Doing a sociolinguistics module last semester made me well aware of the power of language. We use the words we do to construct our own identities, and therefore language contributes to the shaping of society. This means that it can be used in harmful ways. Yet the beauty of language is in its variety and its flexibility, and therefore we should oppose any attempt to censor language.
Alas, that is what Cardiff Metropolitan University has done. By banning the use of certain words, they are impinging on people’s right to use language in whichever way they choose. Freedom of expression is not just about being able to express any opinion, it is about being able to express that opinion in any way you choose. Cardiff Met are restricting this freedom and therefore, whilst well-meaning, this policy is actually a step away from a more liberal society.
I am not denying that language contributes to the patriarchal nature of society. The use of ‘Sir’ and ‘Miss’ in schools is a good example of this, as is that of ‘headmaster’ and ‘headmistress’, with ‘master’ indicating power yet ‘mistress’ having sexual and adulterous connotations. These terms are certainly old-fashioned and few would complain if all heads of schools were simply referred to as ‘headteachers’. Clinging to words that reflect a past society purely for the sake of tradition is not helpful.
“At the end of the day, the first thing we notice about someone is their gender”
However, that does not mean it is necessary to impose neutral terms on people. If a police officer is male, then what is wrong with calling them a policeman? Likewise if an officer is female, what harm is being done by referring to them as a policewoman? Trying to reduce the significance of gender in society is laudable, but at the end of the day one of the first things we notice about someone is their gender, and there is nothing wrong with that.
You might argue that I am being pedantic, that it really is not much effort to use gender neutral terms, and indeed that is true. What I am objecting to is the way Cardiff Met is forcing students to use these words. If people want to use gender neutral terms, let them. But likewise, if people want to continue using the words they have used all their lives, they should not be prevented from doing so. Freedom has to go both ways, and censoring vocabulary is eerily similar to the authoritarian Newspeak policy in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four.
There are wider problems with this policy too. Firstly, it damages the credibility of our universities. What are employers going to think of Cardiff Met students when they hear of the university introducing policies like this? University is higher education, and education should equip young people to live a successful life. Taking every possible precaution to prevent students from feeling uncomfortable does the opposite. Life outside the university bubble is not tailored to the wants of every single student, least of all in the workplace. By creating ‘safe spaces’ that do not reflect reality, universities risk leaving graduates unprepared for the challenges of working life.
“Blanket policies give extra weight to the ‘generation snowflake’ vibe”
This is yet another indication of the problem with student satisfaction rankings. Universities are so concerned about achieving a good score that they focus on keeping students happy rather than providing them with a high quality education. The focus has switched away from teaching and on to pastoral care. It is of course important that support is in place for students who need it, but blanket policies that attempt to make everyone feel valued make universities seem like a laughing stock and gives extra weight to the ‘generation snowflake’ jibe.
It is only right that we look for ways to make society more equal, but trying to force equality through the use of freedom-restricting laws is a counterproductive approach. Policies such as this are more likely to be perceived as ‘political correctness gone mad’ and turn people away from the idea of an equal society. We should focus on tackling genuine examples of inequality rather than nit-picking over people’s vocabulary. Language reflects society, and if one day we do manage to make Britain truly equal, the words people use will reflect that.
image: Sophia Donnelly via Flickr