Why does gay mean‘rubbish’?, asks Rob Lyons
Monday 19 February 2007
Censoring students at Oxford? That is so gay
Welcome to the Oxford college where students can use the word gay to refer to a homosexualman but not to describe a rubbish pool shot.
In the quad at Merton College, Oxford, scruffily-clad students scurry to their lectures.But behind this everyday student scene, there lurks a rather bizarre controversy.
The trendy college is renowned for its LGBT-friendly ethos (that’s LGBT as in ‘Lesbian, Gay,Bisexual and Transgender’), yet it has become a rather unlikely setting for a university-widecontroversy over homophobic remarks. Recently, fourth-year Merton student Andrew Godfreycomplained about some of the language being used by his fellow students. This led to official actionby the executive of the Junior Common Room (JCR) warning the student body to refrain from ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour ‘even if you are not being intentionallymalicious’. Students were reprimanded for contributing to ‘an uncomfortable atmosphere incollege’.What was the ‘unacceptable and extremely offensive’ behaviour? It consisted of limp-wristedimpressions and the use of phrases such as ‘Oh don’t be such a poof!’ and ‘You missed that shot,you big gay!’ during a heated game of pool in Merton’s swanky Games Room.In response to Godfrey’s complaint about this behaviour, the college’s JCR president, Laura Davies,sent out the following email to students (drafted by Godfrey in collaboration with student welfareand LGBT representatives): ‘JCR members have raised concerns after groups have been overheardin the Games Room and other communal areas of college using terms like “gay” and “poof” as joking insults. Please be aware that using language like this is unacceptable and extremelyoffensive, even if you are not being intentionally malicious and think you are being ironic or witty insome way. It creates an uncomfortable atmosphere in the college.’ Can students not take a joke anymore? Can they not handle the use of words such as ‘gay’ or ‘poof’ in a slang context, in a setting as informal as a Games Room? Both Davies and Godfreyadmit that the students probably were not expressing anti-gay prejudice when they made thesecomments while making their wrists go all limp. As Godfrey himself says: ‘I never maintained thatthis was deliberately malicious homophobia because I didn’t feel like I had been harassed;otherwise I would have turned to the college authorities. They were basically acting the way guysdo.’ And yet guys ‘acting the way guys do’ has now been redefined as ‘unacceptable and extremelyoffensive’ behaviour that apparently warrants a stern official warning. Davies tells me she had noqualms about sending an official admonishment to the entire student body in response to behaviourthat she admits was not purposefully malicious or offensive. ‘One of the JCR members raised thefact that he was quite unhappy with someone using the word “gay” and that he personally foundthat very offensive’, she says. This is a world away from John Stuart Mill’s argument that opinionsought only to ‘lose their immunity’ when ‘the circumstances in which they are expressed are suchas to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act’ (1). His point,made in
in 1859, was that only in instances where words and actions might directly leadto violence could one make a case for curtailing freedom of speech. Fast forward 150 years and wehave the new Merton rule – where JCR officials recognise that students saying ‘gay’ to meanrubbish and swinging their wrists around was not intended maliciously, much less was it likely tolead to violence; and yet because these antics offended the sensibilities of a
theytook it upon themselves to chastise all students in a hectoring missive about what is acceptable andunacceptable behaviour.This points to a worrying level of sensitivity among today’s students, and a lackadaisical attitudetowards words, arguments and freedom of speech. The JCR’s aim seemed to be, not to protectstudents from harm, but to protect the college’s reputation for being caring and accepting from the ‘unmannered’ behaviour of some students playing a game of pool.The self-censoring attitude of Merton’s JCR reflects a broaderview taken by many today: that free speech is something that
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