"Speech codes are now littered with words that are ambiguous and opaque"by Frank Furedi / October 13, 2016 / Leave a comment
The first time I was told off for using “inappropriate language,” I thought my colleague was joking. We were university professors and speaking freely should come with the territory. But during the past decade, campus speech has increasingly been taken over by a vocabulary of doublespeak.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell identified the problem: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Many student activists have embraced this type of language, and university administrators have quietly given their approval to the point that speech codes are now littered with words that are ambiguous and opaque.
Terms such as “inappropriate,” “uncomfortable,” “unwelcome” or “problematic” condemn without offering information about the nature of the transgression. When another colleague complains about the “inappropriate behaviour” of a student I am left confused. Was it an insult, an act of disrespect or miscommunication, a sin or a crime? The characterisation of a word as “unwelcome” is so subjective and arbitrary that it can be applied to a bewildering variety of verbal communication.
Through their vagueness, these terms deliberately evade explicit responsibility for drawing moral boundaries and engaging in a coherent system of right and wrong. But vagueness does not merely obscure free and spontaneous verbal communication—it also constrains it. The words “appropriate” and “inappropriate,” arguably the most important example, demonstrate that clarity is not a priority for the authors of university guidelines on conduct.
Merely calling something inappropriate does not spell out why it is so. It avoids explaining what is right or wrong about a word or an act. Institutions that are uncomfortable with the ambiguities of human interaction adopt strict rules that outlaw “inappropriate” remarks or behaviour. The cultural significance of these rules is that they signal “beware”! They communicate ambivalence and mistrust towards the free expression of words and ideas.
Sometimes it is almost impossible to understand why certain words have been deemed inappropriate. At Flinders University in Adelaide, the Inclusive Language Guide rejects the term “stone age” in favour of “complex and diverse societies” or “efficient resource managers.” Even the most innocent of questions can become a target. “Asking for someone’s first name and/or last name…