Ignore the Woke Panic About the English Language

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Almost a decade back, a group of buddies and I were watching a newish Robin Hood movie, and a young mentee asked why British authorities were hanging a Caucasian bandit: “He’s white — that ain’t realistic.”

The story is funny, but the sincere energy underlying the question is surprisingly common. To give an all-too-real example, academic leaders at USC recently declared a de facto ban on the use of the word “field” during discussions of scholarly work. Across at least the sizeable School of Social Work, the University of Southern California/Spoiled Children will “remove the word . . . from its curriculum and practice and replace it with the word ‘practicum’ instead.” The apparent reason for this is the perception that only blacks and Latinos have worked in the United States’ actual fields in the recent past: “The term may have . . . connotations for descendants of slaves and immigrant workers.” Per a rather lengthy official letter from the institution: “This change supports anti-racist social work practice by replacing language that could be considered anti-Black or immigrant in favor of inclusive language.”

The “field” example hardly stands alone (the field behind it is crowded!). Just a year or two back, the Grey Lady herself — the Times of New York — noted the decision of major East Coast realty groups such as the Real Estate Board of New York to stop using the term “master” to describe the largest and best-appointed bedroom in a home. In a piece titled “The Biggest Bedroom Is No Longer a Master,” Times-man Sydney Franklin pointed out that the push against the language “comes in the wake of George Floyd’s death and the resulting Black Lives Matter protests,” and quoted Southern Star Realty agent Tanna Young to the effect that the term “master” “evoked images of pre–Civil War plantation life.” New York City real estate board COO Sandhya Espitia summarized the situation as: “(We are) assessing what meaningful steps should be put in place to bring greater diversity and inclusion to the industry.”

In perhaps the most notable of this speech-change trend, Stanford University — although it has pulled back a smidge after coast-to-coast mockery and cabbage-tossing — released a list of several dozen words that right-thinkers are no longer to say. The roster broke down forbidden terms into no fewer than ten categories, including “ableist, ageism, colonialism, culturally appropriative, gender-based, imprecise language, institutionalized racism, person-first, violent, and additional considerations.” While a small number of the words or phrases were potentially offensive, others included the term “American” (this might imply that U.S. citizens think their country the best in the whole hemisphere), “brave” (could describe either our own warriors or indigenous opponents as “savage”), “walk-in” (implies that most people perambulate on two legs), and even “beating a dead horse” (legitimatizes violence vs. animals).

All of this is, again, hilarious to describe. But, as with the Robin Hood example, the fact that many people take this sort of stuff dead seriously reveals a real and major cultural problem in American middle-class life. Many of us have been trained to associate universal human struggles or vices uniquely with America, including the historical mistreatment of blacks within America. This trend is not only a historical, but legitimately dangerous for national morale.

For example, while slavery was a national disgrace between 1776 and 1865, it is simply not true that “workin’ in the fields” has been a uniquely or primarily black or Latino job in the historical United States. According to a major recent book — a left-leaning one that I reviewed critically — 50 to 55 percent of all residents of a typical white-majority state such as Wisconsin were free or tenant farmers as late as the 1850s. For that matter, there are a ton of landsmen out in the fields today: The U.S.A. still contains 2,010,650 working crop and animal farm operations, with 36 percent of these located in the notoriously pale Midwest. And most farmers of all shades are hardly rolling in the filthy lucre. Any list of the ten poorest counties in the U.S. is almost certain to include hardscrabble rustic locales such as Holmes County (Miss.), Buffalo County (S.D.), Owsley County (Ky.), Clay County (Ky.), and McCreary County (Ky.).

Similarly — if this even needs to be said — the term “master bedroom” is not a uniquely American one deriving from the historical practice of slavery. Slavery itself, of course, was not a singularly American vice: It dates back to the dawn of man, and the great Greek Aristotle gave written advice on feeding slaves (not much) and identifying “natural” bondsmen. The Arab slave trade plagued Africa for centuries longer than the Western-driven Atlantic slave trade and resulted in the transshipment of perhaps 5 million more victims.

And, all this almost aside, the word “master” as used in housing sales in the northern U.S. never had a damned thing to do with slavery in the first place. “Master” is also a term for a skilled craftsman able to afford — if not simply build — a big home, and even the NYT points out that “the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development determined in 1995 that ‘master bedroom’ was not discriminatory.” So far as anyone can tell, the language traces back to the 1926 Modern Homes catalog from Sears, Roebuck. Similarly, as regarding Stanford’s recent cringing, one might suspect that language honoring traits such as military prowess has existed — generally in a race-neutral fashion — across most human societies for virtually all of time.

While we Americans play the bizarre and sickly game of (1) trying to link everything imaginable in our society today to conflict or oppression in our past and then (2) blubberingly apologizing for that past, other countries with violent histories take a different route. In rapidly modernizing Mongolia, a 130-foot-tall stainless-steel statue of the great conqueror Genghis Khan greets visitors to the capital of Ulan Bator. South Africa boasts beautifully done monuments depicting both the Zulu king Shaka and his rival Boer voortrekkers. A common message associated with this sort of thing — almost verbatim from the plaques in the South Africa case — is: “We all fought each other, then. Let’s get down to business and improve the country, now.”

We Yanks might not want to be quite that blunt — although I basically do. But while working out our final national message, let’s ignore the quivering daisies (is that offensive?) and go on saying “field,” and “master bedroom,” and the usual terms for our countrymen, without ever giving in to unnecessary panic and guilt.

Reporting from National Review.