Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your comfort is my silence), 1981, photograph
Barbara Kruger, Untitled (Your comfort is my silence), 1981, photograph

One month has passed since the university’s Offices of Human Resources and Communication issued their guidelines for gender-inclusive language. Despite expectations, Princeton doesn’t seem to have changed much in the interim. The Prince, for instance, is still bravely attempting to fill its pages with actual news, when it doesn’t give up and print an above-the-fold picture of a squirrel—as it did on September 19th, opposite an article about the guidelines, which was published about a month after the guidelines themselves. Despite the slew of half-fearful, half-gleeful pronouncements of doom that proliferated at that time, forecasting decreased numbers of applications, an incoherent and anemic curriculum, and the beginning of the end of free speech in America, things here are rather placid, per usual. No Orwellian grammar/death squads hanging on our every word, no automatic expulsions for students who fail to get with the program, no visible cracks in the pillars of civil debate and intellectual discourse that underlie most of our academic activities here—or at least no new ones.

If changes have occurred as a result of these guidelines, they’re probably smaller, quieter, and of a kind less likely to be noticed by your average student, let alone your average media conglomerate. That is, a number of students who identify as “transgender, genderqueer, gender nonconforming, and/or intersex,” as the guidelines list, came to Princeton this year feeling, if not welcomed, then at least recognized as a part of this campus. Gone, at least from official University communications, are any words that make reference to gender—no more “his/her,” no more “manning the front desk,” no more “freshmen,” even. The majority of students, I’m sure, have never felt personally excluded by vocabulary of this sort, but that’s not the point, because some have. A minor effort by professors and administrators to acknowledge this seems unlikely to affect anyone who didn’t care about this issue before last month.

All of which makes the recent rush to defend free expression from its apparent assailants somewhat mystifying, if not exactly surprising. One Fox News opinion piece by the columnist Cal Thomas, moaning that Princeton students will never again be able to learn about Manila, Manet, or manifest destiny, positioned these gender-inclusive guidelines as part of a broader effort on the part of “academic liberalism” to “not only destroy America’s foundations, but dilute and diminish God’s greatest creation…humanness.” Ignoring the possibly delusional among Fox’s contributors for the moment, even the more reputable sources tend to paint these new guidelines as heavy-handed attempts to stifle campus discourse. A number of these had titles similar to a piece that appeared on the conservative news site The Daily Wire, “Princeton: Stop Using the Word Man.” A large majority of these relied on an implicit assumption that what the Office of Human Resources pointedly called “guidelines” are in fact mandates, and that, though they were directed specifically at university employees, their decrees somehow apply, equally strongly, to students here.

But my problem with these articles is less the questionable deductive skills on which they rest, and more their easy insistence that a change of vocabulary amounts to anything more than that. The guidelines, when examined outside of the context of their ultimate, pressing implications for the fate of American democracy, are surprisingly innocuous, and, more surprisingly, quite short—a couple brief explanatory paragraphs, a couple helpful examples. It seems hard to imagine that a few meager words nixed from our campus lexicon would produce any noticeable effects, let alone endanger free speech as we know it. In other words, this seems less a question of free expression—I have yet to see a convincing argument that a professor’s inability to use the phrase “coed” is actually a first amendment issue—than of expression in general, and the value this campus places on it. Or doesn’t.

It certainly seems as if Princeton’s administration and the flock of free speechers who have criticized it would make natural enemies, but in this case, both groups’ ideas about speech on campus are more alike than not. Just as those Fox News pieces rest on the assumption that our choice of words can produce drastic changes on this campus, so do the guidelines claim that our vocabulary can “reflect the inclusive culture and policies at Princeton University,” that our words can become tools to help usher in a utopian future (or a PC one, at minimum) where no one feels excluded.

This goal is unimpeachable, to be sure. And I certainly hope that words would have the ability to change the world, to cause some tangible effect—I’m writing this thing, after all. Still, I can’t help but wonder how much Princeton really believes in the power of language when its own use of it is so often misleading. After all, can our vocabulary really be said to “reflect” our inclusive culture if that inclusivity is incomplete at best, and fictitious at worst? Can our campus really be considered “inclusive” if that inclusivity exists only in word, and not in deed?

One month ago, there were guidelines, but one year ago, there were protests. There were likely as many reasons for this protest as there were protesters. But the most publicized reasons were about words—or in this case, names—demanding that all mention of Woodrow Wilson be removed from campus. In other words, the protests were at least in part about language that excluded certain groups on campus (language which provoked a series of impassioned, thoughtful, brave responses on the part of protesters, for anyone still worried about the vitality of free expression on this campus). As decided by committee, the demands to remove Wilson’s name were rejected; other demands, such as adding a class on the history of marginalized peoples to the list of distribution requirements, were glossed over, or else implicitly promised to be addressed as part of “a renewed and expanded commitment to diversity and inclusion at Princeton,” as the committee’s report says.

One year later and things, to my eye, are back to business as usual. Princeton’s gender-inclusive language guidelines are a step in the right direction. Still, it will take a very long walk to reach an inclusive campus if all our steps are this small. And I don’t see our strides getting much bigger while Princeton continues to place more importance on our vocabularies than the content of our speech. Free expression is doing just fine here. Rather, we need more expression that, if free, still has some value and meaning to it, a certain weight and heft that no number of syllables will give it. As Woodrow Wilson himself once said, and as the committee approvingly, and with unintended irony, quoted in its report: “We are not put into this world to sit still and know; we are put here to act.”

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