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The power of words

Stephanie Balzer
Stephanie Balzer

In December, Stanford University’s IT department published a list of words they suggested were sexist, racist, ableist, or otherwise harmful and should not be used in the department’s work. The news went viral. 

“The word ‘American’ was on it,” my brother-in-law said as we were walking the dog on Christmas eve.

“Really?” I asked. “That’s new. What are we supposed to say instead?” 

Language is evolving rapidly right now. Sometimes it feels impossible to keep up, and I’m a writer who pays attention. Imagine how frustrating this is for people who don’t work with words every day. 

But regardless of how you feel about it, I predict conversations about “inclusive language” will accelerate in 2023. 

Get ready – it’s going to be a wild ride. 

Institutions – including schools, universities, and agencies in Nevada – will likely follow Stanford’s lead in attempts to organize and standardize their inclusive language guidelines, in part because the words we use define our sectors, cultures, and brands. 

Right now, the changes are coming from everywhere.

Consider, in the past year, I learned from a candidate during a job interview that the term “master list” suggests the power of a master over a slave. A friend says “unhoused” instead of “homeless,” so now I do, too. And I heard from a podcaster that the expression, “Can I pick your brain?” is self-centered and gross.

Once these new contexts are pointed out, it becomes nearly impossible to unhear them. Do you know how many people will want to pick your brain now? Practically everyone. You’re welcome.

Stanford didn’t invent the idea of an inclusive language policy, but its first draft sure did shine a spotlight on the budding movement. And if one of the most intellectually rigorous universities in the nation can’t get its guidelines right, what hope is there for the rest of us? 

Or, maybe the backlash against Stanford is the catalyst we need to spur more creative solutions for ourselves. These are tricky puzzles to solve, but they’re not going away.

In fact, I think we’re just getting started. 

More articles on inclusive language began to crop up in 2022. It’s not a long list, but the publications – including LinkedIn, Deloitte’s blog, Harvard Business Review, and Fast Company – lend the topic validity.

There are some early-adopter organizations in Nevada, as well. The Nevada Arts Council has an inclusive language document informed by the National Assembly of State Arts Agencies. The Public Broadcasting Service, of which Vegas PBS is a member station, has Inclusive Language Guidelines. The University of Nevada-Reno has an Inclusion, Diversity, Equity, and Access Language Guide too. 

What I think we may be witnessing is a maturing of the diversity, equity, and inclusion, or DEI, field. To date, the initiatives to promote diversity and equity have seemed more rigorous, including improving hiring practices, addressing salary inequity, and expanding access to benefits for all.

But the strategies to promote “inclusion” have been blurrier, and I can say that because I wear glasses. 

Facilitating dialogue about language policies may be the next step.

Critics of this movement offer valid reasons why we should proceed with caution, however. Preserving freedom of speech is a big one. Also, words have different meanings depending on their context, so it can be tough to come up with widely accepted definitions. Finally, these changes are evolving so rapidly, how can guidelines or policies keep up?

I’m also left shaking my head at times. In an earlier draft of this piece, I wrote that it’s important not to “rake people over the coals” when they make word-choice mistakes. 

Then I thought, “Hmm. I better Google that expression.” 

Well, the Catholic Church would drag heretics over hot coals as a form of torture in the Middle Ages. If the suspected individuals were practicing witchcraft, they would not survive. 

Yikes! I don’t want to trigger the heretics.

When we look to take offense, we will usually find opportunities.  

I wonder if language models driven by artificial intelligence will be the answer one day. Here’s why: Nobody likes to be edited, including experienced writers. But people seem much less defensive when tools like Grammarly point out mistakes.

What if AI could identify potentially insensitive language, too? Then we’d be informed – and free – to consider the context of our word choices and their audiences. We could revise or override. 

But language models work through imitation. Right now, our job is to innovate. In this, I’m choosing to err on the side of compassion. 

In the 2000s, I spent a lot of time in the hospital with a dear friend who had cystic fibrosis, a progressive disease with no cure. I remember a particular doctor would refer to him as “a cystic” when talking to medical students on rounds.

I was so offended by this doctor’s arrogance. He had no concern for the impact of his words on others. Now I know that I wanted “person-first” language – I wanted him to refer to my friend as “a person with CF” and not by his disease

Revisions like this are more than silly grammar tweaks. When we change our words, we change our minds. Language isn’t a byproduct of our culture – it shapes it. 

That’s why institutional guidelines need to be developed with as much intention and editorial debate as possible. As Ameri—er, U.S. Citizens, we’re going to have to reason it out.

Stephanie Balzer is a writer and owner of Mission, a coaching and training company serving nonprofits and social entrepreneurs . She is also employed at UNLV, and has lived in Nevada since 2017. Follow her on Twitter @stephaniebalzer


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