Stanford University recently announced an updated policy designed with the intention of eliminating the use of harmful words and phrases. I first learned of the listing through Zero Hedge, which in turn accredited their interest on the subject to a posting on Twitter by Justine Moore. Since the tweet was simply a screenshot of part of the list, I embarked on the journey of finding more about the listing. It appears to be buried behind a firewall that limits access to staff and students of Stanford. But portions of the listing have appeared in Zero Hedge and other social media.
What was available to the public, however, was information on the initiative itself. Special thanks goes to The Daily Caller for posting the web address. My first observation was to dispel the notion that this was an initiative internal to the “IT Community.” In my past work with enterprise operations, IT personnel of all sorts were expected to be aware of web site publication standards. While not universally applied to all web postings, documents designed for the public, training and administrative purposes were expected to meet those standards and were reviewed prior to posting. So what Stanford has posted applies to everyone at Stanford because everyone will be required to meet IT standards for published documents over the web.
The second thing is the origin of this document.
The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) is a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford. EHLI is one of the actions prioritized in the Statement of Solidarity and Commitment to Action, which was published by the Stanford CIO Council and People of Color in Technology (POC-IT) affinity group in December 2020 as part of the IDEAL IT strategic initiative.
That’s a mouthful. The “CIO Council” is the IT community. The Statement of Solidarity refers to a document posted in February 2022 advancing the initiative to purge Stanford of offensive language.
This change allows our community to also address language that is:
- ethnically offensive
- contains disability, gender, age, sex or implicit biases
- represents institutional racism
- is violent.
As you can see, the scope of the initiative is quite broad (sorry ladies), even getting inside our heads by determining “implicit biases.” And it goes further: it is even going to reshape programming code!!!!!!
We will also scan code we have written at Stanford for harmful language (e.g., terms containing master/slave or black/white, among others).
Imagine getting fired over a misplaced pronoun in a comment within a block of programming code!
The Statement also alludes to a style guide, which is an internal document and not available to the public. It reinforces what I observed initially, that these guidelines are not just for the IT community, but for everyone who works at Stanford University and attends its classes.
Stanford is not Alone
What is scary about these sort of proclamations is that they just don’t pop up at Stanford. These ideas often come from somewhere else. As stated in the announcement:
The terms included here and our suggested alternatives are in alignment with those used by peer institutions and within the technology community, including the Brandeis Suggested Language List, Terminology at XSEDE, and more.
Looking further into these resources you begin to see a pattern.
The IT Community
Rather than traveling the rabbit hole of the social vices one may commit with the English language, let’s focus on my crowd – the “IT community.” If there is anything I can say about IT is that it is about the most globalized community you can imagine. On a routine basis I sat in conference calls connecting people over five time zones, bending my ear to understand south Asians, Hispanics, Eastern Europeans, Russians, and Middle Easterners. Amongst the clients I served were people from China, South Korea, Taiwan, India, Indonesia, Russia, Ukraine and Belarus. I had students from Poland to Hong Kong. Yet – when I read over the list of iniquities we can harbor, I see before me a hopeless task.
Let’s just focus on XSEDE, a rather obscure organization that seems comprised of NGO sorts that have nothing better to do than to make the IT community feel paranoid. I never heard of the thing until the day before I wrote this article. Their mission statement1 states:
Substantially enhance the productivity of a growing community of scholars, researchers, and engineers through access to advanced digital services that support open research; and coordinate and add significant value to the leading cyberinfrastructure resources funded by the NSF and other agencies.
Sounds noble. But notice the part at the end where you get the sense that the tail is wagging the dog (I wonder if that offends anyone?). Funding is from the NSF and “other agencies.” Maybe you are with me in suspecting that this is another case where an agency which began with a focused, professional mission, has been Shanghai’d (apologies to the Chinese) for other purposes.
Check out this (black)list:
Black Box – This begins a long list of color-related terms which evidently traumatize black people. I have never met a black person who collapses into a PTSD fit when they saw a black box. Maybe that explains why Cisco paints all their switches that peculiar tone of gray and green?
Blacklist – Or a black list for that matter. As you can see, there is even a disagreement amongst English speakers if the term is “blacklist” or “black list.”
Blind — Remarkably, there are a couple of restrictions on the use of the word “blind,” but no restriction on “blind copy.” Go figure. What they saw in this is a mystery to me. I suppose the lingual elitists wish to retain BCC so they can bring in other authorities when investigating philological suspects.
Brown Bag – I love this one. Never in my life have I connected a brown bag with “harmful language.” But this really puts a hammer down on brown bag seminars. I can’t imagine what my brown-toned colleagues go through when they go to the grocery store. Brown Americans in New Orleans must have been in quandary in the 80’s when covering their shame for being Aints Fans.
Dumb – there goes all those terminals. Of course, for most students at Stanford, a dumb terminal is a history lesson.
Dummy Value – What’s next? Statistics?
Gray Hat Hacker — For those on the other side of the Atlantic, they may take issue with the word “gray.” It may be more concise to refer to somewhat unethical and somewhat illegal folks as “grey hat hackers.” The legality is a gray area of hackdom. When you hear all this stuff, you may just want to lump the whole lot as “mad hatter hackers.” But as someone with white hair can attest, I never gave it a thought.
Guys – Hear that ladies? Stop referring to our team as “guys!”
Indian – I can’t tell you how many Indians I have worked with in the IT business. But it was never in reference to Native Americans unless I was referring to a baseball team in Cleveland.
Master – So what do you call something that controls everything else? Controller? Good grief, no! I have known too many white guys (girls included in the term) who were control freaks.
Male and Female – Man, it is going to be tough to teach the A+ and Cisco classes. So what are you going to call all those pins that go into holes? Pins and holes? I hope this standard does not apply to the Ag School.
Now for the Cybersecurity folks, you might want to throw out the incident manuals. Banned are Red Team, Yellow Team and White Team. What’s next? Recoloring the wires on a CAT 5 cable? Being that waving the rainbow flag is the thing now, I think this is counter-productive. To all the LGBTQ,etc folks, they are coming after you next!
I knew this was coming – Scrum Master. Not just a “master”, but the lowest of all the masters.
Slave – So what do you call systems that must submit to a master controller?!!?
Submit! — This word needs to be removed for the portion of the human race that cannot handle homonyms.
Tarball – This strikes home. I can’t picture being a Linux or UNIX specialist and not using a “tarball” to archive and backup files. I suppose we will need to partition a filesystem for those operators who need a safe space where they will never have to compress their files for anything.
Tribal Knowledge – This is going to be tough. How else do I describe a pack of IT specialists who never write anything down? Dumb?
User – it implies someone who is conniving, attempting to manipulate. I understand. One of the most peculiar terms I heard once at a meeting was “user virus.” It typically referred to an individual that never learned anything for themselves. But what do you put in it’s place? Karen? Users are people, people who use computers. Gee, they must be “users.”
Webmaster – I think this is ludicrous. How often when you click “Webmaster” you get the 404 error? And we all know that Google rules the web.
White Hat – This term, along with Black Hat, must stay. How else am I to know who are the good guys (ladies included) in the Roy Rogers films?
Black Hat – Talk about taking on a brand name! What will they call the big roundup in Las Vegas? The Ebony Chapeau Convention? The Absence of Light Derby Convention?
White Paper – Ever read a colorful white paper?
Whitelisting – Hmm. Never used this term much. But I suppose a pack of guilty whites had to add this term to balance the ridiculousness of blacklisting blacklist.
The fact that this list is even out there demonstrates how idiotic things have become given that English is an eclectic mix of history and ethnicities, possibly the most flexible language in the world, attested to by the colorful use of terms listed above. Yet there are a few who not only want to reshape it, but the people who speak it. Maybe we should switch to Latin as the universal language of IT (apologies to the aliens who assumed their tongue was universal).
I have worked in universities and large enterprises for most of my adult life. For public-facing documents, it is to be expected that guidelines are provided with the expectation of being followed. Mature organizations endeavor to present a consistent message. In most cases, a document is first vetted before publication. This is basic public relations. So having some general guidelines about what is said is not the issue here.
What is at issue is the scope. The guidelines are now getting deep within the structure of the English language. The range of terms is getting longer. And it is not just the obvious misstatements. There is the danger of having an “internal bias.” The question that one must ask is not what is offensive, but what will happen when the inevitable sin is committed. And that is a serious concern.
A student, otherwise brilliant, has their grade reduced because they inappropriately used the wrong pronouns, or used terms like “rule of thumb”. Will the reduced grade performance affect their hiring potential? For cybersecurity specialists, will they see promotions denied because they are persistently using the term “Black Hat”? Will people be hired on a sensitivity test rather than merit? And just how long can people put up with speech-Nazi’s? At some point, they leave and go elsewhere. At some point you replace the most qualified with people who tell you what you want to hear.
Again – it goes back to “So What?” It needs to be a question we ask every professor, every university dean or president, “Would you penalize a person for using the term “black hat” or “tribal knowledge?” What kind of culture is this “IT Community” at Stanford going to become in five or ten years, where nobody says anything nor writes anything except what the swine at the Animal Farm grant is permitted? And it begs the question of a university. How can you claim to be a forum of learning and debate when you only speak what is acceptable?
It makes you wonder why people do this? What is their motivation? Their world view? Their political philosophy? What are they after?
And I have another question. It is just a matter of speculative conversation. What is the difference between our “internal biases” and “natural rights?”
What if You Don’t Conform?
1 Alas, a mere three months after I published this article XSEDE decided to pack their bags and go home. The weblink utilizes the Wayback Machine (Internet Archive) to point to the source.
© Copyright 2022 to Eric Niewoehner