I have a very distinct memory from my time as a secondary school pupil – it was an assembly. We were informed in clear and definite terms that things had changed and it was no longer acceptable to refer to someone as ‘coloured’. That term – too connected to South Africa, apartheid – now held such unpleasant connotations that we needed to drop it. And so we did.
At various times in my teaching career, words have been banned. Words ‘like’ or ‘ain’t’ are popular – and when well communicated most students see the benefit of being able to express an idea without them. I worked in Croydon when one famous academy chain banned a whole bunch of words, putting a sign up saying “we woz” is banned. The irony.
‘Basically’ is the classic student sentence opener these days. When students use it – I blame myself. It’s a filler word, they haven’t clearly formed an answer because I probably didn’t give them enough thinking time. So I stop, allow time and start again.
All of the above shaping of language seems acceptable, doesn’t it? It is either curtailing prejudice or you know, like, stuff that basically makes you look less cleverer. But who decides what is acceptable or unacceptable? Where the line between hate-talk and censorship falls?
In 2012, the US Department of Education created a list of words that it wanted removed from classrooms. It contains some hilarious entries – dinosaur (for creationists among us) and Halloween. These silly additions belie the worrying undercurrent of some of the other words on the list. Poverty. Abuse. Freedom. War. Slavery. Terrorism. Homelessness.
The legislation of language is something that I find troubling in general. Each year I have to retackle my thinking on it – the ‘nigger’ in Of Mice and Men (or the ‘bitch, slut, tramp, tart’ – although we don’t seem to mind that so much) – forces me to grapple with whether language should or can be censored. And if indeed whether language is the problem at all.
Banning words – one example would be the word ‘banter’ – does not stop teasing or cruelty. Does censoring student language, help them change their behaviour? Is this what happened when we stopped using the word ‘coloured’? I don’t think so.
The opposite works equally. The muttering over and over of positivity does not necessarily result in rainbows and unicorns. Singing ‘all things bright and beautiful’ does not the weather change. But I do know many, many people who find comfort in the language of positive thought (religious or otherwise) and are convinced that it can lift the spirits.
How do we decide what approach should be used and enforced in school? Who should decide this?
I am deeply uncomfortable with banning words – I am happy, always happy, to talk about words and the power that words have.
I am deeply uncomfortable with the use of words to control behaviour. Even when this is designed for positive effect. I don’t like maxims or tenets or sayings – I understand rhetoric, please don’t ask me to use rhetoric that is so hollow, it is in fact empty.
Here’s what I will do:
Talk about words and why words are powerful.
Talk about why words should be spoken with thought.
Explore the responsibility we have for the impact of our words.