Binks Is Here

Commentary on the World

"Language Police" at Queen's University?

Saw this article in the Globe and Mail. Put briefly, the University will be hiring “facilitators” who, as part of their job description, are charged with intervening should anyone use language that is not “inclusive enough” - even if this language is used in a private conversation.

I’m inclined to agree with the student’s council in rejecting this idea. This is a residence setting they’re talking about; these are student’s homes, not classes.

I guess a lot depends upon the amount of authority granted to these “facilitators”. If the students feel comfortable saying, “Look, just get the heck out of our conversation - keep on walking” I guess it’s not so bad; but if student’s can’t stop the conversation at will… it seems like this is the kind of thing that could really trap students - they can’t leave and go home, since this is happening AT their home.

Their comments on privacy strike me as being absurd - anything loud enough for a third party to hear is not private? I like to see several gradients of privacy - I don’t think it’s black and white. If you’re shouting across a room, that’s one thing; but just because you can hear it I don’t think you’re granted a right to join in on the conversation. I think it’s possible to have a private conversation even though others can hear. I suspect it happens all the time in dorms - if your roommate is on the phone to their parents, that’s not an open invitation to interject at will. The conversation is private because both parties intend for it to be private. If the couple in front of you in the movie is whispering about what they’ll do to each other later in the evening, I don’t think you have the right to lean in and give your own suggestions for positions and pacing.

At the same time, if I hear two people arguing about directions to somewhere on campus, I’ll sometimes interject if it’s clear they’re both lost and I can help out.

Note: In re-reading, I realize that this is the part where I step away from the article, and rant on about my own topics:

I sometimes wonder about the University response to “diversity” - half the time “diversity” is a eumphanism for “don’t be homophobic”. If there was one “diversity” topic I wish I got when I came to university, it would’ve been a grounding on the religious rituals and restrictions of some of the more prominant cultural groups on campus - who is it that can’t eat pork? What’s this “Ramadan” thing all about? South Korean, Japanease, Chinease - how exactly are these groups distinct? I don’t need much depth, just a quick overview of how this stuff might impact me - the quick “dos” and “do nots” of international relations.

I don’t need another lecture on being “LGBTQ friendly” (Let’s see if I’ve got this memorized yet - that’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, Transexual/Transgendered, Queer and Questioning (had to cheat and use Google…)). You could take a whole day to try and define all those groups, and the bottom line is that there’re probably many debates about the proper defintions anyway!

There’s civility, then there’s the ridiculous; and I think that language police veers into the ridiculous. If you really care so much about the words people use in conversation, then I suggest that we, as North America, sit down and come up with a term other then “lesbians” to describe homosexual females - the inhabitants of the Greek island of Lesbos apparently find the use of the term leads to many uncomfortable situations for them (since they are from Lesbos, they are “Lesbians”). I’ve heard that they’re actually trying to push a campaign to replace the word “Lesbian” as it refers to the sexual orientation (they DID use the term first…).

Words can mean more then one thing, so long as the context is clear I’m not sure why there’s so much concern and consternation over it.

Even in University essays, some profs are really picky about gender pronouns - depending on the prof’s preferences, you aren’t supposed to say “he” when referring to an abstract or hypothetical individual, or “mankind” when referring to a body of people. Instead, you’re supposed to use a gender-neutral form (instead of, “he would have to renew his license” it should be, “A person would have to renew their license”). “A person” just seems like an awkward substitute for “he” or “she”. I think that it’s a limitation of the language and we have to live with it - some languages actually have a dedicated gender-neutral second person; ours doesn’t.

There’s actually a decent article on Wikipedia about it - http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gender-neutral_pronoun

In doing some reading on this, some people actually object to the use of such notions of “he or she” or “s/he” - such terminology implies that a “gender binary” exists - that someone can only be “male” or “female”; instead of embracing the idea of a whole range and dynamic levels of “maleness” or “femaleness”.

Even in contemporary issues, people have chosen to add a double-meaning to an already existing word rather then create a new one - “hacker” was given the added meaning of “one who breaks into computer systems, normally for nefarious purposes”. But I think that it’s still appropriate to say that “my dentist is a real hacker - look what he did to my gums!”

I suppose this derivation takes the long way around, but I guess my basic point is this - you can’t please all the people, all the time. There’s a ton of pressure to change languages to appease given groups. At the end of the day, we’re stuck with a limited number of words and usages, and to have a university body arbitrarily declare “This is the version of the word that is correct, and this shall be the only version that is correct” seems rather crude. I doubt the island of Lesbos would approve.