Document Type


Publication Date

October 2023

Publication Title

Journal of Controversial Ideas






This essay asks, when does our effort to avoid offending students interfere with our ability to teach them? Rehearsing conflicts over language and terminology, over who can speak and what can be said, from my four-decade career as a literature professor, critical theorist, and gender scholar, I confront contemporary efforts to censor certain words, to prohibit certain kinds of inquiry, and to limit who can speak about certain subjects by placing recent incidents in relation to previous debates in academia and the public sphere. The university classroom and scholarly peer-reviewed journals have long served as spaces where established viewpoints can be questioned, knowledge can be challenged, and identities can be probed. Increasingly, however, we see classroom curricula under attack, books banned, language policed, and viewpoints prohibited, with teachers, students, and scholars self-censoring as a result. What happens when words are prohibited, and research subjects are deemed off limit, because some fear they may harm fragile young students or readers? Refusing to have that conversation, to allow scholars and teachers to debate controversial positions openly, itself does the harm. Through examples drawn from my teaching and scholarship, and drawing on newspaper editorials and academic publications, I model a means for working through this seeming impasse encapsulated by the title phrase, “the word that dare not speak its name.”


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited. (CC BY 4.0).