The University of New Hampshire has removed a “Bias-Free Language Guide” from its website, following controversy over the guide’s list of offensive terms, including the word “American.”
Following the guide, which had been on the university’s Inclusive Excellence website since 2013, was not an absolute requirement, but it advised students and professors on preferred terminology to avoid problematic rhetoric. This included replacing terms such as “poor person” (preferred term: “person experiencing poverty”), “American” (“U.S. citizen or Resident of the U.S.”), and “opposite sex” (preferred term: “other sex”). The guide labeled these preferred terms as “communication that does not stereotype or demean people based on personal characteristics,” arguing that using the guide would create “dialogues of inclusion where all of us feel comfortable and welcomed.”
However, in a statement released last week, Mark Huddleston, president of the university, distanced the institution from the guide. In a press release, Huddleston explained that he was “surprised and unhappy” that there was not a distinction between official UNH policies and content reflecting the opinions of staff on university webpages: “While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in this guide are NOT the policy of the University of New Hampshire.”
The controversy surrounding the guide comes in the middle of a continuing national conversation over what free speech should look like on college campuses. Language guides, such as the one at the University of New Hampshire, are quickly joining a debate that already includes the use of trigger warnings and safe spaces. But perhaps it is not just a question of whether these products should exist, and rather a question of their intended outcomes, and how effective they are at achieving such goals.
The argument for using “person-first” terminology is a compelling one, as it puts the person ahead of the characteristic, but changing language to meet this criterion doesn’t remove the biases some seek to eradicate. Replacing the term “elderly” with “person of advanced age” still makes one’s age his or her defining trait. Replacing “obese” with “person of size” can be inaccurate, as everyone has a size. As a matter of education, language is not simply present. Words have a history—one that can be used to educate why rhetoric can, or may, be problematic.
Though many have been critical of the Bias-Free Language Guide, it was President Huddleston that delivered the most incisive statement on the issue: “The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses. It is ironic that what was probably a well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.”