The University of Washington made news headlines with their Tacoma Writing Center’s “Statement on Antiracist and Social Justice Work in the Writing Center.” Headlines declared, “College Writing Center Declares American Grammar A ‘Racist,’ ‘Unjust Language Structure’,” “College teaches American grammar is ‘racist’,” and “College writing center: Proper grammar perpetuates ‘racist,’ ‘unjust language structure.”
In part, the reaction is against quotes from the UW statement like the following;
The racist conditions of our society are not simply a matter of bias or prejudice that some people hold. In fact, most racism, for instance, is not accomplished through intent. Racism is the normal condition of things. Racism is pervasive. It is in the systems, structures, rules, languages, expectations, and guidelines that make up our classes, school, and society. For example, linguistic and writing research has shown clearly for many decades that there is no inherent “standard” of English. Language is constantly changing. These two facts make it very difficult to justify placing people in hierarchies or restricting opportunities and privileges because of the way people communicate in particular versions of English.
Furthermore, by acknowledging and critiquing the systemic racism that forms parts of UWT and the languages and literacies expected in it, students and writing center consultants can cultivate a more socially just future for everyone. Just avoiding racism is not enough because it means we are doing nothing to stop racism at large, and it amounts to allowing racism to continue.
Some of the key commitments are outlined in their paper,
- emphasize the importance of rhetorical situations over grammatical “correctness” in the production of texts
- provide students ways to be more aware of grammar as a rhetorical set of choices with various consequences;
- challenge conventional word choices and writing explanations;
The UWT statement concludes,
We also realize that racism is connected to other forms of social injustice, such as classism, sexism, heteronormative assumptions, etc., in similar ways. We promise further to do our best to compassionately address these issues as they pertain to student writing as well.
The director of the UWT writing center, Dr. Asao Inoue, and John Burkhardt have defended the writing center statement as important for changing the systemic structures of racism that now define the University of Washington’s Tacoma campus, all of academia, and Western society as a whole.
The Center works to raise awareness that language is part of a larger system than can unintentionally perpetuate racial and social inequities. The term “racism” in this context is not about people behaving badly; it is about helping students understand language as part of a larger cultural system.
These concepts add to what students are learning about English and writing and help them understand they have choices in how they use language. They provide students with tools for how language can be applied effectively in different contexts.
Critics at The Daily Caller have observed, “The Tacoma Writing Center’s prioritization of social justice over grammar resembles previous concerted efforts to legitimize incorrect speech, such as Ebonics, “inventive spelling,” and “whole language.”” This connection to previous movements is important as it reminds us that this statement from UW was not made in a vacuum. Recently, a portrait of William Shakespeare was removed by students from the University of Pennsylvania and replaced by with a portrait of Audre Lorde who describes herself as a “Black feminist, lesbian, poet, mother, [and] warrior.” UPenn English Chair Jed Esty has since written an email to English majors stating, “We invite everyone to join us in the task of critical thinking about the changing nature of authorship, the history of language, and the political life of symbols.”
Will changing the rules of grammar eliminate racism? No, and to be fair, I don’t think that is precisely what is being argued by UWT. That may be an implied point, but not what they are trying to say. What they are arguing is much deeper. These statements above taken together reflect a larger movement in academia that has long embraced linguistic deconstruction through a postmodernist lens. For those unfamiliar, Ravi Zacharias has described postmodernism as a movement against truth, meaning, and certainty that rejects the idea of a meta-narrative (e.g. a Christian worldview) based on an epistemology that holds to the limitless instability of words. Zaharias’ last words are key to understanding what is happening at UW, UPenn and all across Western academia.
First, it is a movement to deconstruct the referential use of language and erode any reasonable foundation for coherence in the traditions of Western civilization (e.g. democracy rule of law, marriage, economics, etc…). The ‘limitless instability of language’ is a primal truth in the postmodern language convention which seeks to redefine language based on cultural context, rhetorical situations, and situational choice. In the case of UW, the goal is quite simple. if one wants to eliminate systemic racism, one must redefine the very meaning of words and the structures of grammar so that any foundation for truth, meaning, and certainly within the American context can be eliminated and replaced with a new egalitarian system.
Second, it is a post-structuralist movement that, lacking any meta-narrative, concludes characteristics like individual identity and moral values have no intrinsic value. Values are not objective and absolute but instead determined by relativistic conditions within a culture. The reason racism exists, so the argument goes, is because the structures, institutions, and language of society have fostered it. This is in some form an adaptation of Descartes’s idea theory of perception applied to how one defines the very nature of being.
The “self” is a bundle of social roles, such as being a wife, a mother, a graduate student, an insurance salesperson, and these roles are created by the linguistic practices associated with them. For the postmodernist, consciousness and the self are social, not individual.
Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig (2009-09-20). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (p. 148). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
The problem with the UW statement goes far deeper than a rejection of objective rules of grammar. The ad-hoc post-modern worldview that undergirds this statement is ultimately a rejection of any inherent meaning in words which in turn leads to a wholly transient morality and ties human dignity to the whims of society.
Here is a description of post-modern philosophy in contrast to philosophical realism that should help process the thought behind this movement to reinvent grammar.
Philosophically, metaphysical realism includes a commitment to (1) the existence of a theory-independent or language-independent reality, (2) the notion that there is one way the world really is and (3) the notion that the basic laws of logic (identity, noncontradiction, excluded middle) apply to reality. Postmodernism involves an antirealist rejection of these realist commitments. According to postmodernism, “reality” is a social construction. Language creates reality, and what is real for one linguistic group may be unreal for another.
Moreland, James Porter; William Lane Craig (2009-09-20). Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview (p. 145). InterVarsity Press. Kindle Edition.
Thus, for these deconstructionist reformers, the Christian meta-narrative of the human sin nature, the need for redemption, and the hope of restoration through the salvation of Jesus Christ is seen as one more system to be deconstructed before any real progress can be made.
These are just a few of my initial observations, but certainly incomplete. So let me ask:
- What problems do you see?
- What ideas do you have for engaging the minds of those who accept these ideas?