During its “inclusive language” campaign, California State University-Northridge students lounged in a bouncy-ball pit and held forth about words that hurt their feelings in a so-called “vent tent,” Heat Street has learned after exclusively reviewing documents and video footage.
CSU-Northridge’s event stretched on for an entire week, teaching students about “potentially hurtful phrases” and cautioning that “using non-inclusive language can have a negative affect on others.”
The University Student Union, a student-led nonprofit campus organization, spent more than $1,000 in student fees on the event, according to invoices. Urging students to avoid hurtful language, USU came up with a list of offensive words — and then printed them in huge, all-caps text, hanging the poster on campus regardless of their supposedly triggering potential.
Some of these phrases were obviously rude; in fact, it’s pretty inconceivable that a university would feel the need to teach college students that it’s not nice to say, for instance, “you stupid whore,” “this bitch,” or “fag.” Then again, these are the same young adults who find their college’s rental of a play-place ball pit fun and quirky instead of infantilizing and slightly insulting.
Other words and phrases deemed offensive by USU are much more common, and garner far less public consensus as uncouth. For instance, students were cautioned about the harmful potential of “man up,” or about using the adjective “crazy” or describing the weather as “bipolar.”
Another flagged phrase had a decidedly political bent: Students were cautioned about saying “illegal immigrant” or “illegal alien.”
USU also created a spinning wheel of the phrases it deemed offensive, hiring a videographer and prompting students to describe why a word or term could cause emotional harm and what language they’d use instead.
Most students acquiesced. Some suggested that specific words be banned outright.
Only one student put in front of the camera refused to play along, saying, “I don’t think being understanding toward people is about censoring ourselves either.”
USU also invited students to write down hurtful words of their choice, describing how it makes them feel.
This year, one student wrote, “When I hear the word ‘edgy,’ it makes me feel triggered.”
Another said, “When I hear the word ‘ditzy,’ it makes me feel people think I’m stupid, which makes me feel unworthy/less than others.”
During the university’s 2015 campaign, one student wrote, “When I hear the word ‘useless,’ it makes me feel hopeless, depressed. It makes me wonder if I matter and if it matters whether I’m even alive or not.”
The Inclusive Language Campaign, which CSU-Northridge has hosted for the past two years, is “focused on raising awareness and consciousness, inviting students to think critically, which is at the heart of the academic enterprise and CSUN’s mission,” says the university’s spokesperson, Carmen Ramos Chandler.
Such campaigns have become increasingly common at American colleges and universities over the past year.
The University of Northern Colorado, for instance, hung 680 posters on campus as part of a “Language Matters” campaign cautioning about offensive words; the University of Nebraska–Lincoln printed posters and T-shirts featuring potentially hurtful words, also insisting that “this is not a regulatory or punitive campaign”; and the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee told students that even the phrase “politically correct” was offensive because it “has become a way to deflect, say that people are being too ‘sensitive’ and police language.”
But inclusive language campaigns have also raised concerns about policing speech. Unless a university is explicit that there will be no administrative or disciplinary repercussions for students who use words and phrases targeted in the campaigns, they risk violating First Amendment rights, according to free-speech lawyers with the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education.
CSU-Northridge is committed to free speech, said its spokesperson. “Simultaneously, the university also takes very seriously its obligation to ensure that our students enjoy a learning environment free of discrimination and harassment,” she said.
Chandler added that the university has hosted “speakers as diverse and divergent as David Duke and Louis Farrakhan,” part of its “long history of welcoming a diversity of perspectives and championing free thought and discourse within the academic environment.”
— Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.