A new meme is making the rounds, suggesting that we replace so-called violent language (e.g., “We’re going to pull the trigger”) with softer language (e.g., “We’re going to launch”). This is just the latest example of the endless and perpetual sanitization and watering down of language undertaken in order to avoid giving some hypothetical person offense. Other examples include the University of Southern California’s School of Social Work’s removal of the word “field” (as in “fieldwork”) from its curriculum due to supposed connotations of slavery, and Stanford University’s short-lived Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) website (which cautioned against people using words like “trigger warning” and “war room”).
One big problem with all of this sanitization of language is that it’s making us weaker as human beings.
In The Coddling of the American Mind, renowned social psychologist Jonathan Haidt and Greg Lukianoff, president of the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE), describe human beings as inherently anti-fragile. This means that we respond to reasonable stressors, like homework or rejection, by becoming more resilient. Stressors actually help us develop emotional strength, just like the weights at the gym help us develop physical strength.
True compassion requires that we help people develop the strength to navigate the world.
Mark Manson, bestselling author of The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, explains how this works. “[P]ain is a healthy part of the process,” he writes. “Discomfort and upsetting ideas are what make you better. Confronting things that upset you helps you overcome them and yourself.” When we have the opportunity to face down obstacles, we become stronger.
What happens when we systematically remove any adversity from our lives? We lose the opportunity to develop strength. Just as a gym without any weights gives us little opportunity to grow strong, a life without any conflict gives us little opportunity to develop emotional resilience. That goes double when what’s being scrubbed isn’t real adversity, but merely words that might somehow remind us of it (like “war room”). We remove the 2.5-pound weights from the gym and then are surprised when people don’t develop emotional fortitude.
This sanitization doesn’t just deprive us of opportunities to become stronger; there’s a real danger that it will actually weaken us. In his bestselling book 12 Rules for Life, clinical psychologist and professor emeritus Jordan Peterson describes how anxiety works. “Our anxiety systems are very practical,” he notes. “They assume that anything you run away from is dangerous. The proof of that is, of course, the fact you ran away.”
When we run from phrases like “We’re going to pull the trigger,” we send a message to our brains that those very words are dangerous. We signal that we are too fragile to handle those words. That’s enfeebling. After all, if mere words are dangerous, then so is everything else. If we lack the mental fortitude to handle the phrase “We’re going to pull the trigger,” then is there anything we can handle?
Critics might argue that these attempts to neuter language are just about fostering an inclusive culture, the logical next step in our societal desire to reduce hate speech. This completely misses the mark because hate speech and de-sanitized language are two different things. There is a good-faith case to be made for banning hate speech, even though I think that case is seriously mistaken. But anyone comparing “We’re going to pull the trigger” to the N-word, for instance, has completely lost the thread.
If these lists of approved and disapproved language don’t do any good, why do cultural elites spend so much time creating and disseminating them? There are two explanations.
The first is that this language policing is pure virtue signaling. Jason Brennan, professor of ethics at Georgetown University, argues that “[e]lites develop language norms, which frequently change, to mark themselves as elites, superior to others.”
“There’s a reason why the ‘you can’t say [normal things]’ stuff is coming from liberal arts major wordsmiths,” Brennan says. “It’s about signaling and maintaining their intellectual and moral superiority to others.”
To the extent that this is true, the correct response is to roll our eyes and ignore them.
The second explanation is that these people really do see themselves as too fragile to navigate the world as it is, so they’re trying to make the world softer. The correct response here is also to ignore them — not out of callousness, but out of compassion. When we tiptoe around their triggers, we really just make those triggers worse. True compassion requires that we help people develop the strength to navigate the world. Or, at the very least, that we not deprive them of the opportunity to do so.
Either way, there’s no reason to give in to the EHLIs of the world.
Julian Adorney is a writer and marketing consultant with the Foundation for Economic Education.
Making Western Students Strong Again
Fetterman and the Stolen Valor of the Working Class
Will Stanford University Change Its Name?