Language about language

by Editorial Board / Beacon Staff • March 16, 2017

At issue: Emerson College “hates language”

Our take: ….What?

Recently, two different journalists sat down at work and used their language to talk about how Emerson hates theirs. An article posted on RedState, a conservative blog, followed up on a Campus Reform report about Emerson’s language guidelines. It is clearly stated that these are editorial guidelines—not rules. A communication school with communication guidelines. Groundbreaking. This isn’t a “gentle millennial” academia problem; many companies and institutions have these types of guidelines. There is that word again—guidelines—a piece of language that does not mean rules.

The guidelines were written by Emerson’s Office of Communications and Marketing as part of its editorial style guide. The purpose is not to police language, but to encourage our community to be conscious of language’s impact on inclusivity. These words and phrases, while used in written communication by the college, are not mandatory for students’ everyday conversations and no one is getting, say, banned from the Dining Hall for not following them. However, members of the community are encouraged to “avoid using language that is insensitive to cultural differences or that excludes or offends any group of people.”

It also matters more how the community reacts to these guidelines and implements them in practice, not what the college asks the students to do. College is a place where varying ideas and opinions should be encouraged, not inhibited. These guidelines are not a licence to ostracize individuals expressing themselves through language. If we treat these rules as a way to improve how we relate to each other through conversation, and challenge each other when we are offended, it will leave room to foster a stronger community of ideas.

This conversation on language plays into a larger conversation about the liberal bubbles of college campuses, with safe spaces and trigger warnings. Recently, an Emerson Independent Video show, “The News Feed” held a panel on college safe spaces, taking the largely online debate and putting it on television. One of the students on the panel, Erik Picone, said that Emerson has a tendency to be coddled because of this safe space mentality.

Just as with language, we have to recognize that Emerson is a place to challenge and expand our worldview. Instead of isolating those who disagree with the importance of safe spaces, we have to challenge them and articulate our points of view as communications students.

Emerson is far from the only school to implement language guidelines like this. In fact, hours after Campus Reform “investigative reporter” Anthony Gockowski dropped the bombshell that Emerson (gasp!) has an editorial style guide for inclusive language (whoa!), he highlighted a similar document given to faculty at Bates. It suggests that professors should avoid misgendering their students and “be open and accepting of correction.” The audacity! Yesterday, he reported on an Appalachian State University Writing Center handout, which recommends using gender-neutral third-person pronouns—how perverse! It’s not just Gockowski calling out “bias and abuse on the nation’s college campuses”—these conservative hit pieces are the bread and butter of Campus Reform. Petty squabbles aside, it’s clear that this isn’t a trend that started with Emerson, and it won’t end with it. Colleges across the country are thinking about how we use language. That’s not regressive; That’s important.

The Emerson community is one focused on communication. It makes sense that our administration wants to improve the way we communicate. These guidelines promote speaking and writing with sensitivity to those who are often put down in casual conversation. But Emerson’s focus has always been about using the right words to get points across clearly, and that’s not going to change just because we want to use inclusive language. As cheesy as it is, our graduates will go on to be leaders in fields centering on language. Our education here prepares us to improve the way we phrase ideas in our careers and in broader society. Let’s allow the humanities to improve the way we speak about social issues.