Stanford University’s information technology community produced, and then hid, a document entitled “Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative.” Stanford didn’t adopt the EOHLI document. The fact that Stanford has not directly rejected this document and the ideas expressed within it, however, strongly suggests that this widely ridiculed document aligns with some deep-seated views pervading the campus. As two people with ties to Stanford, we will explain, using techniques and principles that Stanford used to champion, why this document is so wrong.
Some people criticize the document because they see it as a means of exerting control over others. That may well be true. But dismissing any proposal by speculating about people’s motives is not a legitimate way to argue. People can support bad ideas based on bad or good motives, and good ideas based on bad or good motives. If you object to the ideas, you need to say why, not attack assumed motives. By providing reasons for their conclusions, the document’s authors implicitly claim that they are logical. So it makes sense to analyze their arguments. And when we do so, we find that their reasoning is faulty. The EOHLI document fails in the following ways: distinctions, costs/benefits, alternatives, and the big picture.
Consider the word “master.” The Stanford document explains that “Historically, masters enslaved people, didn’t consider them human and didn’t allow them to express free will, so this term should generally be avoided.” So, for example, you shouldn’t encourage your child to master algebra or English.
While it’s true that the master of a human slave and the master of a subject such as English share the same noun, most of us would consider the enslavement of a person to be something terribly wrong, while attaining expertise in a subject is good. The fact that the two expressions use the same word fails to make the distinction between the two definitions of the word. Many words have multiple definitions. Eliminating the word won’t do much to eliminate the connotation.
Asking everyone to stop using a clear and useful word fails to consider the costs and benefits of such a requirement. There may be a tiny benefit to reducing the use of the word “master,” but the cost of the disruption to our language and communication is huge. In short, the cost exceeds the benefit.
If the word “master” has negative connotations (the enslavement of others) then those behaviors are what should be addressed, not the word itself. The people who don’t like slavery should see that they have alternatives. They can attack a word or they can attack a behavior. Those who attack the word haven’t considered that there are always alternatives and, once we consider the alternatives, we can choose the best one: preventing the behavior.
If we look at the big picture, we might notice something else that’s even more important. If we want to fight and prevent slavery in general, for example, prohibiting the use of a word isn’t going to do much. It would be better to understand why slavery is bad and explain those reasons to others. Getting rid of a word is not going to help a child born 50 years from now to understand why chattel slavery is corrosive to a society. And by openly examining slavery, we can explore the important differences between real slavery and perceived slavery, such as one might find in an oppressive work environment. Are the two the same? Why or why not?
Have you ever felt that you must do something? You might tell yourself, “I must.” If you want to be a good person, perhaps you think that you should avoid the word “master” because slavery is wrong. But you are already a good person for not advocating and supporting slavery. You don’t need to do everything conceivable, no matter how silly, to express to the world your distaste for slavery. We hear you: you don’t want to reinstitute slavery.
People have rightly derided Stanford for the EOHLI document. In doing so, we should criticize the document for the right reasons: those who constructed the EOHLI have ignored or violated the principles for clear thinking that Stanford has developed and championed over the years. Ironically, it should be Stanford itself that helps less-enlightened organizations master the techniques of clear thinking that were at least partly developed at that great university.