PEN America on “Inclusive Language Guides”

PEN America is an organization built on the power of words⁠—our mission is premised on the idea that language matters and that all people should enjoy the right to speak freely. Our work to defend against attacks on free expression in the U.S. and around the world is the basis for our opposition to lists of words or expressions intended to discourage their use. 

There is no question that universities have a critical role to play in educating people about the history of language, encouraging thoughtful use of language, and establishing norms around respectful and inclusive treatment of others. But publishing lists with the university’s imprimatur that even suggest certain words or metaphors are off-limits can set individuals up to be attacked for speech that lacks malicious intent. It runs the risk of creating an environment in which people are wary of speaking at all for fear of running afoul of rhetorical redlines⁠—the very opposite of what a campus is supposed to be. It further risks creating a backlash that can discredit the vital aim of inclusion as cover for ideological policing and heavy-handed controls over discourse. Finally, it can thwart creativity and interfere with the right of members of vulnerable groups to claim and reclaim language of their own choosing.

We recognize that such guidelines may represent good-faith efforts by universities to bring attention to the history and implications of certain words and phrases. Thoughtful, open-minded educational efforts can play a critical role in ensuring campuses are more equitable and welcoming to all. But rather than positing a list of dos and don’ts, campus communities would be better served with resources that help elucidate the implications and history of particular phrases, rather than purporting to ban their use. Language is fluid, it evolves, and it can carry different meanings for different speakers. While words can cause harm and pain, it must remain the prerogative of speakers to decide what to say and how to say it. 

We urge university leaders to pursue the worthy goal of fostering more awareness, conscientiousness, and respect through dialogue and debate. But such efforts must avoid setting boundaries for permissible speech, which could thereby chill open expression.