Duke Uni students need to man up

A student-led campaign to censure the use of rude words is spectacularly infantile.

Universities today are not exactly fizzing with passionate debate and dynamic discussion. In fact, the talk on campus is more likely to be about what pop song or newspaper should be banned on the grounds that students need protecting from offensive or dangerous thoughts and words. 

This tendency to wrap college life in cotton wool can be seen in all its patronising glory in the recent ‘You Don’t Say?’ campaign at Duke University in North Carolina, USA. This campaign, covered by publications as various as the Daily Telegraph and the Huffington Post, asks students to think about the words they use and how they could affect others. So, you might well wonder, what demeaning and unpleasant language does the campaign attempt to combat? Racism? Anti-Semitism? Not exactly. The campaign is actually concerned with phrases like ‘Bitch’, ‘Man Up’, ‘That’s so gay’ and ‘Don’t be a pussy’. 

The campaign is spearheaded by Think Before You Talk, a student organisation whose stated goal is to ‘foster dialogue on the intersection of language and gender and sexual identities. Words mean something. Think Before You Talk…’ In collaboration with a Duke LGBTQ group, the campaign has focused on highlighting the alleged offence and damage that rude words and phrases can cause. 

The Facebook page of ‘You don’t say?’ features cringe-worthy posters of students posing with their chosen statements: ‘I don’t say “bitch” because it insists that femininity is inherently negative’, proclaims Daniel Kort, class of 2016. It gets more troubling as you read some of the supportive Facebook posts. One comment suggests that the ‘You Don’t Say?’ campaign should ‘include additional words such as “I don’t say you’re so retarded”, and “I don’t say that’s lame” and “I don’t say don’t be crazy, or you’re acting like a psycho”’, for fear of offending people with mental or physical disabilities.

If this campaign had been launched by the local primary school to help young kids understand that these words are rude and should not be used in the playground, that would be one thing. If I hear my own children use these words to describe their friends, they’ll get a telling off. But this isn’t a campaign for 10-year-olds; it is a campaign for adults. 

Unlike other recent campaigns, such as ‘Ban Bossy’, ‘You Don’t Say?’ does not suggest that words or phrases should be banned outright. However, the underlying message here is clear: any words that might offend should not be used. The idea that students at a prestigious US college need to be protected from words such as ‘bitch’, ‘gay’ or ‘fag’ feeds into the belief prevalent today that we must always be thinking of the potential victim of the words we use.

One of the most concerning aspects of the trend epitomised by this campaign is the flippant and casual way in which the idea of restricting speech is taken for granted. The campaign perfectly captures the right-on sense of being progressive. We find ourselves in a situation where the objective of student activists is not to fight for change and the end of discrimination against different groups; rather, it is to change the language used to describe such groups.

Think Before You Talk wants us to equate words with actions, but it is wrong to do so. Students don’t need to be protected from offensive words and comments; instead they need to be immersed in an environment where they can talk openly and freely, discussing difficult ideas and speaking up without fear of offending their peers. If we start restricting speech at the level of words like ‘gay’ and ‘bitch’, what hope do we have of these future leaders of society being able to discuss complex and challenging issues affecting morality, race and equality in a free and open manner? Students everywhere: don’t take offence – take your right to free speech seriously and fight for it.

Neil Ross is a writer based in New York.

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