Brandeis University publishes guidelines on use of ‘oppressive’ language

A group at Brandeis University published an “Oppressive Language List” to discourage campus community members from using language it deemed inappropriate or offensive. The list, which included words like “policeman” and “trigger warning,” provoked the ire of conservative lawmakers and media pundits who claimed the guidelines were but another example of universities attempting to control campus speech. 

Key Players

Students in the Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center (PARC) at Brandeis University compiled the list of offensive terms, which garnered national attention in June 2021. It is unclear when exactly the list was first published. The student-driven center aims to provide a “confidential, student-centered resource serving members of the Brandeis community who have been impacted by violence and those who want to contribute to the anti-violence movement.” 

Further Details

PARC said it created the list to encourage students to consider the negative undertones or history of some everyday terms, particularly those that imply violence or impact groups that have been victims of violence. 

“PARC recognizes that language is a powerful tool that can be used to perpetrate and perpetuate oppression,” the organization wrote. “As a community, we can strive to remove language that may hurt those who have experienced violence from our everyday use.”

The list is divided into five sections, including “Violent Language” and “Culturally Appropriative Language.” Each section identifies a supposedly problematic term, an alternative word, and an explanation for why the alternative is preferable. Students are also encouraged to submit suggestions of words to expand the list, according to Campus Reform

Some of the swaps include “person-first language,” like using “person without housing” instead of “homeless person.” Others include nongendered alternatives to common words, including “police officer” instead of “policeman.” One phrase that gained particular attention was the phrase “trigger warning,” which PARC takes umbrage with because “trigger” is a phrase connected to gun use. 

Columbia linguistics professor John McWhorter, writing in The Atlantic, questioned certain aspects of the list in an article titled “Even Trigger Warning Is Now Off-Limits.”

“The PARC list is 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,” McWhorter wrote. “It is quite unreasonable to suppose that the fundamentals of how language works will change, and too much of this PARC list is founded on just that expectation.”

The accuracy of the explanations for some of the listed words has also been called into question. For example, the common phrase “rule of thumb” is listed as a problematic term because of its supposed connection with an old British law that, according to the list, allowed men to “beat their wives with sticks no wider than their thumb.” However, as acknowledged in the explanation, no written record of the law exists and its very existence has repeatedly been challenged, including by McWhorter. Another factual inaccuracy led to removal of the word “picnic” from the list, according to The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Although the changes are recommended, there is no obligation or suggestion of a penalty for those in the Brandeis community who choose to ignore the guidelines. The introduction to the list stipulates that the suggested swaps are “not a university expectation, requirement or reflection of policy.”

Brandeis University has a page dedicated to its “Principles of Free Speech and Expression” and has stated that, regardless of the intention of the list, “the language you choose to use or not use is entirely up to you.”


Guidelines reignite debates about censorship on college campuses

Although the university is taking no action to enforce the use of language on the list, critics — particularly conservatives — have accused Brandeis of participating in a culture of censorship. Rep. Elise Stefanik (R), who  co-sponsored a bill that would prohibit universities receiving federal funds from enacting policies that infringe on Free Speech, described the list as “the Far-Left cancel culture happening in our schools,” according to reporting by The College Post.