Minding Our Language Breeds Cynicism And Cultural Dishonesty

January 2012

One of the most disturbing developments in the cultural life of the West is the casual acceptance of the policing of language.

These days people who should know better - even artists and academics - devote far more energy towards justifying measures that limit free speech than advocating its expansion. Sometimes one can even pick up a sneering sense of contempt towards those who seek to counter the policing of speech.

Just listen to the tone in which Greg Barnes, a barrister and president of the Australian Lawyers Alliance, dismisses the claim that the Federal Court's ruling against Andrew Bolt represented a serious threat to the exercise of the right to free speech. "Has it not occurred to Bolt and those who are busy mouthing similar platitudes that freedom of speech is not an absolute right?" he asks.

The tendency to treat free speech as a platitude and to mock those who take this right seriously as puerile is symptomatic of a fundamental shift in the conceptualisation of the relationship between freedom and the state.

In previous times the liberal and radical advocates of freedom regarded the state regulation of speech as a threat to democratic life. Today, far too many people look to the state for protection from too much free speech.

Therefore the original impetus behind the emergence of the cause of free speech - fear of the power of the state to censor and persecute people for their beliefs and words - is implicitly dismissed as a historical footnote.

From this perspective, mistrust of people with strong views stands in sharp contrast with a naïve trust in the regulation of speech by the state.

Aside from its implication for democracy, the policing of language is a hugely important issue for the way we lead our lives. The experience of history demonstrates that language does not simply mirror the everyday reality that it describes; to some extent it also constructs it.

So the words people use express and also shape their reality. That is why the words and claims that can be stated and the ones that cannot be voiced really matter. The silencing of words, beliefs and attitudes through policing language can directly and indirectly shape attitudes and have a profound impact on the conduct of public life. Communities under pressure to mind their language quickly adapt and learn to mask their views and opinions. Invariably it breeds cynicism and cultural dishonesty.

The weak cultural valuation of the freedom of speech has meant that during the past quarter-century the gradual institutionalization of censorship - formal and informal - rarely has been challenged. Sadly, the one institution where linguistic policing has become most entrenched is in universities. Historically, institutions of higher education were in the forefront of upholding academic freedom and freedom of speech. Today, communication on campuses is filtered through an elaborate system of speech codes and censorship. The Inclusive Language Guideline of the University of Newcastle reads like a medieval censor's manual. After correctly explaining that "language both reflects and shapes social reality", the manual lays down the law about just what kind of reality it wants to impose on its staff and students. It provides a list of terms to be avoided and offers permission for ones that can be used. Most of the suggestions are harmless or inane. For example "manning the office" is out; "staffing the office" is in. It helpfully reminds us that it is more polite to reverse old stereotypical terms "Sir and Madam" with new ones "Madam and Sir".

If you read the Some Useful Tips section of the University of Western Australia guidelines, you will discover there really are a lot of words to avoid. With a hint of self-caricature, the reader is informed that words such as crazy and mental are on the avoid list. So is loopy! Other universities demonstrate considerable ingenuity in inventing new terms to replace inappropriate ones. My favourite suggestion is that pioneering fathers be replaced with the more inclusive, and very snappy, pioneering forebears.

Upon inspecting these codes, my first reaction is to ask, "Where did these people get their BA in banality from?" But of course the policing of speech is not an innocent pastime motivated by the impulse to improve the quality of discussion. Although these lists of words are presented in the form of advice, they are underwritten by a code of practice that is not just prescriptive but coercive.

What's even more disquieting than campus speech codes is the acquiescence of staff and students to them. Yet the university ought to be an environment hospitable to the pursuit of free and open debate, where it is assumed that people have the intellectual resources and maturity to deal with any idea or words thrown at them.

Instead the academy has become linguistically infantilized. Students and staff are treated like infants with the warning "Mind your language". Once self-censorship has become a habit, the addiction to it becomes difficult to break. Is it any surprise that some academics spend more time arguing for limiting free speech than extending it? It is worth noting this is the environment that shapes the linguistic universe and imagination of the legal professionals of the future, including judges and legal scholars.

Tragically, even law faculties have become influenced, if not dominated, by the illiberal trend towards the exercise of the right to the freedom of speech. It was refreshing to read a robust defence of this freedom a few weeks ago by Bill Rowlings, chief executive of Civil Liberties Australia. Despite his disagreement with Bolt, he stated that what was needed was more, and not less, free speech. Hopefully such an eloquent call for tolerance can inspire others to take the right to voice an opinion more seriously.

However, the challenge of upholding freedom of speech is principally a cultural and not a legal accomplishment. Open-minded, tolerant and genuinely liberal people should set an example by not minding their words and challenging the regulation of speech in all its forms.