Pointing out on Minding The Campus that campus speech codes over the years have displayed “the same mistake committed by university administrators over and over again,” Mark Bauerlein wondered how many times FIRE and other free speech groups need to point out that “You cannot base speech policies on the response of hypersensitive children.” On the evidence of A Discriminatory Word in Academic Job Descriptions, a Chronicle of Higher Education column by Stephen Winzenburg, who identifies himself as “an award-winning broadcaster, author and communications professor at Grand View University,” some of those hypersensitive children have graduated to the faculty.

The award-winning professor is worried that the word “energetic,” which appears in lots of academic help-wanted ads — such as for an “energetic and disciplined band director” and an “energetic and resourceful” librarian — is “discriminatory.”  In an ad, he writes, the word “could be code for ‘we are going to overwork you for low pay and expect you to do it all with a smile on your face.’” Could be. Given the discriminatory dog whistles that sensitive academics are capable of hearing, far be it from me to say this reading is absurd. Discriminatory ”code,” obviously (at least to sensitive academics), is deeply textured and highly nuanced, susceptible to competing deconstructions. In fact, writes the award-winning professor, “I suspect that often the word ‘energetic’ in a job announcement is actually code for ‘younger’ or at least ‘not older.’”

Although the award-winner commendably argues that the presumably widespread prejudice that older (or at least not younger) people lack energy is an insidious and inaccurate stereotype, he nevertheless concludes that “[i]t’s time to rethink whether ‘energetic’ has any place in the academic hiring lexicon or if it can be better defined so as not to discriminate against those who calmly meet professional standards.”

Ironically, this attempt to discard or whitewash “discriminatory words” from the “hiring lexicon,” like all attempts to police the language to protect the tender sensibilities of “hypersensitive children” and their more dangerous  adult enablers, actually reinforces the very attitudes it seeks to repress. Banning the word “energetic” from ads because some super-sensitive academics think it encodes age prejudice promotes rather than discourages the notion that old people lack energy. And speaking of old people, to give another perfect example of a sensitivity-induced insult parading as an ingratiating honorific, the popularity of the euphemism “senior citizen” reinforces rather than combats the idea that it is demeaning, and maybe even “discriminatory,” to describe someone as old.

All too often these days our academic language police try to turn campuses into an academic village version of “Home On The Range,” where “seldom is heard a discouraging word,” but they better be careful because you can never tell who might be offended by what. “Oh, give me a home where the buffalo roam, Where the deer and the antelope play” may sound innocent enough, but recall Eden Jacobowitz, a Penn freshman who was accused of racial harassment in 1993 for calling a group of boisterous black women outside his dorm window “water buffalo” for interrupting his studying. (He denied any racial intent, claiming “water buffalo” was a rough translation of a Hebrew word for “foolish person,” and later filed a lawsuit but settled it with Penn paying his legal fees.)

It may no longer be possible to call a spade a spade without being denounced as a racist, but it ought to be possible for an employer — yes, even an employer seeking a librarian or marching band director — to state a preference for sober, energetic applicants over inebriated, lethargic ones without being accused of discriminating against the handicapped disabled differently abled.

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Discriminatory Words? (DISCRIMINATIONS)