Us from Ourselves

By Julia Swerdin

Influential American institutions have recently targeted language in everyday speech, and it is not merely slurs or epithets that are being condemned. Household words and phrases that had been considered benign for decades or even centuries have suddenly been deemed “harmful” by some critics. Gendered language has also come under scrutiny, upending cultural norms and, at times, the very foundations of a language itself.

The efforts might be traced to what a 2021 analysis at New York University found was an increase in liberal attitudes and behaviors among Americans over the last 50 years (except when it comes to politics). That liberalism would naturally bring heightened concern about social justice. But certain attempts to enhance social justice have resulted in blunders that, in the name of inclusivity, inadvertently and/or impulsively limit Free Speech. 

Historically, a commitment to Free Speech and efforts to improve society have coexisted as mainstays of university culture. Recently published “suggested language” lists, however, are challenging the status quo. The lists, which aim to provide alternatives for words and phrases that could be considered “harmful,”  often in the name of promoting diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI), have sometimes created alarming restrictions on speech. And governments in the United States and abroad have gone so far as to restrict certain words from official use: Berkeley, California, prohibits gendered words such as “fireman” and “manhole” in its legal codes, and Hanover, Germany, removed gendered language from government correspondence, for example. This rising censorship raises questions about where such restrictions on often-innocuous words and terms will ultimately lead; rampant confusion may be the least bad of the possible outcomes. 

Examining why these measures fall short of their intended outcomes might help untangle the disarray and aid in preventing impulsive censorship from becoming a global trend. 

Say Goodbye to ‘Picnics’

In 2021, a group of students from the Brandeis University Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center (PARC) launched a project titled the “Oppressive Language List,” later retitled “Suggested Language List.” 

PARC, a confidential resource, aims to provide education, empowerment, and support for Brandeis students victimized, or connected to someone else who was, by violence, stalking, sexual assault, and harrassment. The “Suggested Language List” was created to consider “what phrases might cause harm” to the Brandeis community, grouping words into four categories: “Identity-Based,” “Violent Language,” “Language That Doesn’t Say What We Mean,” and “Culturally Appropriative Language.” 

While the initiative seems to have been created with good intentions, the final product was less effective at promoting DEI than it was at arbitrarily chilling speech. One word deemed violent was “picnic,” which PARC suggested should be replaced with “outdoor eating.” Who would have thought a word that elicits images of blissfully enjoying a meal on a blanket in a park would be condemned as “violent language?” According to PARC, the term “can be associated with lynchings of Black people in the United States, during which white spectators were said to have watched while eating.” 

What PARC fails to acknowledge is that “picnic” does not derive from the Jim Crow-era South, but rather 17th century France. Though white people were known to eat while observing lynchings, “picnic” has no direct connection to those murders of Black people. 

PARC similarly urges abandoning the phrase “going postal,” as it originates from a postal worker who murdered his coworkers in 1986. PARC does not, however, explain why the use of the phrase is problematic. Its etymology is not widely known, and colloquially, it is used to describe an outburst of anger without necessarily invoking a murderous connotation. 

Like the condemnation of “picnic,” eliminating the phrase “going postal” seems like an unnecessary and rash attempt at what some might consider “wokeness.” Erasing “going postal” from our speech will not decrease homicide rates, just as eliminating “picnic” will not quell racism and replacing “rule of thumb” with “general rule” (the former phrase allegedly relating to “old British law allowing men to beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb”) will not stem domestic violence. 

Next time you are out with friends, PARC also suggests swapping “crazy,” “insane,” and “wild” for “that’s bananas, wow!” as PARC feels it is ableist to use those three words, no matter the context. Is it really likely that referring to a rollercoaster ride as “crazy” would “trivialize the experiences of people living with mental health conditions?” At this rate, it seems likely PARC will one day come up with a reason why the phrase “that’s bananas” is itself offensive. 

The ultimate issue with PARC’s list is that it holds several innocuous words accountable for their most potentially harmful (and often far-fetched) interpretations. Any word can be twisted to provoke a dangerous message, but most of those targeted by PARC are used in everyday language that does not intend to discriminate, insult, or incite violence. The list makes mountains out of molehills and is an unproductive way to try to elevate civil discourse. 

In December 2022, following strong blowback and concerns of censorship, Stanford University killed its own “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” Similar to Brandeis’s effort, the Stanford website had been launched to target language used by the university’s IT community by providing alternatives for “harmful” words in technical communications. The list was part of a larger commitment to “stand in solidarity with the Black community at large” and support “transformative measures to increase representation and opportunities across the Stanford IT community for Blacks and other people of color.” 

Much like the Brandeis example, Stanford’s list included its own set of benign words and phrases, prompting criticism across the country. One critic, a prominent New York rabbi named Josh Yuter, questioned the list’s claim that the phrase “hip hip hooray” should be eliminated because of its alleged usage in Nazi Germany. 

“Until reading the initiative I had no idea that a variant of ‘hip-hip hooray’ was a German rallying cry during the Holocaust, and I suspect few others would as well,” Yuter said. “I cannot speak to traumas experienced by actual survivors, but I would be very surprised if ‘hip-hip hooray’ was passed down as intergenerational trauma to merit inclusion as being ‘harmful’ in any way.” 

Ongoing criticism forced Stanford to shut down the website and concede that the list had “missed the intended mark.” Interestingly, it had been inspired by Brandeis and influenced by similar initiatives from the University of Oregon, Wikipedia, University of Texas at Austin, Indiana University, and the University of San Francisco.

Unlike serious DEI reforms that produce measurable and positive impacts, suggested language lists prioritize incessant scrutiny of benign words and phrases. While Free Speech is protected by the First Amendment, public opinion is equally influential in shaping what we say; such lists may very well have an impact on how our speech is viewed by others.

The ‘Spiral of Silence’

According to a study conducted by Washington University in St. Louis, in the years from the 1950s era of McCarthyism to 2022, “the percentage of the American people not feeling free to express their views has tripled,” with at least four in 10 Americans now allegedly engaging in self-censorship. In the 1950s, a time defined by large-scale government investigations, unsubstantiated accusations, and unprecedented paranoia surrounding communism, Americans were less prone to censor themselves than they are today, the study asserts.

Its hypothesis is that self-censorship has not increased because of a growing fear of government persecution. Rather, it is a product of the “Spiral of Silence,” which theorizes that citizens suppress their views to maintain social harmony. This may indicate that social suppression is even stronger than governmental — a provocative and worrisome thought. The Pew Research Center found that Facebook users were more willing to share their beliefs if they thought their followers would agree with them, and were far less likely to discuss controversial topics on social media than in person. With the ever-growing prominence of the internet and social media platforms, fear of social and professional consequences can be as powerful as mandated censorship, despite documented instances of hateful and violent rhetoric on platforms like Twitter and Facebook. 

The International Encyclopedia of the Social and Behavioral Sciences defines censorship as the suppression or regulation of “content deemed to be offensive or harmful to public welfare.” By determining which ideas pose a threat to society, censorship “presupposes absolute standards which must not be violated” and is propagated not merely by policy, but also by public opinion. Even if words are not being banned, the fact that their substitution has been “suggested” can intimidate people into abandoning them, creating an effect similar to a legal prohibition.

Every time an influential institution, such as an elite university, declares that certain benign words are “harmful,” “violent,” “culturally appropriative” or “ageist,” the scope of what people can say without fear of social retribution becomes narrower.  

From Self-Censorship to Government Mandates

In a related phenomenon, the debate over gendered language has taken center stage in legislation across the globe and, predictably, has caused confusion. 

Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), the former speaker of the house, attempted to replace gendered language in the House Rules. On Jan. 4, 2021, House Resolution 8 passed along party lines, intending to change all gendered pronouns and descriptions of familial relationships to make them gender neutral. Words struck from the House Rules included, but were not limited to, “father, mother, son, daughter, brother, sister, uncle, aunt, first cousin,” as well as “seaman” and “chairman.” 

However, days later, Pelosi apparently forgot about the new policy when she stood before the House and called herself “a wife, a mother, a grandmother, a daughter.” The slip-up reveals that it is not easy suddenly to alter basic identifying language. But while Pelosi’s resolution was not effective, studies have found that gender-neutral language can sometimes combat patriarchal and sexist perceptions. According to the National Library of Medicine, gender-neutral pronouns can promote gender equality and tolerance toward transgender and nonbinary people. 

In July 2019, Berkeley, California, agreed to remove all gendered, “male-centric,” language from its municipal code. The word “manhole” was changed to “maintenance hole,” “firemen” to “firefighters,” “brother” to “sibling,” and “manpower” to “human effort.” Gendered pronouns like “she” and “he” were replaced by the gender-neutral “they.” For English speakers, the changes are decently straightforward. But for speakers of French, German, and Spanish, languages that mark gender not only in pronouns, but also in nouns, verbs, and adjectives, the shift to gender neutrality may be more complex. 

Debates have erupted across the world over whether gendered language restrictions could realistically succeed for cultures shaped by gendered concepts. In 2019, Hanover, Germany, began to require gender-neutral language in all forms of “official communication,” such as emails and posters. Itl mandated that people use a “gender star,” an asterisk, in place of a noun’s masculine or feminine signifier. The gender-neutral word for citizen became Bürger*innen. 

“How do you pronounce a word with an asterisk or a colon in the middle?” Esme Nicholson of NPR asked, suggesting a potential issue that German speakers might run into with certain gender-neutral words.  

In Argentina, as well as the United States, some Spanish speakers have used the symbol “@” or the letter “x” in place of the masculine “o” and feminine “a.” For instance, the word “Latino/a” can be written as “Latinx.” In June 2022, arguing that gender-neutral substitutes hinder students’ reading comprehension, Buenos Aires, the Argentine capital, banned teachers from using them in class and in school communications. 

The use of “Latinx” has also received backlash from American officials. In January 2023, the newly elected Arkansas governor, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, banned the word from government documents. She deemed the word “ethnically insensitive and pejorative,” though it wasn’t clear why. She cited Pew Research findings that “only three percent of American Latinos and Hispanics use the word ‘Latinx’ to describe themselves.”

On the Democratic side of the aisle, Connecticut Sate Rep. Geraldo Reyes Jr. introduced a bill to bar the use of “Latinx” in government and state education documents. Arizona Rep. Ruben Gallego (D) also rejected the word, because he felt it had been imposed by outsiders on the Spanish-speaking community.

Resistance to gender-neutral initiatives might indicate that people are reluctant to alter the foundations of language. Despite the potential for gender-neutral language to increase equity and acceptance for trans and nonbinary people, it often proves difficult to put into practice. One must weigh the pros and cons of gender-neutral language, the pros including greater support for people who do not identify specifically with a male or female gender, and the cons including impeding the most central purpose of language:  clear and effective communication of ideas.

Where Does This Leave Us?

If we inspect every word, phrase, and euphemism for racist, ageist, classist — insert any “-ist” — undertones, we risk sending ourselves on a “harmful” language witch hunt. Instead of achieving inclusivity, self-censorship initiatives like suggested language lists have been ridiculed, as attempts to censor innocuous words have often led to societal mistrust, fear, and hostility. 

In America, gender-neutral language may be legitimately implemented in an effective manner to  challenge sexist and anti-LGBTQ attitudes. But for some other countries, where language is inseparable from gender, a more complex challenge may lie ahead.

Ultimately, institutions must come to a good-faith consensus about what suggested language lists and mandated expression aim to accomplish. The first step at constructing a more acceptable system might be to do away with inconsequential words and phrases from these lists. 

But if one thing remains clear from these well-intentioned efforts to erase offensive parlance from our interactions, it is that intense scrutiny on benign words leaves no one safe from censorship. If we eliminate picnics today, what will be in the crosshairs tomorrow?