Home » Our Stories » The Value and Limits of Academic Speech » The Orwellian University 
Frank Furedi
Frank Furedi

I thought my colleague was joking, the first time I was told off for using inappropriate language. As a university professor I thought that speaking freely came with the territory. During the past decade, I learnt that campus speech is increasingly communicated through an Orwellian vocabulary of doublespeak.

Widely used terms such as ‘controversial’, ‘inappropriate’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘unwelcome’ or ‘problematic’ condemn without offering clarity about the nature of the transgression at stake. Yet they all signify unspecified offences and harms that must be censured or banned! University administrators have turned into quiet advocates of the use of these euphemisms. Their speech codes are littered with words that are ambiguous and opaque. In turn, many student activists have embraced the type of political language that George Orwell described as consisting ‘largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness’.

Take the word controversial. The Oxford English Dictionary defines this word as ‘giving rise or likely to give rise to controversy or public disagreement; subject to (heated) discussion or debate; contentious, questionable; disputed’. Until recently engaging with contentious issues was an important feature of a first-class university education. However, during the past decade the word, controversial has been surreptitiously reinterpreted as a threat to campus security. A controversial idea has acquired connotations that are entirely negative and controversial speaker is someone who needs to be banned from voicing an opinion.

The new meaning of controversial is rarely rendered explicit. However, its negative connotations are communicated through university guidelines that insist that controversial speakers need to be vetted, regulated and ideally shut out of campus life. Instead of warmly embracing controversy, universities have become so alienated from it that they have drawn up rules designed to regulate, risk manage it and sometimes to ban it altogether.

California State University in Los Angeles exemplifies the tendency to subject someone who is deemed a “controversial speaker” to the practice of risk management. Its policy, allows CSULA to perform a “risk assessment” of a “controversial” event. Speakers and meetings assessed as too risky can be risked-managed out of existence. This use of the technique of risk assessment has the advantage of allowing administrators to claim that their decision to shut down a meeting has nothing to do with curbing the exercise of free speech.

Orwellian language on campuses relies on a vocabulary that is designed to mystify its covert intent. Safe-space advocates use a language that hints at implicit assumptions rather than convey an explicit meaning. Widely used terms such as ‘inappropriate’, ‘uncomfortable’, ‘unwelcome’ or ‘problematic’ condemn without offering clarity about the nature of the transgression at stake. Yet they all signify unspecified offences and harms that must be censured or banned!

When a colleague complains about the ‘inappropriate behaviour’ of a student I am left confused about the nature of the offence. All I know is that the behaviour in question is not ‘appropriate’ but little else. Are we talking about an insult, an act of disrespect or miscommunication, a sin or a crime? I have come to the conclusion that avoiding clarity on this point is what underpins the rhetorical strategy adopted by campus guidelines on the use of speech. Terms like ‘uncomfortable’, ‘unwelcome’ or ‘inappropriate’ deliberately evade explicit responsibility for the drawing of moral boundaries between right and wrong. 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 the use of idioms of vagueness, the commanding rhetoric of higher education shuns engaging explicitly with a coherent system of right and wrong. But the lack of clarity communicated through the idiom of vagueness does not merely obscure but also constrain free and spontaneous verbal communication. The emergence of the words appropriate and inappropriate – arguably the most important couplet in university guidelines on conduct – serves as a reminder that clarity is not a priority for their authors.

Inappropriate does not clarify why something is not appropriate. It avoids taking responsibility for spelling out what is right and what is wrong about a word or an act. Without being explicit about the problem at issue, terms like inappropriate behaviour, inappropriate pressure, inappropriate content or inappropriate touching, condemn and vilify. Institutions that are uneasy with the ambiguities of human interaction and dislike uncertainty naturally adopt strict rules that outlaw  ‘inappropriate remarks’. ‘inappropriate touching’ and ‘inappropriate behaviour’. Though the rules are strict they say little about the difference between appropriate or inappropriate touching. 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 grasp why a university guideline has deemed certain words as inappropriate. Which university moralist first dreamt up the idea that the word ‘brainwashing’ is an inappropriate word that scandalises individuals suffering from epilepsy? One struggles to grasp why Flinders University’s Inclusive Language Guide has decided that the term ‘stone age’ is inappropriate and must be replaced by the more appropriate term of  ‘complex and diverse societies’[i]. A review of university guidelines on inappropriate language indicates that even the most innocent of speech acts can become a target of linguistic vilification. ‘Asking for someone’s first name and/or last name is also inappropriate for the naming practices of various cultural and ethnic groups living in Australia’ advises the University of Melbourne’s expert on appropriate language and behaviour [ii].

When campus censors are not condemning inappropriate conduct they are busy criticising problematic behaviour. The rhetorical strategy of avoiding explicit judgments of value is most clearly expressed through the use of the word problematic. The Oxford English Dictionary, defines ‘problematic’ as ‘constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty; difficult to resolve; doubtful, uncertain, questionable’. This is an adjective that leaves its subject unresolved and ultimately un-judged. It is the euphemism of choice in the dictionary of the university censor.

Numerous higher education institutions, like the University of New Hampshire have published a ‘Bias-Free Language Guide’ that provides a list of words that are ‘problematic’ and should therefore cease to be used[iii]. In the UK, the term ‘problematic’ has been adopted to communicate a form of criticism that stops short making an explicit moral judgment. Fran Cowling, an LGBT representative from the National Union of Students, justified her refusal share a platform with gay activist Peter Tatchell on the ground that  ‘many Black LGBT activists have highlighted and warned of Peter’s history of problematic behaviour and beliefs’[iv].

The application of the term ‘problematic’ to describe the behaviour and beliefs of Tatchell and Patten accomplishes the objective of calling into question their moral integrity and status, but in a way that avoids the use of an unambiguous language of moral condemnation. Neither is accused of a specific misdeed and more loaded terms like ‘homophobic’ or ‘racist’ are avoided. The virtue of an accusation of problematic behaviour is that it requires no explanation or justification

The website of the University of Exeter Student’s Guild contains a section titled ‘Problematic Ideas’. The focus of this section is to outline how the Guild will deal with problematic ideas in students’ assemblies and union meetings[v]. It states that ‘where an Idea could be harmful or problematic on the basis of the concepts or wording, the proposer will be contacted by staff’. It also indicates that ‘where an original Idea marked as problematic receives a complaint, it will be pulled offline if the complaint matches the problem. Why? Because it is a ‘necessary protection’, designed to ‘eliminate harm to proposers and voters caused by problematic ideas’. Anyone reading this discussion of problematic ideas will fail to find even a hint of what renders an idea, problematic or indeed why are such ideas harmful. Nevertheless, a single complaint can lead to the censoring of a statement. Moreover in true Kafkaesque fashion ‘anonymity remains protected throughout the problematic Idea process’! More than any other term that I have found in the campus censor’s dictionary, ‘problematic Idea process’ captures the inquisitorial spirit that prevails in Anglo American higher education.

The word ‘problematic’ was introduced into the English academic vocabulary in 1970, in Ben Brewster’s translation of Louis Althusser and Etienne Balibar’s Reading Capital.[vi] The word became an integral part of the post-Marxist academic jargon of the 1970s. However, it was not until around 2010 –that a word that was rarely used outside of esoteric seminar discussions became part of campus-speak[vii]. That student activists have adopted the word ‘problematic’ is not surprising, since it is widely used in academia to avoid judgment and direct and explicit blaming. An illustration of this preference for the vague and diffuse commentary is a Carnegie Mellon University webpage titled ‘Address Problematic Student Behavior’, which lists banal classroom problems such as lateness and leaving early as well more serious acts, such as cheating’ [viii]. This webpage also provides a lengthy discussion of different examples of problematic behaviour without explaining what the word means.

The use of an opaque and implied language is directly linked to a disturbing tendency to condemn in a manner that relieve accusers of taking responsibility for their judgments. Language that is intentionally imprecise and unfocused signals a speaker’s estrangement from the value of genuine communication. The cause of this institutionalisation of an opaque vocabulary by universities is not to be found in the field of linguistic innovation. Rather it is the unfortunate outcome of the erosion of the cultural authority of debate and argument. Sadly, linguistic vagueness is a habit that comes natural to the university moralist.

The use of language is an important battleground for those who are committed to recapturing the spirit and ethos of a freedom loving university. In some cases words like ‘controversial’ and ‘uncomfortable’ need to appropriated and affirmed as possessing positive connotations. At times, a real university education will necessarily make students feel uncomfortable and it’s up to academics to guide their undergraduates out of their comfort zone. As for controversy- engaging with disturbing ideas is the precondition for gaining intellectual independence. That is truly one of the main aims of academic teaching!

Frank Furedi is an emeritus professor of sociology at the University of Canterbury in England. His What’s Happened To The University: A Sociological Exploration Of Its Infantilisation, is published by Routledge.

[i] http://www.flinders.edu.au/equal-opportunity/tools_resources/publications/inclusive_language.cfm . (accessed 4 March 2016)

[ii] https://hr.unimelb.edu.au/__data/assets/pdf_file/0003/87501/Watch_Your_Language.pdf .

[iii] http://www.nationalreview.com/article/421709/university-language-guide-word-american-offensive-katherine-timpf . (accessed 5 January 2016).

[iv] https://www.gaytimes.co.uk/news/29164/someone-who-once-fought-peter-tatchell-is-now-defending-him/ . (accessed 21 April 2016).

[v] See https://www.exeterguild.org/change/wiki/student-ideas/safe-space/problematic/ .

[vi] Reading Capital was published in French  in 1968.

[vii] See Jaime Weinman “The problem with “Problematic”’, Maclean’s; 15 May 2015, http://www.macleans.ca/society/the-problem-with-problematic/ . (Accessed 21 April 2016.)

[viii] https://www.cmu.edu/teaching/designteach/teach/problemstudent.html . (accessed 19 April).