The ironic effects of campus censorship
Recently, at the university where I study, I was accused of the Three Great Sins of our politically correct age – homophobia, racism and sexism. Why? Merely because I had violated the modern campus’s new unwritten law: don’t touch any language that might be deemed offensive to a particular group – ever. Not even if you represent the groups that the language could be deemed as offensive to. And not even if no one else is upset, let alone ‘harmed’, by what you say.
God help you if you use coarse language merely to make a broader point – in my case, referencing racial, sexist and homophobic slurs as part of a reasoned argument about free speech. On campuses today, students can’t even make a sarcastic, even satirical, remark about particular groups – perhaps, even, to mock prejudice. In universities today, irony and insincerity are not to be tolerated, either, if they’re produced using officially inappropriate words.
This illiberal trend is deeply harmful to students in two ways. Firstly because it undermines universities as places for learning and the confrontation of ideas. If students are not encouraged to engage in the free and open battle of ideas, they will not be equipped to assess different ideologies and to make up their own minds about them. The result is that students hold opinions merely as slogans – what John Stuart Mill called ‘dead dogma’ – with no understanding of why they hold that opinion in the first place. Secondly, the inability to appreciate irony and subtlety in language renders students less able to use language as a tool – to persuade, to explore ideas, or simply to have a laugh.
The few genuine bigots on campus who use hateful language explicitly and sincerely will not stop venting their ugly views just because we tell them to watch their language. They will simply find a new, more poisonous way to do so. And, in the meantime, the rest of us will suffer for defending precisely those values that are traditionally associated with the university: the aesthetic, the multifaceted, the ironic. It’s high time we fought back against the campus language police and embraced our capability to be creative, free and unpredictable.
Chris Lynch is a student at the University of Cambridge and a former spiked intern.
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