Diane Ravitch: The Language Police

Roundup: Talking About History

Diane Ravitch, in the WSJ (Feb. 13, 2004):

While writing"The Language Police," I could not figure out why New York State had gone so far beyond other states in punctiliously carving out almost all references to race, gender, age and ethnicity, including even weight and height. In June 2002, the state was mightily embarrassed when reports appeared about its routine bowdlerizing on its exams of writers such as Franz Kafka and Isaac Bashevis Singer.

The solution to the puzzle was recently provided by Candace deRussy, a trustee of the State University of New York. Ms. DeRussy read"The Language Police," and she too wondered how the New York State Education Department had come to censor its regents exams with such zeal. She asked the department to explain how it decided which words to delete and how it trained its bias and sensitivity reviewers.

At one point, state officials said that since June 2002 (the time of the debacle) they have adhered to only one standard:"Test developers should strive to identify and eliminate language, symbols, words, phrases, and content that are generally regarded as offensive by members of racial, ethnic, gender, or other groups, except when judged to be necessary for adequate representation of the domain." Ms. DeRussy guessed (correctly) that the state was holding back the specific instructions that had emboldened the bowdlerizers. She decided to use the state's freedom-of-information law to find out more. Months later, a state official sent her the training materials for the bias and sensitivity reviewers, which included a list of words and phrases and a rationale for language policing.

So here is how New York made itself an international joke. The state's guidelines to language sensitivity, citing Rosalie Maggio's"The Bias-Free Wordfinder," says:"We may not always understand why a certain word hurts. We don't have to. It is enough that someone says, 'That language doesn't respect me.' " That is, if any word or phrase is likely to give anyone offense, no matter how far-fetched, it should be deleted.

Next the state asked:"Is it necessary to make reference to a person's age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, nationality, physical appearance, race, religion, sex, sexuality?" Since the answer is frequently no, nearly all references to such characteristics are eliminated. Because these matters loom large in history and literature--and because they help us to understand character, life circumstances and motives--their silent removal is bound to weaken or obliterate the reader's understanding.

Like every other governmental agency concerned with testing, the New York State Education Department devised its own list of taboo words. There are the usual ones that have offended feminists for a generation, like"fireman,""authoress,""handyman" and"hostess." New York exercised its leadership by discovering bias in such words as"addict" (replace with"individual with a drug addiction");"alumna, alumnae, alumni, alumnus" (replace with"graduate or graduates");"American" (replace with" citizen of the United States or North America");" cancer patient" (replace with"a patient with cancer");" city fathers" (replace with" city leaders").

Meanwhile, the word"elderly" should be replaced by"older adult" or"older person," if it is absolutely necessary to mention age at all."Gentleman's agreement" must be dropped in favor of an"informal agreement.""Ghetto" should be avoided; instead describe the social and economic circumstances of the neighborhood."Grandfather clause" is helplessly sexist;"retroactive coverage" is preferred instead. The term"illegal alien" must be replaced by"undocumented worker."

Certain words are unacceptable under any circumstances. For example, it is wrong to describe anyone as"illegitimate." Another word to be avoided is"illiterate." Instead, specify whether an individual is unable to read or write, or both. Similarly, any word that contains the three offensive letters"m-a-n" as a prefix or a suffix must be rousted out of the language. Words like"manhours,""manpower,""mankind" and"manmade" are regularly deleted. Even"penmanship," where the guilty three letters are in the middle of the word, is out.

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