UNH offers 'bias-free' language guide: Is 'American' a biased term?

The guide includes a section advising campus members to use 'US citizen' not 'American' to respect those who live in Canada, Mexico, or Central and South America. 

Ann Hermes/The Christian Science Monitor/File
High school senior Adaugo Ezike takes part in an essay writing course through Columbia University's State Pre-College Enrichment Program, Nov. 23, 2013.

Can we communicate with unbiased language?

A “bias-free language guide” published on the University of New Hampshire (UNH) website thinks so. It provides speech parameters for issues like gender, immigrant status, race, and other hot topics. The guide was developed by students and staff in 2013 and subsequently published on the university’s website.

Here are several speech parameters it includes:

  • “people of advanced age” not “older people”
  • “person living at or below the poverty line” not “poor person”
  • “person of material wealth” not “rich”
  • “non-disabled” not “able-bodied” or “whole”
  • “US citizen” not “American”
  • “person seeking asylum” not “illegal alien”
  • “the average person” not “the average man”

There’s also a “gender pronoun guide” that gives examples of non-binary pronouns used by some trans, genderqueer, and gender non-conforming individuals.

The guide describes language as “complicated”, “intriguing,” and “beautiful” and calls on UNH to navigate these complexities:

An integral part of UNH’s mission is to continue to build an inclusive learning community, and the first step toward our goal is awareness of any bias in our daily language. As we begin to understand bias, we explore the truths of hierarchy and oppression. When we free ourselves of bias, we are thus affirming identities that differ form our own. When we do not affirm another person’s identity, we are characterizing an individual as ‘less than’ or ‘other.’ This makes them invisible, and for some, it feels like a form of violence.

Conservative news sites have been quick to express their skepticism. Campus Reform, a right-wing news university watchdog, brought attention to the issue last week when it published an in-depth explanation of the guide.

University President Mark Huddleston has also expressed his opposition and said that the guide is not campus policy, he told the Associated Press on Wednesday:

"While individuals on our campus have every right to express themselves, I want to make it absolutely clear that the views expressed in this guide are NOT the policy of the University of New Hampshire. I am troubled by many things in the language guide, especially the suggestion that the use of the term ‘American’ is misplaced or offensive,” he said. “The only UNH policy on speech is that it is free and unfettered on our campuses. It is ironic that what was probably a well-meaning effort to be ‘sensitive’ proves offensive to many people, myself included.”

The guide was allegedly created by a “small group of community members” and appears on a special segment of the UNH website titled “inclusive excellence.” In other words, the guide was not produced by the administration, but reflects the opinions of one portion of the community.

But it raises good questions. The concept of bias-free language is especially prevalent in academic circles. Purdue Owl, a writing website powered by Purdue University, gives similar tips on how to avoid sexist or stereotyped language. Michigan State University’s Office for Inclusion and Intercultural Initiatives also gives guidelines for bias-free communication.

Neither includes comments on the usage of “American.” 

You've read  of  free articles. Subscribe to continue.

Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

If you’re looking for bran muffin journalism, you can subscribe to the Monitor for $15. You’ll get the Monitor Weekly magazine, the Monitor Daily email, and unlimited access to CSMonitor.com.