Canadian Broadcasting Corporation Warns: ‘Rethink’ Using ‘Offensive’ Terms Like ‘Brainstorm,’ ‘Blind Spot’

brainstorm
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The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC), with the help of “anti-racist and language experts,” compiled a list of “offensive” terms, including “blackmail,” “inner city,” “spooky,” “tribe,” “savage,” “blind spot,” “tone deaf,” and even “brainstorm,” warning readers to “think twice” before using them, and claiming sensitivity was more valuable than free speech.

In an essay titled “Words and phrases you may want to think twice about using,” CBC News reporter Priscilla Ki Sun Hwang presented a list [in bold] of “insensitive” words to be avoided.

“Have you ever casually used the terms ‘spirit animal,’ ‘first-world problem,’ or ‘spooky’?” the piece begins. “It might be time to rethink your use of these phrases and remove them from your daily lingo.”

According to Ai Taniguchi, a linguist and associate language studies professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga, though having already used a term without knowledge of its origin “doesn’t automatically make you a bad person,” subsequent to discovering a word’s “racist, sexist or ableist etymology” one has little defense.

“’I didn’t know it was racist’ does not eliminate the pain of the hearer,” she said. “As language users, we have the social responsibility to monitor the impact our utterances have on others, especially when it involves a marginalized group.”

She also declared that sensitivity to others was more valuable than free speech.

“Language, communication, and free speech are valuable, but these things cannot come at the cost of endangering someone else’s rights and pursuit of happiness,” Taniguchi said.

In addition, anti-racism trainer Jas Kalra demanded that if one is “call[ed] out” for using a particular term, they must stop its use immediately. 

“If somebody really calls us out on a particular word, we need to stop and say, ‘It’s not about me,'” said Kalra, who coaches on inclusion and diversity.

Calling the terms “blackmail,” “blacklist” and “black sheep” all “negative terms,” anti-racism trainer and educator Joseph Smith highlighted the “negative” associations implied in their use. 

“[It] connotes evil, distrust, lack of intelligence, ignorance, a lack beauty — the absence of white,” he said. 

“[Black] became associated with a particular group of people, and that group of people received all that negative connotation,” he added. “That’s why we try to move away from these kinds of terms.” 

Pointing to the tech industry’s distancing from terms such as “blacklist” and “whitelist,” Kalra claimed that such actions “enhance” words’ meanings.

“If we use the words ‘allow-list’ or ‘deny-list’ [instead] … it enhances the true understanding of that word,” she said.

The terms “ghetto” and “inner city” were also deemed offensive, according to Smith, as they connoted “dangerous and risky” places where people “less refined” and “who weren’t up to date culturally, development-wise” lived, in contrast to suburbs which have been depicted as “pleasant, quiet and gentle areas.”

According to Smith, the use of such terms “implies a negative connotation toward people of a certain socio-economic class (often associated with racialized groups) — typically those who have recently immigrated and often move to large metropolis areas and not suburbs.”

Noting how the term “spook” had been used as a racist slur against black soldiers during World War II, Smith also claimed the term “spooky” was offensive “because of who and to what it’s applied to.”

“There’s a history behind it and there’s also all these connections that are made to other groups,” he said. “It’s almost like these terms have tentacles that spread and attach themselves to other things and infect.”

Another phrase listed was “sold down the river,” which generally connotes a betrayal committed for some personal benefit.

“The negative connotation is hearkening back to a time when enslaved African people would be literally sold down the [Mississippi] river for profit, and seen as chattel, objects that could be used or disposed of at the whims of their slave owners,” Smith said.

The phrase “grandfathered in,” which generally connotes when one is exempt from new rules, was also blacklisted.

“It’s also speaking to that patriarchy … a patriarchic family having supreme power over how things operate and manifest, and them possessing all the power and autonomy to make decisions and dictate the course of the future,” said Smith.

“It’s re-inscribing the idea of a male-dominated society or world,” he added.

Terms deemed offensive to Indigenous people were also included.

Metaphors such as “spirit animal,” “powwow,” and “tribe” were noted for their potential to offend Indigenous communities. 

The essay noted that the “spiritual connection and reverence for nature and ancestors is deeply rooted across Indigenous cultures” while mere use of such phrases turns the concept “into a casual catchphrase.”

“[It’s] a reminder that their past and culture have always been treated as insignificant by settlers,” Taniguchi said.

The colloquial phrase “lowest on the totem pole,” which generally connotes one in the least important position, was also singled out.

Being “sacred items” in Indigenous culture, Kalra claimed use of the term was “culturally appropriating” in addition to being “contextually wrong.”

“When you’re culturally appropriating somebody’s cultural symbols … you’re saying that marginalized members of society are free for taking,” she said. 

Though, the essay admitted, the term “savage” generally carries a positive connotation, it, too, was deemed problematic due to colonizers viewing Indigenous and other people of color, as “savage, brutal, unrefined, and uncultured in comparison to European settlers.” 

The essay then quotes Indigenous educator Douglas Stewart as having said that “for Indigenous people, [‘savage’] is our N-word.”

The terms “gypsy” — a reference to the Roma ethnic group — and its derivative “gypped” — used to connote a cheat or swindle — were also listed.

“The term perpetuates the stereotype that Roma are lower class, not mature or cultured, and foreigners,” according to Smith. 

“You’re othering somebody,” he said.

The phrase “first-world problem,” a reference to relatively trivial issues, was deemed potentially “classist.” 

“When we’re saying first world, we’re putting them at the top,” Kalra said. “What does it convey?”  

“Why do we have to use these prefixes, which kind of dehumanize some country or some human being or a group?” she added.

Terms like “blind spot,” “blindsided,” and “blind leading the blind” were also deemed “offensive.”

“I can see that being offensive to people who can’t see,” said Julie Cashman, co-chair of the Consumer Action Committee, which advocates for individuals with disabilities. 

Even the term “brainstorm” was singled out for the potential to offend those with brain injuries and disorders.

“More important is the stigma that it will effectuate about …  disorders [like] epilepsy for example,” Kalra added.

Dumb,” a term used to connote an inability to speak, and “lame,” which refers to an inability to walk, are described as “highly offensive” when describing those with disabilities, or when used casually, Cashman claims.

“People now are using lame as a slang, so they go around saying ‘that’s lame,’” she said. 

“I don’t think they really understand what that means,” she added, “they just think it’s a cool term, but for me, when I hear that, I definitely know what that term means … it’s something I wouldn’t say.”

Tone-deaf,” which describes one unable to distinguish musical pitch, and colloquially to describe one who is out of touch, “may not be a kind term to those who have hearing impairments,” the essay states.

Cashman suggests using “musically disinclined” or simply “insensitive,” instead.

The “experts” also took issue with the term “crippled,” which connotes one unable to walk normally, or something severely damaged.

“It’s ableist,” said Hélène Courchesne, coordinator of planning and funding for ABLE2, a group supporting those with disabilities.

“It’s the pejorative connotation to it. You’re not as good as me, you’ll never be as good as me,” she explained.

“I’ve seen [‘crippled’] being used in the Bible,” Cashman said. “I think that’s very offensive.” 

She suggested the use of “disability” or “mobility issue” in its place. 

In response, many mocked the CBC’s new listing.

A Toronto Sun piece called the list of banned words “sophomoric, outrageous and wrong.”

Canada’s National Post featured an essay calling the CBC’s 18 banned words “the dumbest thing.”

“Even terms that were once staples of the left-wing lexicon are now lingua non grata,” it declared.

On social media, too, users took issue with the attempt at censorship.

“This is ridiculous. Context must be taken into account,” wrote one Twitter user. “If we were to ban all words that may offend someone then our language is lost.”

“Canada has gone crazy,” wrote another user.

“Nobody should use words like ‘rational’, ‘credible’ or ‘repeatable’ in reference to the CBC,” quipped another user.

This was not the first time that those on the left have sought to “cancel” common words.

In June, the Prevention, Advocacy & Resource Center (PARC) at Brandeis University in Waltham, Massachusetts, released an “Oppressive Language List” urging students to refrain from saying certain words and phrases deemed offensive. 

The list includes “policeman” as well as “crazy” and “walk-in,” and even calls on students to stop saying “trigger warning,” a leftist favorite on campus.

“PARC recognizes that language is a powerful tool used to perpetrate and perpetuate oppression,” states PARC on the school’s website. “As a community, we strive to remove oppressive language from our everyday use. This list is meant to be a tool to share information and suggestions about potentially oppressive language.”

Last month, students at the University of Florida expressed their belief that the term “Black Friday” should be changed before learning it had nothing to do with race.

Last year, the “Words Matter Task Force” at the University of Michigan compiled a list of dozens of offensive words and phrases — including “picnic” and “dummy” — for elimination from the university vocabulary.

The task force had already identified some three dozen potentially offensive words and phrases such as “brown bag,” “disabled,” “off the reservation,” “straw man,” and “sanity check,” all of which had been deemed non-PC.

Follow Joshua Klein on Twitter @JoshuaKlein.

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