Donna Shalala, current President of the University of Miami, once said that you can’t have a university without freedom of speech. And apparently this is all well and good – as long as the speech is ‘inclusive.’
The University of Michigan’s Inclusive Language Campaign (ILC) is a new, campus-wide initiative that launched this September, operating under the tagline, “Stop. Think. Your words matter.” According to its description on the Student Life page, ILC “raises awareness about the power of words, why certain language can be hurtful to others, and how to be more inclusive in how we speak and act as members of the Michigan campus community.” A browsing session through the ILC Facebook page presents a viewer with several Halloween costumes that are off limits and an educational video entitled “Pronouns 101.”
The ILC has its merits, recognizing the idea that all people are different and that all people deserve a basic level of respect. A campus that provides a safe and respectful atmosphere in which students can express those differences permits a better university experience for everyone – students and faculty alike.
In practice, however, the Inclusive Language Campaign tends to stifle the very academic growth that it seeks to encourage, due to a severe misinterpretation over what exactly is considered ‘inclusive.’ In university classrooms and dormitories (places where free expression and dialogue are key), ‘hurtful language’ is often synonymous with ‘disagreement,’ and ‘comfort’ is defined as ‘freedom from disagreement.’ But comfort is best in small doses, especially in an educational environment.
Historically, university was a space where students were confronted with a million conflicting ideas that challenged every conviction they held upon entering college. As a reward for surviving four years of clashing ideas and spirited debate, a student would graduate with an opinion that was valid. And it was valid not because it was necessarily correct, but because it had arisen from and withstood four years of contrary opinions and ideas.
In other words, college was designed to be uncomfortable. In fact, college encouraged disagreement and cognitive conflict, because professors understood that their students grew from having their ideas challenged. But fast forward a few decades and universities have become spaces of comfortable intellectual stagnation, due in part to the distortion of well-meant initiatives like the Inclusive Language Campaign.
Walking on eggshells around classmates’ feelings (in the name of inclusivity) is not conducive to the spirited debate that once characterized college and permitted scholarly development. An integral part of the university experience is considering and understanding a diverse array of opinions – especially opinions that might be insulting or offensive. Whether or not the University of Michigan does a good job of delivering this diverse array of opinions is fairly debatable, and this calls into question the completeness of learning that students actually experience at the University of Michigan. Hearing the things that you believe repeated back to you daily by professors who believe the same thing isn’t learning – it’s indoctrination.
Furthermore, asking a racist not to dress up as Osama Bin Laden for Halloween does not make him any less of a racist. And being truly inclusive amounts to more than making sure you’re using the correct pronouns when addressing an individual. Although the heart of what the ILC tries to accomplish is admirable, by focusing too much on the superficial, it ultimately falls short of its goal – which should be to encourage students to reevaluate their prejudice.
In our modern era, it seems that programs like the Inclusive Language Campaign have lost sight of what it actually means to be inclusive. Inclusivity is by nature hypocritical if the only people and ideas you strive to include are those with which you already agree. For example, the professor who expresses sympathy for students advancing the socialist cause in America, yet incessantly mocks capitalists without allowing them to speak for themselves is not inclusive. In fact, he is just as much of a bigot as he accuses the political-right of being. On the contrary, real inclusivity embraces the unpopular, unpleasant, or offensive, in the spirit of academic growth.
The Inclusive Language Campaign seeks to create a safe environment for students, but in reality is distorted and prevents students from experiencing adversity that would leave them better off in the long run. Because in the real world, there is no Inclusive Language Campaign. Oftentimes, bosses, co-workers, and peers will not be as preoccupied with your feelings, or endeavor to tip-toe around them in the name of sensitivity. Learning how to deal with and capitalize from conflicting ideas is a skill necessary to post-graduation survival. As Robert Heinlein once said, “I never learned from a man who agreed with me.”