Campus Free Speech

Stanford Seeks the 'Elimination of Harmful Language' Like 'American,' 'Stupid,' and…'Karen'

Their suggested replacement for 'Karen' is far more offensive than the term itself.


Stanford University's IT department created a list of offensive terms and phrases accompanied by alternative recommendations. Until recently, the list was publicly available, but the university's website has made it password-protected after significant criticism.

"The Elimination of Harmful Language Initiative (EHLI) is a multi-phase, multi-year project to address harmful language in IT at Stanford," notes the list. "The goal of (EHLI) is to eliminate many forms of harmful language, including racist, violent, and biased (e.g., disability bias, ethnic bias, ethnic slurs, gender bias, implicit bias, sexual bias) language in Stanford websites and code."

The list, which was recently discovered—and ruthlessly mocked—by The Wall Street Journal will feel familiar to anyone who has ever encountered universities' microaggression reporting protocols. It includes somewhat outdated expressions with problematic racial origins that hardly anyone remembers, like "low man on the totem pole" and "long time no see." It also features many words and phrases that are inoffensive but could possibly be perceived as racial or gendered if you squinted at them long enough: "white paper," "webmaster," etc. The term "American" is disfavored on technical grounds, since not all Americans are denizens of the U.S.

Then there are a bunch of expressions to which the IT department objects because they are too vivid, including "beating a dead horse" and "take a stab at it." I would say that being against these terms is stupid or crazy, but both "stupid" and "crazy" are on the list as well.

The list also includes at least a few terms that were themselves preferred over supposedly more offensive options until very recently. A good example is "survivor," which used to appear as an acceptable substitute for "victim" but is apparently out of fashion: The IT department now prefers "person who has been impacted by." This is a good example of how attempts to make language more politically correct almost always involve making it more cumbersome.

But the list's runaway winner for most baffling inclusion is: "Karen," a term that only recently entered the cultural lexicon. Instead of saying "Karen," the IT department would like people to say "demanding or entitled White woman." (The latter strikes these ears as significantly more derisive, but I am not a Stanford guy, er, person.)

The Wall Street Journal story went viral—as entries in this category tend to—and was widely covered in conservative media. As always, one must note that neither Stanford nor other campuses are forcing students to stop saying these words. It is true, however, that dozens of schools have set up tip lines that explicitly permit students to report each other—and their teachers—for using harmful language. Unsurprisingly, Stanford is among them.