Attention language police: This Mass. professor says you’re not helping

Over the past two months, two major controversies over the usage of language have rippled across Massachusetts. In early April, an Easthampton school committee revoked a job offer to a candidate based at least in part on his use of the word ‘ladies’ in an email. Later in May, the Smith College of Social Work made a proactive decision to eliminate use of the word ‘fields’ because it could have connotations to slavery.

Now, the Smith College of Social Work’s Office of Field Education will be called the Office of Practicum Learning.

“SSW’s Core Principles encourage us to center the lived and historical experiences of Black, Indigenous and other communities of color,” Smith College wrote in a statement. “We recognize that language is powerful and that phrases such as “going into the field” or “field work” may hold negative associations.”

Although well-intentioned, this type of “language policing” may not be that helpful, said Loretta J. Ross, a professor at Smith College.

“The meaning of words change and evolve so rapidly that no matter how critical or cynical one becomes, you can’t keep up,” Ross said. “So, I’m basically, against all of this language policing because there seems to be a lot of anguish spent to achieve very little and it can actually be very offensive and off-putting to people who aren’t even trying to get into this competitive wokeness.”

But Smith College released a statement saying the change in words was not reactionary but proactive.

“The school specifically chose the word ‘practicum’ (a course of study that involves the supervised practical application of previously studied theory) to better reflect the experience of faculty and students. Rather than a reactive moment, this is a proactive decision to bring the language of the school’s program more in line with its goals and intentions,” Smith said in a release.

Shortly after news broke that Dr. Vito Perrone had his job offer rescinded by the Easthampton School Committee due to his use of the word ‘ladies’ in an email, nearly 150 people gathered in Easthampton in April, to protest the committee’s decision.

“Dismissing a qualified superintendent candidate over the word ‘ladies’ would be infantile,” Easthampton High School teacher Kelly Brown said during the protest. “If there are additional reasons to dismiss this candidate, be honest with him and to your community.”

Still attempts to over-police language seek to only address the symptoms of systemic oppression, but fail to remedy the root causes, Ross said.

“The fact that we still have structural and institutionalized injustices in our society, like sexism and racism is worthy of our attention, but it’s usually easier to address whether or not you use the word ladies – and if that is insulting – than to look at the underlying sexism of our society, or to use the word fields instead of looking at the underlying racism, that may be needing to be addressed,” Ross said.

But, the push to use more politically correct language isn’t entirely without merit. As society progresses, most people would argue it’s important to be mindful of words or phrases that were once acceptable but are no longer so because of their negative past. However, in situations where someone unintentionally uses an incorrect word or phrase, there’s often a tendency for people to publically shame that person or “call them out,” a practice that Ross said can be vicious and toxic.

Public shaming is something that’s wired into our DNA. But the expressions of moral outrage seen in call-out culture are tied to judgmentalism. And to be judgmental is not necessarily to be moral, Ross said.

“I think the problem is that most people don’t have the patience, or the skills and civic engagement in order to try all those other tactics and approaches first before they get to the public blaming and shaming game.”

Instead of calling others out, Ross advocates for people to call each other in. At Smith College, Ross teaches a course called White Supremacy, Human Rights and Calling In the Calling Out Culture. A large part of Ross’ course is teaching students how to have polite conversations with people who may use biased or offensive language.

“Quite often I find that when you go underneath people’s surface words, you can find out a whole lot more about them and invite them into a conversation instead of a fight,” Ross said. “It’s very superficial to invite people into a fight. It is much more laborious to invite them into a conversation while respecting not only their humanity but their right to have differences of opinion than you.”

Ross spoke to MassLive on her own and not on behalf of Smith College or the School of Social Work.

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