The thought police are among us 2

October 6, 2006

These days, academic freedom is rarely the target of an overt direct assault. Occasionally, politicians remind universities to "watch it", but most of the time there is little external pressure to restrain academic freedom. We do not live in a totalitarian society, and academics do not have to work under the shadow of the state censor. In 21st-century Britain, the threat to academic freedom comes from within the university and frequently takes the form of insisting that we speak according to the script acceptable to management. Virtually every university has a speech code that lays down guidelines about what can or cannot be said.

Speech codes are promoted on the grounds that they conduce an inclusive cultural environment where everyone is protected from being offended. Promoters of so-called inclusive speech reject the accusation that they are in the business of censoring and regulating the voices of academics. They claim that they are simply inclusive. Take the case of a memo issued to colleagues in arts and humanities at Durham University last year. It stated that academics would have to obtain approval from an "ethics" committee if they wanted to give lectures and tutorials on subjects that could cause offence to students. Topics such as abortion or euthanasia would constitute the kind of potentially "offensive" issues that would need to be vetted by an ethics committee. From this perspective, sensitivity to students’ feelings trumps academic freedom.

The Durham memo expresses the illiberal sensibility that has been silently institutionalised in British higher education. Policy statements published by universities indicate that they are far more devoted to a social engineering agenda than to the pursuit of the truth. According to this agenda, academics have a duty to be sensitive to others and they are obliged not to offend their students. Take Imperial College London’s "harassment, bullying and victimisation policy and procedure". It states that "staff are required to respect the beliefs, convictions and orientation of others and not behave in ways that could cause offence". Note the word "required". Here, as in other institutions, the ethos of "respect on demand" is conveyed in the form of an ultimatum.

University speech codes frequently lecture academics about the virtues of the rhetoric of inclusion. "Selecting appropriate words is about more than appearing to do or say the right thing," instructs Loughborough University’s code of practice on inclusive language. It adds that it is "about accurate and effective communication that neither causes offence nor excludes groups or individuals". Liverpool Hope University "expects staff and students to be sensitive to the feelings of others in their use of language in all activities, including teaching, academic work and publicity".

One of the few institutions that appears to acknowledge that regulating speech may contradict free and open academic discussion is University College London. Its policy statement observes that "bullying is to be distinguished from vigorous academic debate". But how? If, as the Durham memo suggests, topics such as abortion, euthanasia, witchcraft, race and slavery are ones that can easily offend, what do you do if the aim of your lecture is to question the theory of, say, intelligent design?

Throughout history, controversial, innovative and radical ideas have offended people. At one time, the claim that the Earth was not flat or that all humans were equal was abhorrent to millions of people. Those who uphold what they deem to be sacred or the conventional wisdom will be offended and even hurt by language that derides or questions their deeply held beliefs. What we need is not a consensus about how we speak, but the freedom to find our voice.

Some of us have become comfortable with a quiet life where a genuine clash of views is conspicuous by its absence. Often we feel inhibited in expressing our disrespect for the views and identities of the targets of our criticism. And we forget that it is precisely because the questioning of conventional truths and attitudes can cause offence that universities need academic freedom. Of course, good teachers do their best not to cause offence to their students. But really good teachers encourage their students to take ideas so seriously so as not to take hateful views personally.

In contrast, advocates of inclusive language adopt the view that university students are vulnerable children who need to be protected from views that question their beliefs and attitudes about life. Their language is inclusive in so far as it includes everyone in an exchange of platitudes. It is indifferent to the quality of ideas in an academic exchange because its only objective is to include. But inclusion for its own sake has no intrinsic virtues. It merely breeds complacency towards the value of free speech and genuine tolerance for those with whom we disagree.

Frank Furedi is professor of sociology at Kent University.


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