Censoring students at Oxford? That is so gay
Welcome to the Oxford college where students can use the word gay to refer to a homosexual man but not to describe a rubbish pool shot.
In the quad at Merton College, Oxford, scruffily-clad students scurry to their lectures. But behind this everyday student scene, there lurks a rather bizarre controversy.
The trendy college is renowned for its LGBT-friendly ethos (that’s LGBT as in ‘Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender’), yet it has become a rather unlikely setting for a university-wide controversy over homophobic remarks. Recently, fourth-year Merton student Andrew Godfrey complained about some of the language being used by his fellow students. This led to official action by the executive of the Junior Common Room (JCR) warning the student body to refrain from ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour ‘even if you are not being intentionally malicious’. Students were reprimanded for contributing to ‘an uncomfortable atmosphere in college’.
What was the ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour? It consisted of limp-wristed impressions and the use of phrases such as ‘Oh don’t be such a poof!’ and ‘You missed that shot, you big gay!’ during a heated game of pool in Merton’s swanky Games Room.
In response to Godfrey’s complaint about this behaviour, the college’s JCR president, Laura Davies, sent out the following email to students (drafted by Godfrey in collaboration with student welfare and LGBT representatives): ‘JCR members have raised concerns after groups have been overheard in the Games Room and other communal areas of college using terms like “gay” and “poof” as joking insults. Please be aware that using language like this is unacceptable and extremely offensive, even if you are not being intentionally malicious and think you are being ironic or witty in some way. It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the college.’
Can students not take a joke anymore? Can they not handle the use of words such as ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ in a slang context, in a setting as informal as a Games Room? Both Davies and Godfrey admit that the students probably were not expressing anti-gay prejudice when they made these comments while making their wrists go all limp. As Godfrey himself says: ‘I never maintained that this was deliberately malicious homophobia because I didn’t feel like I had been harassed; otherwise I would have turned to the college authorities. They were basically acting the way guys do.’
And yet guys ‘acting the way guys do’ has now been redefined as ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour that apparently warrants a stern official warning. Davies tells me she had no qualms about sending an official admonishment to the entire student body in response to behaviour that she admits was not purposefully malicious or offensive. ‘One of the JCR members raised the fact that he was quite unhappy with someone using the word “gay” and that he personally found that very offensive’, she says. This is a world away from John Stuart Mill’s argument that opinions ought only to ‘lose their immunity’ when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’ (1). His point, made in On Liberty in 1859, was that only in instances where words and actions might directly lead to violence could one make a case for curtailing freedom of speech. Fast forward 150 years and we have the new Merton rule – where JCR officials recognise that students saying ‘gay’ to mean rubbish and swinging their wrists around was not intended maliciously, much less was it likely to lead to violence; and yet because these antics offended the sensibilities of a single student they took it upon themselves to chastise all students in a hectoring missive about what is acceptable and unacceptable behaviour.
This points to a worrying level of sensitivity among today’s students, and a lackadaisical attitude towards words, arguments and freedom of speech. The JCR’s aim seemed to be, not to protect students from harm, but to protect the college’s reputation for being caring and accepting from the ‘unmannered’ behaviour of some students playing a game of pool.
The self-censoring attitude of Merton’s JCR reflects a broader view taken by many today: that free speech is something that can be easily sacrificed in the name of protecting people from utterances they might find offensive. The idea that students should behave according to some predetermined college ethos stands in stark contrast to the old idea of universities as places where young people should be free to experiment, to think, to argue, to learn, to say what they please in a student common room…. Enforcing an official dogma about words, phrases and actions betrays an elitist view of what sort of behaviour is appropriate, and what is not.
Worse, it treats students as children who either must be reprimanded for saying naughty words or who must be protected from the jokey words of big ‘bully boys’ by student officials posing as social workers. This infantilises students – which is hardly conducive to creating an atmosphere where students can grow, both educationally and personally.
Some students have reacted against the JCR’s illiberal telling-off. Merton student Ben Holroyd created an online group called The Gay Appreciation Society, which argued that: ‘The word “gay” has several definitions, only one of which is “homosexual”. Others include merry, licentious and wanton. When I miss a pot at the pool table, I sometimes refer to said shot as “gay”. Obviously, I do not consider the shot in question to be homosexual. Having said that, I rarely miss, so I seldom offend the minority of pedantic, over-sensitive fools at Merton.’
Perhaps the most pernicious thing about the Merton ruling on when it’s okay to say gay is that it represents almost an attempt at thought control. According to the JCR officials, it is okay to say ‘gay’ to refer to a homosexual man but not to describe a ‘rubbish’ pool shot. What is being monitored here is not just the use of language, but thought itself, the meaning behind one’s use of the word gay. We are presented with a two-tiered attitude to the word gay, where it’s okay to use it responsibly to mean homosexual but not irresponsibly to mean rubbish. It seems the JCR wants to get into Merton students’ minds to see what is really going on when they speak.
Even if some students had been expressing anti-gay prejudice in their use of words such as ‘gay’ and ‘poof’, then censure would be no solution. The idea that monitoring student language can have an impact on certain people’s prejudicial views, or on discrimination in the real world, is ridiculous. It merely brushes issues under the carpet, seeking to silence certain arguments rather than challenging them. Prejudice – which is a more serious matter than banter around a pool table – can only be effectively challenged in open debate, through reasoned argument.
University should be a place where we are free to experiment and to express ourselves in whatever way we deem fit. Disagreements can and should be settled between students themselves. Official sanctions telling us how we should behave only thwart the advance of genuine tolerance, which is based, not on intolerant censorship of uncomfortable views, but rather on establishing through open discussion which ideas are good, valuable and useful, and which are not.
The campus thought-police have no right to tell us how to think, speak or behave, and certainly not when we are just hanging out with friends and playing pool. They should bugger off and stop being so gay.
Maria Grasso is researching a DPhil on the decline of political activism in Western Europe, at Nuffield College, Oxford.
(1) On Liberty, JS Mill, p114
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