Peer pressure curbs language

September 7, 2007

The Times Higher surveys hot topics at this week's British Educational Research Association gathering.

Colleagues' disapproval of 'loaded' terms threatens freedom of speech. Louise Radnofsky reports

Academics are facing a new form of "peer censorship" in universities because language in the age of the "War on Terror" has become so politically loaded, a research team will argue this week.

In a paper to the conference of the British Educational Research Association, a team from Roehampton University will describe how academics at one institution backed down from titling a conference "Education and Terrorism" after receiving e-mailed objections from colleagues about their choice of words.

Ron Best, Dianne Gereluk and Richard Race report that the conference, at an unnamed institution, went ahead with "extremism" instead of "terrorism" in the title. It included discussions on faith schools, citizenship education, Christian and Muslim student societies and political freedom in universities.

"There is no suggestion that the conference organisers were put under any pressure by senior managers of the university," Professor Best said. But the "peer censorship" from colleagues with political objections to their title was strong enough to deter the organisers.

"The conference organisers felt that if the original title caused this much concern within the university that it might well bring a negative reaction from outside and that a less emotive title might be preferable," he said.

"They also felt that something important had been lost by not being upfront with the word 'terrorism'," he added.

The difficulties facing the conference organisers were not unique to that university and raised issues that academics must confront, Professor Best said.

The words that have "currency - 'extremism', 'fundamentalism', 'terrorism', 'War on Terror' and so on" - were often too loaded even to discuss the ideas they represented, he said. "We may be seen to be somehow endorsing the views that are expressed by people who usually use that language - but how are we to subject that kind of language to critical scrutiny without using the language?"

Professor Best said that academics and senior managers faced an "unenviable dilemma" about reconciling freedom of speech and the potential to give offence, and that they must seek answers in their own "moral reasoning and judgment".

"There are situations in which each person must think through for himself or herself the implications of possible courses of action and make a judgment for themselves," he said.

Lewis Elton, honorary professor of higher education at University College London, said academics must be vigilant against attacks from within universities on their academic freedom.

He urged "sensible discussion at an academic level" where unintentional offence had been caused, adding that academics should not deliberately seek to cause offence.

"If you decide that (a given word) is the right word to use, then you should use your academic freedom to use it," he added. "But you shouldn't use it to give offence."

But Anoush Ehteshami, a professor of international relations at Durham University whose research is on the Middle East, praised "the depth and width of debate in Britain" and said that academic freedom here remained strong.

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