When reading about speech censorship on university campuses both in the UK and across the pond, I wondered if it was all just catastrophising based on a few outlier events. This was until I began my master’s degree and I realised we may indeed be heading towards a semi-Orwellian nightmare. References to Nineteen EightyFour and Orwell’s writing more generally seem to be rather fashionable at the moment and are becoming somewhat of a cliché. Nevertheless, Orwell’s Newspeak seems like the perfect term for the phenomenon occurring on our campuses.
Newspeak is a language invented by the fictitious totalitarian regime in Nineteen Eighty-Four, designed to restrict the vocabulary of citizens. Syme, one of the protagonist’s colleagues in the book, says:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
This is beginning to feel oddly familiar. In one particular master’s module, my lecturer gave us a snowballing list of words we were no longer allowed to use. “Global” and “local” are two words on the taboo list. Apparently, the words “global” and “local” are offensive to locals, as it implies the superiority of cosmopolitan “global” elites. Ironically, this seems to mean that I am no longer allowed to utter the name of the department in which I am studying: Global Studies.
In one class, I used the phrase “developing country” and was chastised by my lecturer, who saw this as an opportunity to educate me on the evils of the paternalistic language of our colonial legacy. In progressive parlance, the terms “developing/developed countries” have now been replaced with the “global South/North” (am I allowed to use “global” in this setting?). Confusingly, these new terms do not even correspond particularly coherently to a geographical North/South divide.
Many foreign students seem baffled by this type of censorship. Some of my classmates from the “global South” still refer to their countries as “third world” and seem to have little interest in learning the “correct” jargon designed by elite academics to avoid offending this very same group of people.
On another course, students were told they must not use the phrase “poor people” when discussing, well, poor people. According to lecturers, this phrase imposes western standards of what “poor” means on those who may live very “rich” lives in terms of family, happiness and community.
This culture of vocabulary suppression that is being bred in universities does not stay within the campus gates. Last December, I mentioned that it was the start of Hanukkah to some friends, as I was writing a short story aimed at teaching children about the holiday. In doing so I referred to Jewish people as “Jews” and was advised that this might be considered an offensive slur. I was stunned by the idea that using the word “Jews” in the context of celebrating Jewish culture could be considered “harmful”. Even this is not where the problematisation of regular discourse stops. Far from it.
In fact, the phenomenon is gradually seeping out of academia and into the mainstream. Across the pond, as of January this year, the US Congress Standing Rules now use only gender-neutral language. “Mother”, “uncle”, “sister” and “nephew” are amongst the banned words. In the UK, Brighton’s NHS Trust now advises health workers to use gender-neutral language, particularly when discussing motherhood… uh, sorry, parenthood. Maternity unit staff should refer to breastfeeding as “chestfeeding” and breast milk as “chest milk” in a bid to become more trans-inclusive. Although the Trust has emphasised that the language guidelines are not compulsory, I worry that rules limiting vocabulary may spread to more and more domains.
Of course, certain phrases may go out of use as public sensibilities adapt. I understand this and think that it can be a good thing – we alter how we speak in order to reflect our ever-expanding perspectives. However, this language censorship goes beyond this. It stems from an over-zealous attention to discourse and the problematisation of any vocabulary that might not be in line with the Critical Social Justice agenda. In such a worldview, any language that may be deemed offensive to someone or that supposedly reinforces existing power hierarchies is absolutely verboten. Unfortunately, the criteria that these academics use to determine whether language is offensive or hegemonic are usually informed by a cocktail of identity politics and self-flagellation from which almost anything can be seen as problematic. If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
Treading on egg-shells when trying to discuss complex topics in class is not conducive to learning. Neither is making language more blurred and confusing than it already is. Perhaps in twenty years’ time, I will be required by law to refer to my niece as “my sibling’s offspring”. Or perhaps we will all realise this is bonkers and manage to pull back from the brink before we are all dominated by a (new) Newspeak.
After studying Architecture at the University of Nottingham, Laura Walker-Beaven worked in fundraising and international development. She is currently studying a masters in Human Rights, during which she has become increasingly concerned about the impact of Critical Social Justice on universities.