In a recurring sketch from a popular early 2000s U.K. comedy show called Little Britain, a bank clerk listens to customers’ queries, randomly types on a keyboard, and then deadpans the catchphrase: “computer says no.” Whatever the follow-up questions, no matter how angry or upset customers become, the response remains the same: “computer says no.” This skit lives on in Britons’ collective psyche mainly because it is funny, but also because it points to a familiar sentiment: the frustration of finding oneself stonewalled by an intransigent bureaucracy.
The sketch came to mind earlier this year when the Canadian Society for Academic Freedom and Scholarship (SAFS) invited me to give its annual guest lecture. The venue was to be the public library in London, Ontario. I titled my talk “Sex, Gender, and the Limits of Free Speech on Campus” and looked forward to the occasion. Then, without any apparent sense of irony, the library cancelled my lecture with one emailed sentence: “As per the library’s policy governing room rentals, we are not able to approve the rental request.” Computer says no.
After much nudging, library staff revealed the specific policies I had unknowingly breached. My lecture was considered “likely to be in violation of library policy, including, but not limited to, the library’s rules of conduct, charter of library use or workplace harassment and sexual-harassment prevention policies.” More specifically, there was allegedly “a risk or likelihood of physical danger to participants or the audience or misuse of the property or equipment.” Finally, my speech might “negatively impact or impede the ability of others to enjoy the services and facilities of the library, and/or library operations.” Thankfully, SAFS managed to find an alternative venue, and my speech was recorded, so listeners can gauge for themselves whether I posed a risk of sexual harassment or physical danger.
Looking back at this event now, what strikes me most is the faceless, bureaucratic nature of censorship. No individual was bold enough to say: “I do not like what you have to say and I am going to prevent you from saying it.” Rather than taking responsibility for the decision to stop me from speaking —and, importantly, to prevent people from hearing what I had to say—library officials hid behind selected quotations from institutional policies. This cowardly approach gives bureaucrats plausible deniability when accused of censorship. Worse still, it allows them to appear almost apologetic: “We support free speech but, unfortunately, policy says no.”
In order to promote not just a legal right to free speech but a culture that values the free exchange of ideas as an end in itself, we need to dismantle the censorship bureaucracy that has become entrenched across Western societies over the past two decades. To do this, we have to understand what drove the explosive growth of illiberal, partisan policies that now seem to govern every aspect of our lives—at school, on campus, in the workplace, online, and in public spaces such as libraries, museums, and theaters.
Universities have perfected the bureaucratization of censorship. The Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression (FIRE) shows how policies on Internet usage, harassment, tolerance, respect and civility, bullying, protest and demonstration, posting and distribution, bias and hate speech, and security all act to limit free speech on campus without ever once referring to censorship. It is the same in the U.K. A college at the University of Oxford recently issued a “transgender inclusion statement” forbidding “unlawful discrimination, victimisation, bullying or harassment of trans people.” Examples of behavior deemed to violate the policy include “making jokes about trans people or their trans status” and “consistently using incorrect titles or pronouns.” As the U.K.’s Free Speech Union (FSU) points out in a letter to the college, demands on students to “affirm everything a trans person believes about their gender [. . .] would be a breach of the College’s legal duty to uphold free speech.”
In an example of doublethink worthy of Orwell, even so-called free speech policies—in detailing what can be said—often end up determining the limits of free expression. When we go down this bureaucratic rabbit hole, there is often no escape: free-speech policies direct readers to yet more policies. As the Oxford transgender statement illustrates, the final recourse is often the law. The college states that discriminatory behavior is to be dealt with under the U.K. Equality Act (2010), which prevents the harassment of individuals based on protected characteristics, including gender reassignment. However, as the FSU letter makes clear, the Equality Act does not impinge upon the speech of university students. This over-interpretation of the law is a clear attempt to chill speech.
Having begun life on campus, speech codes have migrated seamlessly into the workplace and cultural institutions, courtesy of diversity, equity, and inclusion (DEI) officers. Once, human resource managers considered workplace safety a matter of fire escapes and first-aid kits. Now, more expansive definitions of harm encompass risks to mental as well as physical health, and safety means emotional safety or protection from offense. The requirement to manage not just the physical working environment but the emotional climate and the ways in which colleagues interact with one another vastly expands the remit of the human resource department. The new goal is to ensure that “all employees feel accepted and supported to better serve the mission of the company.” Under the guise of banishing offense, DEI officers police the speech of colleagues.
Several key ideas drive the obsession with emotional safety. One is the now-dominant perception that people are mentally vulnerable and emotionally fragile. Awareness of “mental health” has never been greater, and routine human emotions such as feeling “worried” or “sad” have been reinterpreted as “anxiety” and “depression,” with medication or therapy being the only remedies. Alongside this social change, the belief that words can wound has moved from an obscure academic treatise to a statement of the obvious. According to this way of thinking, any conversation or overheard phrase can induce debilitating trauma. And looming over all these policies is the DEI team’s insistence on dividing employees into identity groups and assigning themselves the role of managing imagined disputes stemming from the unequal distribution of privilege and oppression. The upshot is that in the workplace, just as on campus, spontaneity, robust disagreement, and angry clashes of ideas are out, while civility codes are in. And, as I discovered in Canada, when a “workplace” encompasses members of the public, then the public, too, will have its speech policed for its own good.
The bureaucratization of censorship does not stop with determining what cannot be said. Increasingly, policies stipulate what must be said, too. Staff and students at the U.K.’s University of Manchester have been advised to replace terms like “mother” or “father” with more inclusive and gender-neutral words like “parent” or “guardian.” Likewise, “men” and “women” should be replaced by “individuals,” while “manpower,” “mankind,” and “chairman” should be replaced with “workforce,” “humankind,” and “chair.” The University of Edinburgh, meantime, provides a list of forbidden transphobic phrases that includes “all women hate their periods” and “you’re either a man or a woman.” In the U.S., Northwestern University’s extensive inclusive-language guide is broken down into four categories offering detailed instruction on how to refer to people according to their gender and sexual identity, race and ethnicity, religion and national identity, and disabilities.
Dictating acceptable words is not limited to universities. The Associated Press Style Guide performs the same function for journalists and editors, while the Conscious Style Guide offers linguistic guidance on every conceivable topic, from age to spirituality to the climate. Its use is recommended by a host of organizations, including NASA, the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, and the American Booksellers Association.
These efforts to manipulate language do not just alter the ways in which we interact with one another; they also come to influence our individual thoughts. Language is indeed powerful: it is the medium through which we make sense of the world. Limiting and altering the words we draw upon limits and alters our capacity for thought. The success of this project is itself grounded in language. Rather than language guides being presented as an authoritarian project, they are dressed up as friendly advice—a helpful guide for well-intentioned people who do not want to risk causing offense. And if you think a project to change how people think is outlandish, you clearly have not been subjected to unconscious-bias training.
No one voted for the bureaucratic regulation of speech, yet it has grown steadily and stealthily. Attending DEI workshops, complying with speech codes, even announcing our pronouns have become routine parts of many people’s lives. We learn not just to coexist with policies that dictate what we can and cannot say, but to preempt them and adjust our behavior accordingly. Trigger warnings, reminders about the problems of microaggressions, and pronoun badges all nudge us toward self-censorship. When the nudging is unsuccessful, “cancellation” serves as a public shaming, and mandatory attendance at diversity workshops provides re-education.
The bureaucratic regulation of speech is not just censorious and anti-democratic; it is fundamentally dehumanizing. Deference to policies degrades both those who seek to wield them and those subjected to them. The censors abdicate moral responsibility; they no longer have to own the silencing impact of their actions. They face no pressure to explain why they think an idea is too dangerous to be expressed. But in the act of silencing, they also remove the capacity for others to act as moral agents. Gone is the possibility of confronting prejudice or intolerant words through debate. In its place is compliance with policies and codes of conduct. We get used to doing as we are told, not what we think is right.
In What Is Enlightenment?, the philosopher Immanuel Kant criticized both the guardians who “make their domestic cattle stupid and carefully prevent the docile creatures from taking a single step without the leading-strings to which they have fastened them” and the people who are only too happy “to have a book that thinks for me, a pastor who acts as my conscience, a physician who prescribes my diet, and so on.” Today, it is not the pastor but the DEI officer who seeks to act as our conscience, and it is not books but policy documents that think for us. The end result is the same. Without exercise, we risk losing our moral muscle. We need to dismantle the censorship bureaucracy and demand, to quote Kant again, the “freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.”
Photo: Afry Harvy/iStock