Brave New Girls
By Michael Wood
There’s a wonderful theory in sociology called Labelling Theory, the broad strokes of which are that the words we use to describe something have a meaningful effect on the thing being described. It’s the sort of thing you can’t un-see once you’ve seen it. A person who breaks the law is more than a law-breaker; they are a Criminal, and criminals are bad. So bad that the label follows an individual long after they’ve served their sentence, damaging one’s employment, housing, and interpersonal situations. One might refer to this negative effect as “Stigma”.
Likewise, some words have a meaningful, positive effect. Compare the terms “Aborigine,” and “First Nations”. One implies a prehistoric presence, a less-advanced human whose place was the past. The other illustrates a proud, civilised and diverse population who endure still today and, perhaps most importantly, acknowledges the nationhood which has been historically denied to our First Nations. I could give many more examples, but the brass tacks are thus:
- Words have a very real, very powerful impact.
- Words can both hurt and heal.
- Words and language evolve to suit the needs of their speakers.
In George Orwell’s novel 1984 he describes a society in which a totalitarian state (“The Party”) maintains the population’s subservience by forcing upon them a streamlined version of English known as “Newspeak”. At a glance designed to make the language more efficient, Newspeak surreptitiously limits the speaker’s ability to define things such as their identity, their time and place in the world, and the nature of The Party’s rule. It’s a powerful metaphor, and one which has permeated discourse on Free Speech since its publishing. Many have likened the near-ubiquitous policies on inclusive language which have been adopted by universities, workplaces, and governments in the Anglosphere to Thoughtcrime and Newspeak. They have done so under the misapprehension that the need for terms which do not imply any kind of racial, gendered, or otherwise prejudiced perspectives is a ploy designed to restrict expression. I contend that the inclusive terms do quite the opposite. Language evolves, after all. Riddle me this, dear readers: A male university student in 2018 writes the sentence “When a doctor first assesses a patient he must…” and receives feedback from their tutor that they should use non-gendered pronouns; a female high school student in 1984 writes “I’d like to become chairman of an international corporation,” and is told that she cannot, because it says “Man” right there in the word. Which of these scenarios sounds more like language being used to limit one’s self-expression?
In contrast to Orwell, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World describes a society in which people needn’t be controlled because they’re simply so satiated with the ease of their lives that they have no desire to change, grow, or learn. Like 1984, many have used Brave New World to describe modern society and the apathy of our over-stimulated, online existence. This is also somewhat misleading and emerges from a place of privilege; there are many alive today for whom life will never be comfortable. What the uncomfortable amongst us all have in common is a deviation from what is considered the norm. Perhaps they are a young woman trying to retain bodily autonomy amongst young men who use the word “rape” as a punchline. Perhaps they are an elderly immigrant who relies on their children or grandchildren to navigate life. Perhaps they are mentally or physically ill, reliant on either medication or physical aids to survive but never quite thrive. These people are more than their deviation, though. They are living, loving beings who persevere despite the fact there is a seemingly endless supply of hateful, diminishing words which the privileged use against them. Imagine any of them find themselves at Murdoch (and they do) attempting to change, grow, and learn, and find that their fellow students apparently feel the world is just fine how it is, and that they needn’t try to change. Imagine being told that a policy designed to make you feel welcome, capable, and valued is on-par with a dystopian totalitarian state.
The University’s non-discriminatory language guide is about twenty times shorter than my average weekly readings, and the content is about a hundred times easier to understand and apply. It’s not a difficult change to make; you’re welcome to use whatever language you please in your private life. Part of the University experience is learning how to manage expectations. Expectations of your work, your conduct, and your commitment. Despite the general sense of left vs. right in modern discourse, and the impression that this is “the left rearing its ugly head,” the University’s own language guide states that the policy is complimented by The Murdoch University Act, 1973-85 – these policies are not new and are not the result of any supposed shoving match over the nature of Free Speech. Your moral or political position is irrelevant, the non-discriminatory language guide is not designed to smoke out conservatives it is designed to prepare you for the expectations of professional life and, just maybe, help you better understand the power of words. It is to remind you that people have value, no matter their provenance. If that seems oppressive to you, you might do well to consider things from the perspective of others, their personal context and their intent. Consider the reality of your own history, because it is their history too. If one must ask “Why do you care so much?” it must be assumed that one does not care in the first place. If you find yourself asking this, my only advice is to think hard about what you’ve said and maybe, just maybe, decide that it is not time to ask, but time to listen. Rather than Orwell or Huxley, I leave you with something from Cormac McCarthy:
“What you got ain’t nothing new. This country is hard on people. You can’t stop what’s coming. It ain’t all waiting on you. That’s vanity.”