Language Police at James Madison U Issue List of ’35 Dumb Things’ Not to Say

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By Jillian Kay Melchior | 5:15 pm, October 9, 2016

• James Madison University welcomed freshman this fall with a list of “35 Dumb Things Well-Intentioned People Say”.

• List cautions against telling someone he or she has “a pretty face” because it might imply that the person is fat.

• Another “dumb” thing to say: “I know exactly how you feel”.

• Black people should not be asked about their hair.

• You should never compliment someone on their language skills.

Student volunteers welcoming freshmen at James Madison University this year received a list of “35 Dumb Things Well-Intentioned People Say: Surprising Things We Say that Widen the Diversity Gap.”

The handout, taken from a book by diversity trainer Maura Cullen, cautions against a host of potentially offensive phrases and “microaggressions”.

Bill Wyatt, a spokesman for James Madison University, provided the full list to Heat Street. He says it was distributed as a conversation starter for students seeking to help freshmen feel welcome on campus.

“It was a critical thinking exercise to get volunteers to think about how their speech affects others,” Wyatt said in an email. “It is not a speech code. It was never suggested that these phrases can’t be used. … There is no speech code at James Madison University and, since we are named after the father of the Constitution, we honor free speech here.”

According to the handout, students’ language can signal all sorts of sneakily horrible things.

For instance, the handout says it’s a bad idea to tell a woman she has a pretty face, the handout says, because it’s “usually said to ‘overweight’ people as a way to compliment them, and to offer hope that if they just shed some pounds the rest of their body could be pretty as well. … The statement infers [sic] that the person has so much potential, if only they weren’t fat.”

Calling someone with a disability “courageous” actually “paints the person with the disability as a superhuman, and can be seen as condescending.” And commending someone on language skills is “a form of racial profiling disguised as a compliment,” the handout said.

Empathizing by saying “I know exactly how you feel,” the handout says, “typically shuts the other person down because you simply can’t know exactly how anyone feels. You may have similar experiences, but at that moment, the conversation is not about you, it is about them.”

Similarly, Cullen claims it’s “a conversation stopper” to say “the same thing happens to me, too.”

Perhaps James Madison University should engage in some “critical thinking exercises” of its own.

Jillian Kay Melchior writes for Heat Street and is a fellow for the Steamboat Institute and the Independent Women’s Forum.