Speech compelled and controlled on campus.

Several mandated changes to the use of language have occurred on campus. These appear everywhere from the Klau Center to the Department of Theology to the pages of the Observer. 

The Klau Center for Civil and Human Rights began an initiative called “Building an Anti-Racist Vocabulary” in August of 2020 in response to the death of George Floyd and subsequent race riots during the summer of 2020. The ongoing project is meant to be “an entry point, designed to provide intellectual and moral building blocks to begin the transformative work of anti-racism in our students, on our campus, and in our broader communities.” The homepage for the project features a quotation from Ibram X. Kendi, saying, “The opposite of racist isn’t ‘not racist.’ It is ‘antiracist.’ What’s the difference? One endorses either the idea of a racial hierarchy as a racist, or racial equality as an antiracist … There is no in-between safe space of ‘not racist.’”  

This program for creating an actively anti-racist vocabulary and rebuilding the moral framework of the University to focus on the issue of race is a three-part initiative that includes a lecture series, a for-credit course, and a graduate-student led reading group. The lecture series, in which more than 2,000 people were enrolled last year, continues every Friday of the academic year, and archived lectures can be found on the project’s webpage. At the beginning of each lecture, the speaker is introduced, as are the “Anti-Racist Words of the Week.” These have included words such as “moral imperative,” “Christianity and White Supremacy,” and “COVID Racial Data.” Past speakers include Sunny Hostin, Archbishop Wilton Gregory, Eric H. Holder, Wesley Lowery, and Howard Bryant. 

Regarding this project to build a new vocabulary with which to speak about race, Dr. Anthony Monta, Dean of Holy Cross College told the Rover, “What you’re observing today, in a focus on language, comes from a generation or two of academics who were persuaded by Derrida’s arguments. The New Left’s revolutionary premises about language are negations of certain other premises about language.”

Monta continued, “The negations of those premises sounded something like this. The universe is intrinsically meaningless; all meaning is just an artifice of man, that it isn’t a relationship between language and reality, but it’s a function purely of differentiation; and this process of differentiation doesn’t occur freely, but only in and through the exercise of earthly power. Working from these premises is a deconstructive process. Every assertion of meaning can then be taken as an implicit act of violence against something else.” 

According to its Equity and Inclusion page, the Notre Dame Department of English affirms Monta’s description, as it “recognize[s] that the English language has served as an instrument of oppression and subjugation, erasure and exclusion, and continues to do so.” 

The statement continues, “We foreground the ongoing legacies of racialized violence, settler colonialism, imperial domination, and ecological degradation that shape and inform our objects of study.” That language itself is a tool of oppression and violence is the foreground of every endeavor, both instructional and exploratory; it is also the end of every academic enterprise. This schema of language as a violent and oppressive force not only maintains the significance of our words, but actually elevates them to such a degree that necessitates their control, as the English Department holds, saying, “We seek to take care with language in the hope of remaking our worlds.” Chair of the English Department Laura Knoppers did not respond to the Rover’s request for comment. 

The University of Notre Dame Faculty Handbook affirms this vision, as it “calls upon members of the University community to adopt respectful and gender-inclusive language in any type of communication, whether it is oral or written, formal or informal, or addressed to an internal or external audience, in the conduct of their work and social life both within and outside the Notre Dame community.” 

This clause in the handbook inspired the Department of Theology’s “Inclusive Language Statement,” which states, “The Department of Theology commits itself to use respectful and gender-inclusive language for human beings in all its official departmental documents and correspondence … The department further calls upon its faculty, staff, and students, graduate and undergraduate, to adopt respectful and gender-inclusive language for human beings throughout all academic coursework, inclusive of classroom presentations and conversations, course syllabi, and both written and oral student assessment materials. In addition, the department encourages all its members to use such language while participating in all their collegial and social gatherings.” 

“This is a statement about using [the word] ‘men’ to refer to everybody, instead of saying ‘men and women.’ It was only [released] about 20 years ago, but some of the gender-inclusive issues of today weren’t as widespread yet,” clarified Professor Timothy Matovina, Chair of the Theology Department. 

Issues regarding the language of gender identity and sex come from the same analytical framework as discussions of race and systemically oppressive language, explained Monta: “Judith Butler’s Gender Trouble, published in 1990, … was about deconstructing the very idea of biological sex. Following Foucault, Butler argued that what defined the reality of biological sex wasn’t biology, but actually the social convention of gender.”

Monta continued, “If you deconstruct that process [of definition] and you invert that binary so that gender expression is more important than chromosomal sex, you will end up with Wilhelm Reich’s sexual revolution … Students have carried forward these New Left premises about identity, language, power, and all sorts of critical projects, and I think that’s part of what you’re perceiving. It’s not really a natural evolution of language so much as it is an attempt to reconstruct language on the premise that identity itself is an illusion.

That students are adopting this idea of changing words in order to achieve political ends is demonstrated in one of the first editions of The Observer this academic year. Merlot Fogarty, President of Notre Dame Right to Life, wrote a Letter to the Editor in which she welcomed students to the club. Whenever Fogarty wrote the words “pro-life,” The Observer changed it to read “anti-abortion.” 

In an interview with the Irish Rover, Fogarty said, “Prior to publishing, many substantial arguments and ideas in my piece were changed, and hence negated, without my knowledge. Pro-life and anti-abortion are not synonymous terms. Being for a certain life ethic is much different than being anti- a certain [life-ending] procedure.”

The edits were made by Observer staff, ostensibly to adhere to AP Style Guide rules that prohibit the words “pro-life,” “pro-choice,” and “abortionist.” However, theses changes were made to the style guide in 2017, and as of January 2022, The Observer had 75 posts tagged “Pro-life,” a list that includes articles in Viewpoint, From the Archive, and News. Fogarty continued, “The intention of the piece was deliberately undermined without my consent. Though I appreciate that The Observer retracted the word-change so the meaning of the piece could be restored.”

Tracking these larger social trends in compelling speech, obfuscating meaning, and banning words helps one to understand the significance of the attacks on language across campus and situates these seemingly isolated incidents within the broader historical context.

Elizabeth enjoys eagerly elucidating on etymology and other eccentric enthusiasms. She excitedly awaits exploratory emails: ehale@hcc-nd.edu.

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