EHLI: Inclusive or Elitism – by Dr. Deborah Ashton

 Stanford University’s Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI)

Stanford University in December of 2022 issued the Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) to eliminate potentially harmful terms used in the United States within the technology community. Most of the recommendations are trying to avoid trivializing people’s experiences and avoid devaluing others. Other recommendations, from this reader’s experience, are a stretch and assume that we are not able to distinguish the context in which a word or phrase is used. 

The EHLI is a courageous and noble endeavor. I would also argue it is US-centric, Anglophilia, and elitist! And may or may not be transferrable to the larger society.

The following is a sampling of the terms/phrases in the EHLI’s thirteen pages of terms and my reaction to them. 

As EHLI warns on its website: This website[article] contains language that is [may be] offensive or harmful. Please engage with this website[article] at your own pace.

According to EHLI:

  • “Ableist language is language that is offensive to people who live with disabilities…”
    • Addicted is not to be used because it “trivializes the experiences of people who deal with substance abuse issues.”  Instead, hooked, or devoted should be used, for instance, “I am hooked on crossword puzzles.” I get it! Addiction is a physical and mental dependence that a person is unable to stop without experiencing harmful consequences. Do not trivialize it!
    • Retard (n) is not to be used. Frankly, I thought that word was obsolete and considered a slur over a half a century ago. 
      • The term retarded originated from the Latin retardare meaning something that is delayed. 
      • In the early 1900s, idiot (IQ of 0-25), imbecile (IQ of 26 to 50) and moron (IQ of 51 to 70) were psychological classifications. An IQ of 100 was and is average. In the 1950s and 60s, there was a rash of little moron jokes. In psychology, those terms fell into disuse because they became derogatory. 
      • In the 1970s, to replace the previous classifications that had become slurs over time, the classifications became mild mental retardation (IQ of 55 to 69), moderate mental retardation (IQ of 40 to 54), severe mental retardation (IQ of 25 to 39) and profound mental retardation (IQ less than 25 and mental age of 3-year-old or less). Bullies tend to make any term into a slur. Mental retardation became the slur, retard. 
      • In 2013, psychology changed the terms to intellectual and developmental disabilities (IDDs). However, these terms over time may also fall, given a bully may refer to children or adolescent with IDDs as DDs in a derogatory manner. 
      • The EHLI recommends using the following terms: person with a cognitive disability, person with autism, neurodivergent person. The rule EHLI follows is the person first rule because the disability is only one of the person’s many characteristics. This is an outgrowth of the1990 Americans with Disabilities Act. However, I have found that there are exceptions to every rule. While psychologists follow the person first rule, many autistic people prefer the terminology autistic person because autism is part of who they are, and autism is not simply a characteristic. 
  • Imprecise language is terms that utilize euphemisms, vagueness, or inaccurate words…”
    • Abort should be avoided because of religious/moral concerns over abortion; instead, cancel or end should be used. I will share that I am Catholic and have nuns for friends. I would argue whether individuals are pro-life or pro-choice, they can understand the context of abort as an exclamative. If someone is on reconnaissance or on a military mission, they will understand the context of “Abort! Abort!” 
    • American should not be used by citizens of the US, instead EHLI recommends that US Citizen should be used because calling US Citizens, Americans, signals that the other 41 American countries are inconsequential.
      • I would argue that US Citizens, Brazilians, Peruvians, Panamanians, Canadians, etc. are all Americans. When the USA was founded, the democratic republic’s name simply described what they were, the United States of America. 
      • Frankly, I thought EHLI would have used US American as the alternative. Or for grammar convention, given that the United States ends with a “s,” we could call a person from the US, United Statesian, which is the term found in Merriam-Webster Dictionary.
      • While using American to designate a United Statesian or US American may be inaccurate, after the attack on 9/11, I will admit that I proudly used the I am an American! video for solidarity and inclusion. I Am An American 9/11 – Ad Council (60 seconds) – YouTube Whether individuals were Jewish, Muslim, Sikh, Christian, Hindu, etc., regardless of race or ancestry, we, US Americans, were all included in the term. In times of crises, we use the familiar.
    • Hispanic should not be used. Instead EHLI recommends using Latinx or the using the country of origin.
      • Even though EHLI recommends Latinx, surveys show that Latinx is used by only 3% of the Latino population and 40% of Latinos dislikes the term Latinx. Admittedly, Hispanic is a nonbinary term that the 3% who identify as Latinx do not embrace it. However, for the plurality, Latinx is an elitist term that disrespect the Latin culture. It is US-centric and an Anglophilia. The Romance languages tend to identify terms by gender. For Spanish-speaking people, if asked, they preferred names that are relevant to their ancestry. For instance, on the East Coast, depending on the ancestry, Puerto Rican or Cubano were preferred designations or on the West Coast, Chicano was preferred for individuals of Mexican descent.
    • People of Color (used generically) should not be used. I think whether the term, people of color, is used should be up to a person of color. While EHLI recommends BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), I know Black people who hate the acronym, BIPOC. I prefer to identify the specific group(s) that are being discussed or to use people of color. 
  • Gender-based language includes a range of words and phrases that are not helpful, and…
    • He or She should not be used. EHLI recommends using a person’s name or “they”.
      • From my perspective, using the person’s name is the most respectful since it is rude to refer to a person in the third person when they are present. Using ‘they’ drips of elitism, Anglophilia and being US-centric, since in the Romance languages, such as, Spanish, the third person plural is still gender distinctive. However, it is a matter of when in Rome do as the Romans do. According to the World Atlas of Language Structures most Indo-European languages have gender distinction personal pronouns. There are 254 languages that do not have gender distinction personal pronouns for 1st and 2nd person. Please note, English does not have gender distinction personal pronouns for 1st and 2nd person, i.e., I, we, you. Languages that have gender-neutral third person singular pronouns, tend to qualify the pronoun by describing the person, many times by gender, for example, the man or the woman.
      • Ironically, for years, Western women were coached to own their power and to use I, first person singular, rather than constantly using we, first person plural, in job interviews. By using first person singular, the interviewer would know that she had many successes rather than the team had many successes. Imagine, the woman who has own her accomplishments, now observes an interviewer attributing her accomplishments to them! Frankly, if English is going to embrace a non-binary for the third person singular ze, zir and zem are less confusing as a nonbinary singular pronoun than they. 
      • Remember, outside of academia and some corporate cultures, most English speakers will think it odd for someone to refer to them singular as they. I dare say in some places, a person of a certain size may even take offense and think they are being called they as body-shaming or contemptuously. And again, outside of academia and some corporate cultures, some people may take offense if you ask them what their pronoun is. They may think the question is disrespectful because they think their pronoun is obvious. The person asking the pronoun question may find they have unintentionally offended the other person. Know the surroundings! Know the mores!
      • According to research an estimated 0.3% adults identify as transgender, which means that 99.7% do not identify as transgender and many transgender people wish to be referred to as their identified gender. Individuals will be correct about 98% to 99% of the time referring to someone as the gender the person presents themselves, even controlling for gender fluidity. If you are wrong, apologize and use the pronoun the person identifies as. 
      • The actor Ian McKellen suggested using ‘love’ as a gender-neutral pronoun. He gave the example of a taxi driver asking him, ‘Where are you going, love?’ Oh, and I feel I’m home,” he said. “When grown men call strangers love.” As I thought about it, love was being used as a substitute for a gender-neutral pronoun already in use, i.e., you. You whether second person singular or second person plural in English is a gender-neutral pronoun. Of course, ‘you’ is used when people are talking directly with one another rather than when they are referencing or referring to a third party. Love, if it is in common use in a particular culture may be acceptable. But if it is not, a person may think it to be cheeky or overly familiar. 
      • My recommendation is to call people what they want to be called whether it is they, ze, she or he. If you know their name, refer to them by their name. And remember, I, we, and you are gender-neutral English pronouns. 
  • Institutionalized Racism is racism that is embedded in the laws and regulations of a society or an organization…
    • Brown Bag should not be used because historically it is “associated with the “brown paper bag test” that certain Black sororities and fraternities used to judge skin color.” EHLI recommends using lunch and learn and tech talk. I would not have passed the brown paper bag test. But we still have brown paper bags that some people use to bring their lunch to work. I know when I was in school, I brought my lunch to school in a brown paper bag. I doubt there are a substantial number of people having flashbacks because of a brown bag session. However, lunch and learn and tech talk are more precise.
    • Black Hat should not be used; instead EHLI recommends using “malicious, criminal, unethical hacker.” I concur with EHLI that negative terms, such as, black hat, black sheep (referring to a person), blackballed, etc. “assigns negative connotations to the color black, racializing the term.”
    • Scalper/scalping should not be used. According to EHLI, the “term refers to the practice of removing a piece of an enemy’s scalp with hair still attached. Although both colonizers and Indigenous Peoples performed the practice, it was used as proof of how savage the Natives were. Yet the colonizers were the ones who paid cash bounties for Native scalps…” EHLI recommends using reseller/opportunist. I concur that given the historical connotation of scalping, opportunist is accurate and is not racist.
    • White Hat Hacker should not be used; instead, use “ethical hacker.” I concur with EHLI that positive terms, such as, white paper, whitelist, etc. “assigns value connotations based on color (white = good), an act which is subconsciously racialized.” 
  • Additional Considerations: These are terms that do not fit into the other categories…
    • Gip (v) This term should not be used. It is “derived from “gypsy” and relates to the stereotype that Romani people are swindlers.” I concur with EHLI, use the word “cheat (if referring to what a dishonest person has done).”

Finally, it is important for us, to quote Stephen Covey, ‘to understand our circle of influence and control.’ We cannot yell, “Fire!!” in a crowded theater, or incite a riot and call it free speech. However, in a society that has free speech, we cannot dictate what others say. It is important to remember that elitism is one group’s belief that they have the right to dominate and determine how the hoi polloi, the masses, should act. We can remember that elite is a synonym for exclusive, NOT inclusive. It is important for us to know where our rights end and another’s rights begin. We can give each other the benefit of the doubt and seek mutual understanding of the other’s perspective. We can expect civility and a reciprocity of respect!


Photo by Vadim Sherbakov on Unsplash

Dr. Deborah Ashton

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