“What Sort of Burden Does It Place on the University … to Strike ‘of Our Lord’ from the Diploma?”

So asks commenter Skibum3157 on the Trinity University thread:

I think people in most instances should probably just deal with the dating system. Nevertheless, what sort of burden does it place on the university to strike the language “of our Lord” from the diploma? To me, it seems the refusal to do so is based in stubbornness rather than reason.

Let me offer an answer drawn from an older post of mine:

1. Most shifts in language are not cost-free. “The Year of Our Lord” has its own feel to it — not a religious one these days, but a traditionalism of the sort that some people seem to like on their diplomas. Tradition has its own value to many people, quite apart from the substance of the tradition. So it likely would be a burden, probably not the university but to its alumni, to know that this tradition has been broken. Not a great burden, but it’s not a great burden on people to have “Year of our Lord” on their diplomas, either.

2. But the more important cost to the speaker is that telling people that they should stop saying certain words, simply because some other people dislike those words, is itself something of an affront to dignity and a possible source of offense. Even the good-mannered among us cherish our freedom to speak as we please, and while we try not to be rude (in the sense of slighting others or saying bad things about them), we understandably bristle at being told to stop using this word and start using that one on pain of Being a Bad Person.

A sound explanation that shows why people are reasonably offended by a term (for instance, an explanation to someone coming from Russia, where “black” is insulting much like “yellow” would be, and “negro” is considered the proper scientific term, that in America “negro” is so rarely used that it sounds like a deliberate insult at worst or one of those what-did-he-mean-by-that? archaicisms at best) might soften the sting. But simply saying “a few of us object, so please change the way you write things” is a legitimate source of offense for those whose speech people are trying to control.

3. On top of that, there’s also another substantial cost to the “I asked, so please accommodate me” approach: It may actually increase how often the group that one is trying to protect from offense ends up feeling offended.

If young non-Christian college students learn that “Year of Our Lord” is just a tradition with little religious component, a few might still bristle at it, but many will be satisfied by the explanation. Say, though, that they are taught that reasonable institutions will change the usage if only objectors demand it, and say that some institutions nonetheless don’t go along (perhaps for some of the reasons I mention above). The the non-Christian students who keep seeing the phrase may well become more offended, because they’ve been taught that the word is offensive.

People who might even prefer to shrug the usage off might feel almost obligated to take it as an insult. If someone calls me “Gene” rather than “Eugene,” I’m a little annoyed (that’s just not the name I prefer in English), but I assume that it’s just because they’ve fallen into that habit with other Eugenes they know, who do go by Gene in a way that I don’t. I assume the speaker’s intentions were good, and I think I’m happier for it.

But if someone started a campaign of insisting that calling me Gene is actually rude, perhaps even insulting (because the diminutive implies a diminution of my status), I’d both hear “Gene” a bit less often, and be much more annoyed when I do hear it, precisely because I’ll worry that it’s a deliberate violation of the New Good Manners Rule and thus a deliberate slight. Those who make the “Year of Our Lord” issue into a matter of identity politics rather than just a matter of apricot/apricot (or even Gene/Eugene) may thus increase the amount of hurt feelings on both sides.

4. Finally, it’s not just “Year of Our Lord” that’s at stake, is it? It’s “handicapped,” and “American Indian,” and “Big Bang,” and who knows how many other terms. Naturally, many institutions pick their battles, and sometimes do change what they say. But one extra cost of such a change is that when one small group’s demands are accepted, it becomes harder to reject other groups’ similar demands.

So that counsels, I think, in favor of resistance to such demands, at least unless there’s a really good reason for acceding to them. (“Wait, you changed this phrase because the Muslims demanded it; why are you now discriminating against our assertedly similar objections?”) That’s why I take the opposite presumption from the one offered by the commenter — if there’s no reasonable basis for the objection, there’s good reason for colleges and similar institutions that value their self-expression to politely say that they’re going to stick with their established usages.

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