- The Washington Times - Monday, April 25, 2022

Google is pausing a controversial “inclusive language” feature that it launched this month to correct writers who type what the company deems as politically incorrect words or phrases into its online word processor.

The Google Docs “assistive writing” function proposes gender-neutral alternatives to words like “policeman” or “housewife” in a manner similar to the way that other software services correct spelling and grammar issues.

It suggests “police officers” and “stay-at-home-spouse” instead, according to multiple online sources who objected to the feature’s inconsistencies.

In an email to The Washington Times on Monday, a Google spokesperson said the company was examining concerns that the assisted writing feature could “over or undercorrect certain phrases” for inclusivity.

“We’re looking more carefully at the inclusive language suggestions and have paused those for further review while we continue to improve this feature,” the spokesperson wrote.

She said the feature uses artificial intelligence “like a thesaurus or spell checker” to build algorithms for the suggested writing changes “based on millions of common phrases and sentences.”

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The decision comes amid a divided reaction to the policy’s fairness and to Google’s language about it.

“Potentially discriminatory or inappropriate language will be flagged, along with suggestions on how to make your writing more inclusive and appropriate for your audience,” Google said in a March 31 press release announcing the feature.

Users who typed in flagged content this month received a warning that their writing “may not be inclusive to all readers,” or language to that effect, and a prompt to change their word choice.

The Google Developer Documentation Style Guide — published last year in preparation for the new feature — also warns writers against violent-sounding words like “hit” and “problematic ableist language” that arise from “figures of speech and other turns of phrase” hurtful to people with intellectual and physical disabilities.

“Ableist language includes words or phrases such as crazy, insane, blind to or blind eye to, cripple, dumb, and others,” the style guide states. “Choose alternative words depending on the context.”

Karene A. Putney, a business consultant at the Maryland-based Etiquette Etiquette, praised Google’s effort to make writers more sensitive.

“To be more inclusive, we must shift to a more cultural sensitivity awareness,” Ms. Putney told The Washington Times in an email.

“Start by seeing the world through the lens of others,” she added. “I think tech companies are now seeing the shift in a global economy and diversity.”

Jonathan Zimmerman, a professor in the history of education at the University of Pennsylvania, added that it’s not censorship if writers can still use their words of choice.

“I don’t have a problem with Google making suggestions for alternative words and phrases,” Mr. Zimmerman said. “The real problem arises when our institutions require them.”

But Allen Mendenhall, associate dean of the Sorrell College of Business at Troy University in Alabama, said the new function could run ahead of the normal evolution of language in a problematic way.

“In retrospect, trendy attempts to conform language to fleeting ideological standards seem ridiculous and silly,” Mr. Mendenhall said.

“Censorship and expurgation whether by government or private groups may seem right in the moment, but the future rarely judges them with favor.”

Some media outlets on Monday pointed out inconsistencies and irritations in the new assistive writing feature.

The new policy meant that writers who would type “landlord” in a Google Docs file would receive the suggestion that they use “property owner” or “proprietor” instead, the Daily Mail reported.

The British newspaper noted that the new Google feature suggests changing President John F. Kennedy’s inaugural address to say “for all humankind” instead of “for all mankind.’”

The Daily Mail also reported that a “transcribed interview with ex Klu Klux Klan leader David Duke, in which he uses offensive racial slurs and talks about hunting black people, prompted no warnings” when journalists entered it into Google Docs.

Emily Lipstein, senior social media editor at Vice, said she received this disclaimer when she typed the word “motherboard” into a document: “Inclusive warning. Some of these words may not be inclusive to all readers. Consider using different words.” 

Conservatives said Monday that the function could chill freedom of expression by attempting to control the words Americans use.

Chris Talgo, a fellow at the right-leaning Heartland Institute’s Socialism Research Center in Illinois, said the function is “yet another step toward even greater Big Tech censorship” for Americans already upset that “Google manipulates search results to favor its preferred ideological narrative.”

“For far too long, Google has engaged in Orwellian tactics to tip the national conversation in the direction it prefers, this latest move is simply more of the same,” Mr. Talgo said.

Tamra Farah, a senior director at the conservative parental rights group Moms for America, said the function is also an attempt to control how schoolchildren express themselves.

“This is the epitome of censorship when Google chooses to remove words we use in everyday speech,” Ms. Farah said. “It’s time for tech companies to be considered utilities and to be regulated accordingly.”

• Sean Salai can be reached at ssalai@washingtontimes.com.

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