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When Linguists Attack

Fed up with the PC domination of the academic linguistics, one professor fights back against the establishment.

12:00 AM, Sep 12, 2003 • By DAVID SKINNER
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WRITING IN THE Spring 2003 issue of Language, Paul Postal of New York University questions every possible rationale for the LSA's policy and visits many an argument offered by Macauley and Brice. Stating the obvious, Postal begins by noting that political considerations are not central to the mission of LSA or to that of linguists generally.

Then with the most withering sarcasm, Postal attacks the LSA policy for its exclusive focus on one type of offense. "There are many possible sources of offense, for example, those involving personal hygiene or dress habits (both potentially relevant to LSA meetings). Military organization and children's summer camps have codes about such matters. Should the LSA develop recommended lists of soaps and suggestions about how often to use them? Should shorts be banned or ties and brassieres required?"

Next the respected linguist asks why the guidelines don't address obscenity, racial epithets, "characterizations of people in drastically unkind ways," and so on. Good question. "As a consequence of the limitations, for no stated or justified reason, it accords perfectly with LSA policy to fill one's examples with . . . the most vicious hate-spewing, racially, ethnically, religiously, etc., demeaning remarks, but use of 'waitress,' 'chairman,' or generic 'man' puts one beyond the pale."

Almost as troubling to Postal is the threat to free speech represented by the guidelines on nonsexist language. He compares the policy to the law under which former French general Paul Aussaresses was prosecuted for "trying to justify war." The law and its supporters, writes Postal, are "incapable of distinguishing the content of views from the right to express them." But here's the good professor's jaw-breaking punch: "Underlying that incapacity is a dogmatic, total assurance of knowing exactly what things other people should be allowed to say. I believe the same impulse underlies the LSA guideline."

Furthermore, Postal points out, any standard that prohibits certain language because of its' being "offensive to" a certain group or person is necessarily subjective. This opens the door to a ban on words that merely seem offensive. Postal cites the case of a fourth-grade teacher in Hanover County, North Carolina who got in trouble last year for teaching the word "niggardly" during a vocabulary lesson. When a parent protested the racist-sounding word (which of course has nothing to do with African Americans), the teacher was pressured to apologize, received a formal reprimand, and was sent to sensitivity training.

Finally, Postal makes the rather daring argument that even if it were the case that women readers were harmed by female under-representation in example sentences, it still wouldn't justify the LSA's code. Pay special attention to his brilliant argument by analogy: "If some research showed that visually handicapped people are harmed by hearing or reading (in Braille) references to sight, would that justify a code banning 'look,' 'see,' and 'stare'? . . . At best, it would create a potential clash of distinct desirables (avoiding harm vs. freedom of speech; avoiding harm vs. reliance on individual responsibility)."

Rarely does one see an academic go postal like this (sorry, you were probably waiting for some more inventive play on this man's name), but the LSA policy and its defenders are more than deserving of such extraordinary orneriness. During the '90s, intellectual life on college campuses suffered profound harm from the advances of grievance-committee scholarship. Students who should have been arguing the relative merits of great literature and philosophy got caught up in late-night bull sessions about whether to call their female classmates womyn. Such victim-status politics has given scholarship a bad name and detracted from the higher pursuits that are supposed to the mission of higher education. Let's hope Postal's attack spawns many imitators.

David Skinner is an assistant managing editor at The Weekly Standard.