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  • Deric Hollings

Elimination of Harmful Language

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Photo credit, fair use


Background


When attending graduate school from 2009 to 2011, for a Master of Arts in Counseling degree, I was introduced to a number of philosophical, theoretical, and clinical intervention strategies for treating clients. That was an arts degree, because it focused on the humanities and arts.


At that time, I learned how to work with individuals, couples, families, groups, and institutions using a specialist approach. This meant that my preferred psychotherapeutic method—Rational Emotive Behavior Therapy (REBT)—was the sole technique to be used when working with clients.


Later, attending grad school from 2012 to 2014, for a Master of Science in Social Work degree, I was re-familiarized with many of the academic concepts for helping people. That was a science degree, because it was said to involve math and science, though it also involved the humanities—thus resembling social (soft) science.


While there was a focus on means of treatment for diverse clientele, I was directly advised that students in the program were primarily activists and secondarily social workers. As well, candidates were encouraged to use a generalist, eclectic style and to shun singular specialty.


Change


The motto of the university at which I learned social work practice was, “What starts here changes the world.” A prima facie interpretation of the phrase may be pleasing to some; to others, not so much.


Change from what? Change to what? Who will benefit from the change? Who will be harmed from the change? Is the change welcomed by all? If not, are the protests of the unwelcomed to be respected? I had questions.


Not only did the university maintain that change was the goal, the school at which I studied implemented what I only now recognize as a long march through the institutions initiative. I was informed that social workers were to permeate all levels of society and change it from within.


If it sounds as though I’m embellishing, perhaps using hyperbole, don’t take my word for it. I encourage the reader to review the syllabus from my Foundations of Social Justice class.


With an initiative to change society, regardless of whether or not a significant number of societal members disagreed with the alteration, there was an element of implied credibility related to the objective. After all, it was a Master of Science degree, not some artsy-fartsy credential students were earning.


However, there was an inherent problem with this approach. Similar to philosopher David Hume’s is-ought problem, science assesses what is and doesn’t demand what ought to be.


This is a matter of description versus prescription, as science describes and ideology prescribes. Social workers were in effect being taught to rigidly declare what should, must, and ought to be—and then to change society in order to meet the aspirations of activism.


One strategy of implementation involved language policing. Students and various university staff would often correct one another’s language, supposedly to prevent “harm.”


For instance, an on-the-spot correction from one student to another may unfold by someone saying, “I’m not sure if you’ve thought about this, but using the phrase, ‘Hey, guys,’ is alienating to those who don’t identify as cis-gender males, and reinforces heteronormative oppression.”


Once social conditioning of this sort became commonplace, it wasn’t unusual to hear students correcting themselves in real time. As an example, a student speaking in front of the class may say, “Hey, guys, we’re… I mean, hey, everyone, we’re ready to begin.”


I further observed this trend impact the way people wrote their papers and communicated with others outside of the educational environment (e.g., social media). After two years of indoctrination and aversion therapy-esque brainwashing, students were sent into the world to change society.


The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative


Leaving behind the influence of academe in 2014, I’ve since watched the long march strategy turn into a sprint through global institutions and settings. It’s been a decade since I began studying social work, and what has changed? Well, a lot.


Take for instance the push from Stanford University with its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative. It is said to “address language that is: ethnically offensive[;] contains disability, gender, age, sex or implicit biases[;] represents institutional racism[; and] is violent.”


At first glance, this may seem like a harmless endeavor to prevent people from offending others, using unfair bias, practicing racism, or committing harmful violence. Placing aside my artistic degree and using skills commonly associated with the practice of a scientific degree, I’ll examine further.


Per one source, “The words ‘survivor’ and ‘victim’ should be replaced with ‘person who has experienced’ or ‘person who has been impacted by.” Did you catch the prescriptive “should” statement?


I’ve written about an observed trend whereby a “person who has been impacted by” sexual assault or rape may choose to be labeled as a “victim,” “survivor,” “thriver,” or otherwise. I suspect what belief a person has about these activating events is more impactful than the language others use about the individual it happened to.


Of Stanford’s Initiative, another source states, “A sampling of the words and phrases considered too toxic and damaging to be used include ‘Walk in’ as it’s insensitive to the disabled, so ‘drop in’ is to [be] used instead.” The constantly shifting linguistic rules may be the problem, not the words themselves.


I am a person with disabilities. Therefore, I am a disabled person. I don’t take offence at others referring to me in this way, or even if I’m referred to as “handicapped.”


Still, not everyone remains as Stoic as I regarding this matter. According to one source, “[C]onscious thought about what we say, and when we say it, may help to more positively reshape how we communicate about disability in society.”


Keeping a matter in one’s conscious mind is to remain ever-aware of it. Can you imagine trying to remain conscious of every possible term you use that may be perceived as offensive to others?


Similar to my social work education, reshaping how others communicate is the goal of this form of change. When using REBT, I focus on the individual who maintains self-disturbing beliefs about what’s being communicated without altering everyone else’s reality.


Suppose John Doe is unable to walk and requires the use of a wheelchair. I’m all for policies that afford physical access to buildings and events for John. His ability to access spaces is a matter of equal treatment.


However, if John demands that members within society refer to him in a certain way, this is a different matter altogether. Some may say, “Deric, just be a nice person and refer to John by whatever term he desires.”


Say John takes no personal responsibility for his reaction to my words and instead I change my behavior to suit John. He will learn that people should placate him rather than developing the skill to deal with adversity.


I suspect someone may respond, “But Deric, John already has familiarity with adverse events. He’s confined to a wheelchair, for crying out loud! Can’t you stop being an asshole for one moment and just change your language!?”


This is precisely the sort of nonsense espoused by one source that posits, “Imagine living your whole life always having to explain why the words that people use are hurtful and offensive to you.” Concerning this matter, I use an REBT perspective.


If I were working with John in a therapeutic setting, I could take a scientific approach by using an empirical dispute. Together, we could look for evidence to support or reject the notion that people must change their language (reality) in order to please John.


As well, we could explore the elegant solution technique. Supposing it is true John dislikes that others use the term “walk in” rather than “drop in,” can John tolerate the fact that others speak in a manner different than what he prefers?


Additionally, John could learn unconditional other-acceptance. Rather than lying to himself about how others ought to behave, he could accept that people don’t necessarily share his worldview. He doesn’t have to like or love it; though, can he accept it?


In response to recent backlash of its Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative, Stanford used a typical backpedaling strategy by stating the following:


First and importantly, the website does not represent university policy. It also does not represent mandates or requirements. The website was created by, and intended for discussion within, the IT community at Stanford. It provides “suggested alternatives” for various terms, and reasons why those terms could be problematic in certain uses. Its aspiration, and the reason for its development, is to support an inclusive community.


Being charitable to the position of Stanford, the “suggested alternatives” do not represent prescriptive mandates. Nonetheless, I see little difference between someone saying, “You must speak this way,” and, “You probably should be more inclusive with your language.”


Changing one’s own use of language requires far less effort, energy, or resources than aggressively demanding or passive-aggressively suggesting that others should adjust reality for you. This includes those of us who are disabled.


Conclusion


Having earned a master’s degree in a social science field, I’m acutely aware of how unscientific some hypothetical propositions truly are. When one’s hypothesis doesn’t conform to reality, the hard science approach is to adjust one’s hypothesis.


The soft science method of altering reality by regulating language used to interface with the world is not scientific. It’s the contamination of the scientific process.


If one is to agree that hard science is broadly defined as knowledge or a system of knowledge covering general truths or the operation of general laws, especially as obtained and tested through the scientific method; what may be said of soft science?


Is activist-driven change—insistence to bring about what one thinks ought to be, despite what is—the sort of transformation to which others may oppose? I’ve seen how poorly that method played out in higher education and on a global scale over the past decade.


Though language policing efforts such as the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative may sound like a harmless approach to addressing perceived harm, I reject the implied premise:


Premise 1: Problematic words can harm people.

Premise 2: John Doe hears problematic words.

Conclusion: Therefore, John Doe is harmed.


I renounce the premise of words equating to harm. We may not like certain words, we may be offended by some phrases, or we may prefer not to hear some terms, though dislike, offense, and infringed preference are not synonymous with harm.


Likewise, as an REBT practitioner, I denounce the claim of “problematic” terms, as professed by Stanford. I practice therapy according to Stoic philosopher Epictetusnotion, “It’s not what happens to you, but how you react to it that matters.”


It would be impossible to achieve the utopic vision of eliminated harmful language, because the path in that direction would likely create a dystopia. Simply because one’s hypothesis doesn’t conform to reality doesn’t mean one must alter reality and create a hellscape for everyone else.


Perhaps you experience difficulty when dealing with how your beliefs about the world are causing unpleasant consequences. Rather than adjusting reality, are you ready to change the one element of your life over which you actually have the most control—yourself?


If you’re looking for a provider who works to help you understand how thinking impacts physical, mental, emotional, and behavioral elements of your life, I invite you to reach out today by using the contact widget on my website.


As a psychotherapist, I’m pleased to help people with an assortment of issues ranging from anger (hostility, rage, and aggression) to relational issues, adjustment matters, trauma experience, justice involvement, attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder, anxiety and depression, and other mood or personality-related matters.


At Hollings Therapy, LLC, serving all of Texas, I aim to treat clients with dignity and respect while offering a multi-lensed approach to the practice of psychotherapy and life coaching. My mission includes: Prioritizing the cognitive and emotive needs of clients, an overall reduction in client suffering, and supporting sustainable growth for the clients I serve. Rather than simply helping you to feel better, I want to help you get better!



Deric Hollings, LPC, LCSW



References:


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