The first time I was told off for using “inappropriate language,” I thought my colleague was joking. We were university professors and speaking freely should come with the territory. But during the past decade, campus speech has increasingly been taken over by a vocabulary of doublespeak.
In his essay “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell identified the problem: “In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible… Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness.” Many student activists have embraced this type of language, and university administrators have quietly given their approval to the point that speech codes are now littered with words that are ambiguous and opaque.
Terms such as “inappropriate,” “uncomfortable,” “unwelcome” or “problematic” condemn without offering information about the nature of the transgression. When another colleague complains about the “inappropriate behaviour” of a student I am left confused. Was it an insult, an act of disrespect or miscommunication, a sin or a crime? The characterisation of a word as “unwelcome” is so subjective and arbitrary that it can be applied to a bewildering variety of verbal communication.
Through their vagueness, these terms deliberately evade explicit responsibility for drawing moral boundaries and engaging in a coherent system of right and wrong. But vagueness does not merely obscure free and spontaneous verbal communication—it also constrains it. The words “appropriate” and “inappropriate,” arguably the most important example, demonstrate that clarity is not a priority for the authors of university guidelines on conduct.
Merely calling something inappropriate does not spell out why it is so. It avoids explaining what is right or wrong about a word or an act. Institutions that are uncomfortable with the ambiguities of human interaction adopt strict rules that outlaw “inappropriate” remarks or behaviour. The cultural significance of these rules is that they signal “beware”! They communicate ambivalence and mistrust towards the free expression of words and ideas.
Sometimes it is almost impossible to understand why certain words have been deemed inappropriate. At Flinders University in Adelaide, the Inclusive Language Guide rejects the term “stone age” in favour of “complex and diverse societies” or “efficient resource managers.” Even the most innocent of questions can become a target. “Asking for someone’s first name and/or last name is also inappropriate for the naming practices of various cultural and ethnic groups living in Australia,” advises the University of Melbourne’s guidelines on non-discriminatory language. Many universities like Flinders have adopted the device of publishing a column of inappropriate words alongside their appropriate equivalent. Yet such guides can never come close to exhausting the variety of speech. The New York Times reported that this year, students arriving at Clark University in Massachusetts were briefed by the chief diversity officer: “don’t say ‘you guys’ since ‘it could be interpreted as leaving out women.’”
Aside from inappropriate, “problematic” is the euphemism of choice for the university censor. The Oxford English Dictionary defines problematic as “constituting or presenting a problem or difficulty; difficult to resolve; doubtful, uncertain, questionable.” This is an adjective that leaves its subject unresolved and ultimately un-judged. The University of New Hampshire’s Bias-Free Language Guide provides a list of words that are problematic—including American, for failing to recognise South America.
In the UK, the term “problematic” has been adopted to communicate a form of criticism that stops short of an explicit moral judgment. Fran Cowling, an LGBT representative from the National Union of Students, justified her refusal to share a platform with gay activist Peter Tatchell on the grounds that “many Black LGBT activists have highlighted and warned of Peter’s history of problematic behaviour and beliefs.” A query about the right of Chris Patten, the Chancellor of Oxford University, to criticise the Rhodes Must Fall campaign was expressed in the following terms in the Observer: “Patten, the former Tory cabinet minister, former governor of Hong Kong and chairman of the BBC, is a privileged white man and, in the current debate about acceptable speech and images, that is problematic.”
Applying the term problematic to the behaviour and beliefs of Tatchell and Patten accomplishes the objective of calling into question their integrity and status without using the unambiguous language of moral condemnation. Neither is accused of a specific misdeed and more loaded terms like “homophobic” or “racist” are avoided. The virtue of these accusations is that they require no explanation or justification.
That student activists have adopted the word problematic is not surprising, since it is widely used in academia to avoid judgment and direct and explicit blaming. One illustration can be found on the website of Carnegie Mellon University. Titled “Address Problematic Student Behavior,” it lists banal classroom problems such as lateness and leaving early as well more serious acts such as cheating. This page also provides a lengthy discussion of different examples of problematic behaviour without explaining what the word means.
The use of an opaque and implied language is directly linked to a disturbing tendency to condemn in a manner that relieve accusers of taking responsibility for their judgments. Language that is intentionally imprecise and unfocused signals a speaker’s estrangement from the value of genuine communication. The cause of this institutionalisation of an opaque vocabulary by universities is not to be found in the field of linguistic innovation. Rather it is the unfortunate outcome of the erosion of the cultural authority of debate and argument. Sadly, linguistic vagueness is a habit that comes natural to the university moralist.