Censorship at Stanford University

Illustration of banned words from Stanford University IT document by Samuel Marsh
Illustration by Samuel Marsh

In light of diversity, equity, and inclusion, society is waking up to the fact that words matter. Whoever said, “sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt,” lied. Politically, the left will tell you to be mindful of what you say, while the right will tell you to stop being overly sensitive. As with many issues, the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

Last month, Stanford University’s IT community released a 13-page document called the “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” The goal was to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased language in Stanford websites and code.

This should not be a surprise as the history of certain terms and figures of speech is becoming known. But plenty of controversial words on this list are simply a poor attempt at social justice. Please be advised that some terms in this article can be offensive, and readers should continue at their own risk.

Thankfully, the document lists words that are clearly offensive like retard, shemale, tranny, half-breed, and others that should be avoided.

Retard is a nasty slur towards those with cognitive disabilities. Half-breed has clearly a negative connotation towards those of mixed race. Shemale and tranny can also be used as slurs and can put a label on transgender people, in effect making their gender synonymous with their identity. Interestingly, the Stanford document notes that some members of the LGBTQ+ community sometimes use both terms to describe themselves.

However, Stanford started to receive backlash when it was reported that “American” was one of the banned words. Instead of American, the document says to consider using U.S. citizen: “This term often refers to people from the United States only, thereby insinuating that the U.S. is the most important country in the Americas (which is actually made up of 42 countries).”

What if an immigrant from the Americas wants to call themselves an American? Speaking of the word immigrant, the document says to consider instead using “person who has immigrated” or “non-citizen.”

Previously, it was recommended to use “U.S. citizen”; then, we’re told to use “non-citizen.” In this context, non-citizen sure sounds demeaning.

Do you know the blank space on a piece of paper called whitespace? Instead of using that term, we should consider using empty space because it assigns value connotations based on color (white = good), an act which is subconsciously racialized. What if you have a black and white photo and are trying to describe the spaces in the photo that are not black and also not empty?
This document says we should consider using “content notes” instead of trigger warnings. This is because the phrase “trigger warning” can cause stress about what’s to follow. Isn’t that the point of saying trigger warning? It’s a fair warning to readers that the following information can cause stress. Doesn’t “content note” fail to provide any warning that potentially offensive material follows?

The document says, instead of using African-American, consider using Black. According to the document, “Black people who were born in the United States can interpret hyphenating their identity as othering. As with many of the terms we’re highlighting, some people do prefer to use/be addressed by this term, so it’s best to ask a person which term they prefer to have used when addressing them.”

What is interesting is that the document makes an assumption about race while trying to promote anti-racism. The document reduces racial identity to one of two options: African-American or Black.

The Stanford document does provide some meaningful historical context for terms like black sheep, black mark, master, and grandfathered. These terms assign negative connotations to the color black. Master has ties to the owners of slaves, and grandfathered has roots in the grandfather clause adopted by Southern states to deny voting rights to Blacks.

Ironically, being put on a banned list can actually create more attention on the banned word.

This document quickly caused controversy on social media and made it to national news outlets. Stanford University officials responded two days after releasing it, saying: “Over the last couple of days, there has been much discussion of a website that provides advice for the IT community at Stanford about word choices in Stanford websites and code. This message seeks to provide clarification about some of the issues discussed.

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.

We have particularly heard concerns about the guide’s treatment of the term ‘American.’ We understand and appreciate those concerns. To be very clear, not only is the use of the term ‘American’ not banned at Stanford, it is absolutely welcomed. The intent of this particular entry on the EHLI website was to provide perspective on how the term may be imprecise in some specific uses, and to show that in some cases the alternate term ‘U.S. citizen’ may be more precise and appropriate. But, we clearly missed the mark in this presentation.

This guide for the university’s IT community is undergoing continual review. The spirit behind it, from the beginning, has been to be responsive to feedback and to consider adjustments based on that feedback. We value the input we have been hearing, from a variety of perspectives, and will be reviewing it thoroughly and making adjustments to the guide.”

On January 4, Stanford released a second statement.

“The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) was an effort co-sponsored by the Stanford CIO Council and the People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group. This initiative was catalyzed by events at the national and campus level during 2020. It was created by and for the IT community, not the broader community, and intended as a guide, not a mandate. More specifically, EHLI was created to address racist terms historically used in IT, such as ‘master’ and ‘slave’ to describe aspects of systems. The initiative’s scope of “racist terminology in technology” was later expanded more broadly as ‘harmful language in technology.’ It was this expansion in scope that is at the heart of the intense recent feedback from the Stanford community and beyond.

The Stanford IT community remains steadfast in its commitment to the university’s values of diversity and inclusion. The primary motivation of this initiative was always to promote a more inclusive and welcoming environment where individuals from all backgrounds feel they belong. The feedback that this work was broadly viewed as counter to inclusivity means we missed the intended mark. It is for this reason that we have taken down the EHLI site. The path forward will be determined after reviewing all recent feedback and consulting with university academic and administrative leadership. All efforts will be guided by Stanford’s commitment to academic freedom.”

Stanford has since taken the document down, only allowing those with a Stanford ID and password to view it. But, The Wall Street Journal has a saved PDF on their site.

Social justice is a noble cause, and we have a long way to go. But censorship may have the opposite effect. While learning about how terms may be used in derogatory and harmful ways or have a history of negative connotations can help, banning such words can be counterproductive.

Words have the power to start disagreements, serious fights, and harmful conspiracy theories. They also have the power to help us to understand each other and each other’s histories, and, in the process, make our world a better place.