When Dictionary.com announced “woman” as its word of the year, it cited a spike in searches after Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson declined to define the word during her confirmation hearing. “It was a rare case of not just a word in the spotlight, but a definition,” the site observed.
The dictionary was slammed on Twitter for being “ambivalent about trans rights” and engaging in “anti-trans politcking.” Its sin? Observing that “transgender identity and rights are now frequently at the forefront of our national discourse” and defining a woman as an “adult female person” (a “TERF dogwhistle”).
Dictionary.com has admittedly fallen behind other outlets. Alongside “adult female human being,” the Cambridge Dictionary has added a second definition: “an adult who lives and identifies as female though they may have been said to have a different sex at birth.”
At least Cambridge didn’t delete the first option. Other resources, like the American Psychological Association style manual, have caved completely to progressive activists. The association states that “sex” refers to “biological sex assignment,” thus adopting the language of contemporary gender ideology.
The idea that the definition of “woman” is up for debate comes as a shock to many Americans. Progressive activists certainly don’t want to debate it. Their strategy is to pretend there is no debate and gaslight everyone into believing their radical (and ever-evolving) definitions are normative.
They’re doing the same thing on college campuses. Activist bureaucrats and professors are developing new glossaries and style guides that encourage everyone to conform to progressive ideas about diversity, equity, and inclusion. These guides claim to be providing shared standards for inclusive communication, but they reveal an authoritarian desire to silence heterodox voices and compel ideological conformity.
“The ways in which we communicate with each other should always seek to honor the humanity of each person who crosses paths with our institution—where no one perspective is more worthy than another,” reads the introduction to a new style guide at the University of Utah. The authors obviously do not welcome or endorse every perspective, since their goal, by publishing such a guide, is to encourage (some might say dictate) language that reflects their own perspective, values, and understanding of reality.
For example, the guide counsels against using “color blind” to indicate that “you or your organization treats everyone the same.” Does this mean one should reject decisions of the United States Supreme Court that have described the Constitution as “color blind?”
Under “gender” (a category that appears in addition to “LGBTQIA+” and yet seems concerned almost entirely with advancing trans activism), the guide asks readers to consider using “pregnant people” instead of “pregnant women.” Is that what it says in the biology department’s textbooks?
Inclusive style guides and glossaries like the one in Utah are proliferating throughout American higher education. They are often cut-and-paste jobs copied from common sources such as the glossary at Virginia Commonwealth University. While following them is usually not mandatory, they exert cultural pressure and contribute to a campus climate that discourages free expression and demands assent to progressive dogmas.
The Inclusive Glossary at Villanova University exemplifies the authoritarian nature of these documents. The introduction says it is “intended to serve as a centralized, single resource for students, faculty, staff and administrators” and that “instead of individual efforts across departments and programs, which may address different terms and scopes of diversity, this document will help to establish discursive norms that unify the conversations happening across Villanova communities.”
The glossary then proceeds to define “gender binary” as “the disproven concept that there are only two genders, man and woman, and that everyone must be one or the other.” This attempt to settle a contentious question by fiat has no place at a university, which should support the free pursuit of truth.
That the authors copied the definition from PFLAG, an LGBTQ activist group, tells us something about how they think. They probably didn’t consider that PFLAG, a nonacademic organization, is not subject to the same expectations of academic freedom, open discourse, or peer review one finds at a university. That’s not a thought that would occur to anyone who thinks of a university as a vehicle for activism.
While these guides and glossaries attempt to impose uniformity of language—and therefore thought and action—they also ironically repeat like a mantra the observation that language evolves and that, therefore, constant updating will be required. This admission of fallibility does not become an occasion for humility, however. Nor does it mean that members of the university community should think for themselves. Why would they do that when they can come back every year to get an updated account of what they’re supposed to think and say?
Take the concept of “preferred pronouns,” for example. This phrase only gained significant usage in the past decade, yet Villanova’s glossary orders readers: “Archaic—do not use. It should not be optional for people to use them or not use. It’s rude not to use the pronouns that people claim.”
Style guides aren’t what they used to be. Unlike an old copy of Strunk and White’s Elements of Style or the Chicago Manual of Style, these guides to wokespeak don’t just tell us how to write; they tell us what to write and what to think. They certainly don’t allow for the old advice that one should master the rules so one can break them. Their purpose is to ensure that nothing is said that strays from approved progressive dogma, which directly contradicts the notion that universities should promote open inquiry, rigorous debate, intellectual exploration and, yes, free speech.
This article originally appeared in Newsweek on December 22, 2022.