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How ‘speech codes’ discriminate against vulnerable people

A sign warns of a minefield on the Falkland Islands. Cathal McNaughton/PA Archive/PA Images

A sign warns of a minefield on the Falkland Islands. Cathal McNaughton/PA Archive/PA Images

August 15, 2017   3 mins

A microaggression can be defined as a casual, perhaps unintended, slight to a member of a marginalised group. Though much mocked by those of a consciously un-PC disposition, it’s not an invalid concept. For instance, put yourself in the position of someone who is black and British, but is often asked – by other Britons – “where do you come from?” In most cases, it might not be intended as an insulting question, but the underlying assumption is that, in some way, you don’t quite belong. How many times does the question have to be asked before you feel ‘othered’ in your own country?

Educating people to avoid such insensitivities is hardly unreasonable; but there are good ways and bad ways of doing so. Earlier this year, staff at Oxford University were advised that an example of “everyday racism” could include avoiding eye-contact when talking to someone. The university subsequently apologised after it was pointed out that this advice discriminated against autistic people who can find face-to-face communication uncomfortable.

An unfortunate one-off event? Not according to Geoffrey Miller who, in an essay for Quillette, argues that university ‘speech codes’ are making life difficult, if not impossible, for people with autism and other non-neurotypical conditions:

“Ever since the Middle Ages, universities have nurtured people with unusual brains and minds. Historically, academia was a haven for neurodiversity of all sorts. Eccentrics have been hanging out in Cambridge since 1209 and in Harvard since 1636. For centuries, these eccentricity-havens have been our time-traveling bridges from the ancient history of Western civilization to the far future of science, technology, and moral progress. Now thousands of our havens are under threat, and that’s sad and wrong, and we need to fix it.”

Miller is certainly not arguing that blatant racism or sexism should be excused in some individuals. Nor is he suggesting that people with “Asperger’s, bipolar, Tourette’s, or dozens of other personality quirks or mental ‘disorders’” are racist or sexist as a result of their neurological make-up. Rather it’s that they can find it harder to navigate the linguistic sensitivities that are now ‘policed’ with such vigour on campus:

“Here’s the problem. America’s informal ‘speech norms’, which govern what we’re allowed to say and what we’re not, were created and imposed by ‘normal’ brains, for ‘normal’ brains to obey and enforce. Formal speech codes at American universities were also written by and for the ‘neurotypical’. They assume that everyone on campus is equally capable, 100% of the time, of… Using their verbal intelligence and cultural background to understand speech codes that are intentionally vague, over-broad, and euphemistic, to discern who’s actually allowed to say what, in which contexts, using which words…”

For instance, there are good reasons why the phrase ‘person of colour’ is considered acceptable and ‘coloured person’ isn’t; but choosing the right one requires communication skills that not everyone has in equal measure.

As speech codes become ever more complicated and the number of people you can offend multiplies, avoiding transgression becomes increasing difficult. That might not matter if the worst that could happen is that you’re taken aside for a ‘quiet word’. But as demonstrated by the cases of Matt Taylor or Tim Hunt, the worst that could happen includes a media witch-hunt, public humiliation or even the loss of your job.

Beyond the headline cases, Miller says there is a wider “chilling effect” on campus life:

“…neurodiverse academics may withdraw from the social and intellectual life of the university. They may avoid lab group meetings, post-colloquium dinners, faculty parties, and conferences, where any tipsy comment, if overheard by anyone with a propensity for moralistic outrage, could threaten their reputation and career…

“This withdrawal from the university’s ‘life of the mind’ is especially heart-breaking to the neurodiverse, who often can’t stand small talk, and whose only real social connections come through vigorous debate about dangerous ideas with their intellectual equals. Speech codes don’t just censor their words; they also decimate their relationships, collaborations, and social networks.”

Great job everybody!

(That’s sarcasm by the way).

(And irony).

Peter Franklin is Associate Editor of UnHerd. He was previously a policy advisor and speechwriter on environmental and social issues.


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