No man

Diane Ravitch, author of The Language Police, got her hands on New York state’s guidelines for textbooks. Anything that could offend anybody is out.

Next the state asked: “Is it necessary to make reference to a person’s age, ancestry, disability, ethnicity, nationality, physical appearance, race, religion, sex, sexuality?” Since the answer is frequently no, nearly all references to such characteristics are eliminated. Because these matters loom large in history and literature — and because they help us to understand character, life circumstances and motives — their silent removal is bound to weaken or obliterate the reader’s understanding.

New York’s taboo words include addict (should be “individual with a drug addiction”), alumni (“graduate” is OK), “American” (replace with “citizen of the United States or North America”) and “cancer patient” (can be “a patient with cancer”). Included in the “man” ban are “manpower,” “mankind,” “manmade” and “penmanship.”

New York identified as biased such male-based words as “masterpiece” and “mastery.” Among the other words singled out for extinction were white collar, blue collar, pink collar, teenager, senior citizen, third world, uncivilized, underprivileged, unmarried, widow or widower, and yes man. The goal, naturally, is to remove words that identify people by their gender, age, race, social position or marital status.

Thus the great irony of bias and sensitivity reviewing. It began with the hope of encouraging diversity, ensuring that our educational materials would include people of different experiences and social backgrounds. It has evolved into a bureaucratic system that removes all evidence of diversity and reduces everyone to interchangeable beings whose differences we must not learn about — making nonsense of literature and history along the way.

It’s a wonder the books are so long with so much excluded. But they do have lots of pictures.

About Joanne


  1. I don’t really see the reasoning behind some of the restrictions (cancer patient vs. person with cancer?), but in the cases where a non-gender-specific alternative is available (humanity instead of mankind) I don’t think it’s particularly objectionable.

  2. It’s not objectionable if these people are writing their own test passages. What they’re doing is changing the words of others, sometimes to ridiculous extremes (see the Bob Dylan quotation in the article). Perhaps Franz Kafka or Isaac Bashevis Singer had specific reasons for using “mankind” instead of “humanity”, and giving students a bowdlerized edition without telling them is dishonest, in my opinion.

  3. It’s objectionable if they’re rewriting literature to meet their standards. And why delete words like “landlord,” “cowboy,” “brotherhood,” “yacht,” “cult” and “primitive” from a child’s vocabulary and then consider him educated?

    “A bias review committee for the state test in New Jersey rejected a short story by Langston Hughes because he used the words ‘Negro’ and ‘colored person.’ Langston Hughes, for pete’s sake!!!

    I can only hope these kids have access to a library, somehow, where they can read without a P.C. nanny looking over their shoulder and snipping out text before they can get to it.

  4. I notice that “illiterate” is never to be used under any circumstances. Too close to home, I guess.

  5. Jim Thomason says:

    How the hell are they going to cover Neil Armstrong and the first lunar landing?

  6. Jim,

    Just say “first person on the moon.” That might cover it, except that firsts are so overrated and might insult other cultures which haven’t sent men, oops, PEOPLE to the moon. So maybe “*a* person on the moon” might cut it.

    Joanne’s last line, “But they do have lots of pictures,” brings up a bigger concern of mine. What about blind students? All those pictures are unfair to them.

  7. jeff wright says:

    Whatish, maybe you don’t find some of this objectionable. But consider this: these people aren’t just redoing words, they’re rewriting HISTORY, for God’s sake. They are the thought police and they must be fought at every step of the way.

  8. whatish,

    “cancer patients” supposedly dehumanizes people as “patients” (which allegedly are thought of as being like objects), whereas the word order of “people with cancer” emphasizes people and treats the disease as incidental: i.e., people (who happen to have cancer). Of course, reading “people with cancer” as “people WITH CANCER” undoes this effect and forces the language police to find yet another euphemism. I suggest “people with health.”

  9. John from OK says:

    Looks like an elaborae ruse to remove the word “American” from textbooks. Good job a**holes.

  10. Seriously, I agree with KimJ. If a speaker or writer’s word usage is “offensive” by modern standards, why not use that as an opportunity to talk about the way things were then as opposed to the way they are now? Why retroactively project PC back into the past?

    Laura, the language police isn’t deleting these words from kids’ vocabularies in general. They’re deleting them from the kids’ school vocabularies. The kids will learn many or most of these words, one way or another, and such underground acquisition can lead to very un-PC results that defeat the (already evil) point of such censorship. If something (e.g., “sexist” vocabulary) is suppressed, many will automatically assume that it must be good and/or right. Forbidden fruits are the tastiest.

  11. John from OK,

    But … but … how can oppressed children express their hatred for the nation that torments them so without the A-word? Guess they’ll have to use the long-winded “United States” (of what? No need to know!) or “USA.” The latter is short and sweet. Fits nicely on a protest sign.

    Also, since when did “American” mean “citizen of … North America” as well as “citizen of the United States”? There is no such thing as a “citizen of … North America,” and “American” does not ever mean “citizen of Canada,” except possibly to the very lazy and/or ignorant.

  12. Of course they’ll learn those words, Amritas, but I think the school is pretending that they won’t.

    And the thing about the Lunar landing is “One small step for [a] man, one giant leap for mankind.” Are they bowdlerizing that?

    I’ve got no problem with non-gender-specific text in books and articles written now. Heck, I’ve got no problem with non-gender-specific retranslations of the Bible, as long as the retranslations are faithful to the original text and are only replacing gender-specific English. I don’t like what they’ve done to some of our old hymns, though.

  13. What pisses (yeah, bad) me off is that teachers have *presumed* to become the instillers of morals, not information. This is *not*, I repeat *not*, their job.

  14. Amritas,
    I think the “Citizen of North America” comes from the Spanish. In South America, citizens of the US are known as “norteamericanos.” They do have a separate name for Canadians but I don’t remember it from my college Spanish.

  15. It didn’t occur to me that they would actually change other works, which I disagree with. I still see no objection in trying to humanity instead of mankind when writing, say, those idiotic questions they seem to feel necessary to put at the end of every short story, or when writing a textbook.

    As Ravitch points out, trying to choose words more carefully began with the hope of encouraging diversity, ensuring that our educational materials would include people of different experiences and social backgrounds, which is an admirable goal. And insofar as this does not require changing history or other people’s words (which is quite far, although it has gone further even than that), I support it.

  16. C.Herger, I don’t think teachers are behind this one.

  17. What Ravitch writes about in “The Language Police” hearkens back to one of Joanne’s earlier topics — the panic that ensues when ONE PERSON says he’s offended by something. All the guidelines serve to do is make sure nobody could possibly be offended by anything. She very accurately points out that things that are removed or changed often result in several things happening — the dumbing down of education, the rewriting of history, and leaving out things in a work of fiction that are SUPPOSED to offend people or be historically-accurate pictures of life at a particular time.

    The lack of knowledge that most Americans have of the nation’s history is already appalling. The way it’s being written in textbooks, thanks to all the guidelines that have to be followed, makes history exceedingly boring and prevents kids from learning about much of what really happened and why it happened. I could go on for days about this because it’s something that really offends me (pun very much intended).

  18. PJ/Maryland says:

    “That’s one small step for a person, but a giant leap for humanity!”

    Except, might not some people be offended by the words “small” and “giant”?

    (What are the odds of seeing Randy Newman’s “Short People” lyrics in a NYS text book? Slim, you say? But I find that word offensive!)

  19. PJ/Maryland says:

    Joanne’s mention of pictures makes me wonder when those will start to be censored, too. Can we Photoshop each picture so you can’t tell if the people in it are black or white, male or female?

    Reminds me of LeGuin’s The Lathe of Heaven, where (at one point) the world is populated entirely by people with grey skin.

  20. What next? The Niger River would be romved from maps in school?

  21. What next? The Niger River would be removed from maps in school?

  22. What’s the work-around for “penmanship”?

  23. Perpersonship–or keyboard skills.

    The Sci-Fi classic that hits home here is “Facial Justice” where the very good-looking (or VGL) are made uglier. If there aren’t yachts in Nebraska or Bed-Sty, then there aren’t yachts anywhere.

  24. Actually, the PC rules apply to pictures too. Nobody can be shown eating with the left hand as this is said to offend Muslims. Grandma can be shown riding a motorcycle but not baking cookies or walking with a cane. Etcetera.

    This is not new. I had a job 30 years ago as a flunky for a woman writing an American history curriculum for use in California Youth Authority (kiddie prison) schools. Part of my job was to change “mankind” to “human kind.” The ethnic consultants nearly drove my boss nuts. They turned U.S. history into ethnic studies. At one point, they insisted she include material about slave revolts. I suggested it was a mistake to tell juvenile prisoners about putting ground glass in someone else’s food. My boss agreed but she was under orders to depict non-docile slaves.

  25. Teachers don’t write the textbooks (which is why I don’t use textbooks — we study novels and I create nearly all of my own materials).

    But, historically, teachers *were* in charge of instilling morals in their students. Not long ago some around here were extolling the McGuffy Readers because they dole out moral lessons along with the academics.

  26. Two thoughts:

    1. This reminds of the Ebonics fiasco in Oakland of about 5 years ago. My reaction at that time was “God help anyone who sends their kids to these schools, actually expecting them to get a decent education.” That’s exactly what I find myself saying about New York in this case.
    2. I had an instructor in college who would cross out “man” or “mankind” and substitute “human” or “humankind.” I’d been warned about this before I took her class, but I continued to use the verboten words just for the fun of it.

  27. Daryl,

    You wrote:

    “I think the “Citizen of North America” comes from the Spanish.”

    Thanks for the info. But I don’t understand why anyone would want to calque Spanish when the phrase “citizen of the United States” already exists? The Spanish calque is not only unfamiliar but confusing. Maybe somebody thought a Spanish-based calque would be more “multicultural,” more “accomodating” to Spanish speakers, etc.

  28. “Actually, the PC rules apply to pictures too. Nobody can be shown eating with the left hand as this is said to offend Muslims. Grandma can be shown riding a motorcycle but not baking cookies or walking with a cane.” But Grandma ridiing a motorcycle will offend Muslims even more.

  29. Cousin Dave says:

    PJ and Kate, for me the sci-fi that comes to mind is Ayn Rand’s “Anthem”, where they did this in a neater fashion by simply totally eliminating the individual. You may now address me as Equality-1616.

    Never thought I’d see the day.

  30. anna nonymous says:

    The Niger River will be respelled as the Nyjer River, as was done in the birdseed industry for niger seed, which is now nyjer seed because of the fear of mispronunciation by some stupid twit, which is of course pronounced tweet.

  31. The sci-fi (and often read in high school) novel which springs to my minds is Fahrenheit 451. Captain Beatty goes into a long sermon as to why books were finally removed and outlawed from the land and the crux of the matter was [gasp] offending people so the offensive bits were taken out bit by bit until nothing was left.

    I’ve looked at The Language Police a few times. I may need to buy it to go along with the next time I teach F451. And I will also have to look more closely at the short stories by Bradbury in the literature anthology, since in the Coda to F451 he makes mention that there have been times he’d been approached to have a short work included in an anthology but it would need to be revised here and there. Oh, the irony. And the sadness.

  32. CHOP UP


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