Friday, April 12, 2024
HomeCulture WarBanned words will never hurt me

Banned words will never hurt me


Last Sunday week TCW reported on Oxfam’s attempt to replace the words ‘mother’ and ‘father’ with ‘parent’, while Puffin has edited ‘offensive language’ from Roald Dahl’s children’s books. Not to be outdone, Stanford University’s IT department has published a ‘harmful language’ list which claims to be addressing systemic injustices and educating people about the possible impact of certain words.

The words ‘freshman’ and ‘fireman’ appear on Stanford’s list because ‘gender binary language’ is considered to be non-inclusive. ‘Master’ also made it to the list because of its historical relation to slavery. One can’t use the idiom ‘beating a dead horse’ because it ‘normalises violence against animals’. After this gem went viral and the university received much deserved criticism, the school’s administrators have since distanced themselves from the list. 

Puffin took a similarly woke approach when bowdlerising Dahl’s writings. In The Witches, for example, women were originally given roles such as supermarket cashiers and letter-writers. In the new politically correct version, the women have become business owners and scientists. I wonder what the cashiers and letter-writers of today would say about this change? Are their feelings not to be considered?

And just yesterday the Daily Mail reported that now it’s Agatha Christie’s turn for some updating. Her novels are being rewritten to avoid offending ‘modern audiences’. From Poirot to Miss Marple, Christie’s original passages that contain ‘insults or references to ethnicity’, are being reworked or removed by the publishers.  

This is not living in the real world. Reading is supposed to expand one’s culture and give a deeper understanding of the world and of history, while college is supposed to prepare young people for adulthood. Selectively sheltering students from so-called harmful words is counterproductive to these goals. A few recent events in my personal life tell me that not everyone has attended Stanford, nor have they received Puffin’s memo. And they don’t all read the Daily Mail either. 

One evening last month, while I was riding the subway home from work, a 20-something black man sitting across from me started telling me that I looked like a serial killer. ‘Come on, man, you know you got that serial killer look,’ he said repeatedly for the entirety of my 30-minute commute. Since I am a middle-aged white man, and the majority of serial killers are middle-aged white men, I guess he had a point. Much to his chagrin, I ignored him. He was looking for a fight, while I was hoping to maintain the peace I found when I entered the subway car. That’s life. Even though that ‘hate speech’ in reverse would trigger outrage.

A week or so later, walking up Third Avenue in Manhattan, I saw a crazed man splash a city-employed cleaning woman with soda from a can he was holding. As he walked away, he yelled at her, ‘Don’t mess with me, bitch!’ These are unpleasant life realities a world away from woke niceties. On the bright side a couple of bystanders quickly approached the startled woman with napkins and such so she could dry herself. 

And just last week, as I was walking through the Park Slope section of Brooklyn on a rainy night, I saw a man on a motorised scooter lose control, fall to the ground, and slide for nearly 20 feet. Another man and I ran over to help him. As we stood his scooter up and rolled it to the curb, we asked if he was OK. He said he’d be fine, but he did walk away with a slight limp.  

This is living in the real world. Yes, one does see nice and pretty things on a daily basis, but in order to see the good, one must risk a slur or witness someone being assaulted or see someone fall off a scooter. 

Theodore Dalrymple wrote of this word-banning issue: ‘If you treat people as eggshells, eggshells is what they will become.’ Which reminds me of an old joke: Why don’t eggs tell jokes? Because they’d crack each other up.

So, to paraphrase that old joke: Why don’t Stanford students leave campus? Because they’d crack.

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Thomas Lane
Thomas Lane
Thomas Lane is a writer who lives and works in New York City.

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