It can’t have taken #fearlessfeminist Charlotte Proudman long to choose the best turn of phrase for her public scolding of Alexander Carter-Silk, the man who had the temerity to tell her that her LinkedIn profile picture looked ‘stunning’. In reaching for the word ‘unacceptable’, Proudman repeats the tip-of-the-tongue buzzword of today’s unappointed language police.
Earlier this summer, when Sir Tim Hunt made his now infamous joke about women in labs, his colleague and Nobel Prize co-winner, Sir Paul Nurse, led the stampede, declaring such remarks to be ‘not acceptable’. Channel 4 newsreader turned arbiter on all things feminist, Cathy Newman, suggested ‘he should keep his “girl trouble” to himself in future, to send a message that sexism is just as unacceptable as racism’. Back in January, former soap star Ken Morley was hoisted off Celebrity Big Brother after he was deemed to have used ‘unacceptable and offensive language’.
Unsurprisingly, this rush to label words – and, let’s be honest, the people who utter them – as ‘unacceptable’ breeds within universities. At Washington State University, cultural studies students risk failure if they use words their lecturer has decided are ‘unacceptable’. The list of outlawed expressions includes ‘the words “males” and “females” to refer to men and women’. Students studying women’s studies at North Carolina State University have been told they will be marked down for using ‘unacceptable’ vocabulary such as ‘mankind’ in their essays.
At students’ unions throughout the UK, Safe Space policies warn members of the need to ‘be aware of the connotations of your language’. At Goldsmiths, part of the University of London, ‘racism, homophobia, biphobia, sexism, transphobia, disablism or prejudice based on age, ethnicity, nationality, class, gender, gender presentation, language ability, immigration status or religious affiliation is unacceptable’. Students must not ‘make assumptions about anyone’s gender, pronouns, sexual preference, abilities, ethnic identity, survivor status, or life experiences’. For those wanting to remain within the limits of acceptability, conversation must be very difficult indeed.
Describing the words someone uses as ‘unacceptable’ can appear politically neutral, unemotive and simply commonsense. It allows the speaker to take the moral highground by suggesting there are ways of speaking and behaving that all right-thinking people agree upon. Those whose words are labelled ‘unacceptable’ are deemed to have crossed a line and committed a transgression against such normal codes of decency and politeness. As we have seen with Charlotte Proudman’s calling-out of the supposedly sexist solicitor, and all those who rushed to decry Tim Hunt’s joke, the biggest infringement against the acceptable is to commit speech crimes against feminism. The feminist war on unacceptable language now encompasses everything from jokes and compliments to mildly flirtatious comments.