No Offense

An English assignment showed that cancel culture is demonizing harmless words.

Alan Schaeffer, Sports Editor

Cancel culture has been a major topic of discussion in recent years, as celebrities or businesses have often come under scrutiny for making comments that are deemed offensive or insensitive. One of the most prominent examples is Kanye West, who lost major deals with Adidas after posting a number of antisemitic tweets. 

When my AP Lang class first discussed Stanford’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative , I was concerned, but far from surprised to find out that someone had made an expansive list of words that are no longer politically correct. 

Controversy over the list forced it to be taken down, just a day after a critical article from the Wall Street Journal shed light on it.

At Branham, posters made by the Ethnic Literature class caused schoolwide controversy last year, another example of some people taking offense to something that was not made to offend.

According to the Stanford IT Community’s website, the goal of the initiative was “to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code.”

The list is broken down into 10 categories; “Ableist,” “Ageism,” “Colonialism,” “Culturally Appropriative,” “Gender-Based,” “Imprecise Language,” “Institutionalized Racism,” “Person-First,” “Violent” and “Additional Considerations.”

Some phrases that it highlights as offensive are reasonable and are widely considered to be slurs or not politically correct. For instance, the r-word is described as a “slur against those who are neurodivergent or have a cognitive disability.”

At a school like Branham, with a high population of special education students, words like this are insensitive to members of the community.

Other words on the list aren’t as well known to be offensive, but are brought to attention in the initiative. The phrase “Long time no see” was originally a mockery of Chinese immigrants who didn’t speak English very well. The list suggests avoiding phrases such as this one due to their racist or offensive backgrounds.

Although many words and phrases are well within reason and deserving of their place, there are others that make me struggle to take the list seriously. It suggests that, instead of referring to things as a “walk-in” appointment, one should refer to them as “drop-in” or “open-office” appointments because the phrase walk-in is “ableist language that trivializes people living with disabilities.”

In December, The Wall Street Journal called out the EHLI in an editorial, ridiculing inclusions to the list such as “American” and “blind study.” Reporters from multiple other news sources have spoken on the matter too, including Fox News’ Jeanine Pirro and USA Today’s Ingrid Jacques. 

Despite being taken down, an uploaded PDF of the initiative can still be found on the WSJ website.

As many journalists have already pointed out, the EHLI is a reflection of the new wave of hyper-sensitivity amongst society. While it is a good thing that we are starting to acknowledge the harm that some words can cause, it is being taken too far.

Cancel culture in itself has stepped far beyond its bounds. Initially, cancel culture was responsible for deplatforming prominent people with harmful and insensitive views, but now it almost seems that it is erasing parts of history. Take the recent issues with Roald Dahl for example. Publishers want to edit parts of his books due to concerns over fat shaming in their writing, but is this all that necessary?

Censoring literature and judging the correctness of it by modern standards ignores the lessons that it teaches. Books like Roald Dahl’s and Dr. Seuss’ serve as examples of how far we have come in terms of understanding and inclusivity. While of course, “Birth of a Nation” is certainly not the right film to choose for family movie nights, reading “What I Saw on Mulberry Street” to children before bed can’t do any harm when it is being used to teach about racial stereotyping.