If criticism is antisocial, then bring on the Asbos

I got a framed and personalised Asbo for Christmas. It was issued against me for "being offensive" - particularly in my FE Focus Backchat columns - to almost everyone. That includes college managers, the bullying industry, staff developers, students, counsellors, therapists, the Institute for Learning, the Association of Teachers and Lecturers, quangos, witches, plumbers, policy wonks, politically correct party-poopers, and censors and banners of every form.

I proudly display it on my wall and, like 55 per cent of all Asbos, this one will be breached. I may even go for the record, which means outdoing 25 breaches by one person.

My attitude to my Asbo is hardly odd. You know that this particular New Labour policy has failed when personalised Asbos are on sale on the web and in every street market, alongside Asbo T-shirts and mugs.

There is reality behind Vicky Pollard's contempt in the television show Little Britain for her friend who has only three Asbos. They are becoming badges of honour. I know mine is.

If it is not too late for new year's resolutions, then working toward being issued with an ASBO for being offensive is a good one.

This is not, as the BBC and others claimed recently (when Academics For Academic Freedom's statement of academic freedom was launched, see www.afaf.org.uk), because I defend an absurd right to offend and believe that we should all go around making rude and hurtful comments about people's appearance, abilities or way of life. It is because the charge of being offensive is no longer a matter of etiquette and politeness. It has become a way of avoiding, rejecting and disposing of all forms of rational criticism.

Any criticism of someone's beliefs, ideas and arguments is taken as if it were a personal slight.

Of course, in a way you are criticising them. You are criticising often deeply held and important intellectual perspectives. But this sort of criticism, however destructive it may be, was the way in which you took someone's intellectual standpoint seriously. It was the way in which ideas and intellectual life developed.

Now, being critical is seen as offensive as mocking someone for having a big nose or not being very attractive, which are things you can do nothing about. This is not to say we need to censor offensive personal remarks of this sort. People who make them should be subject to proper moral criticism.

Being prepared to be called offensive is now the single most important test that every lecturer in further and higher education has to pass if criticism is to be defended at the present time.

The words critical and offensive are not yet synonyms, but challenges to conventional ideas and the powerful people who hold them are most likely to be labelled offensive rather than accepted as critical. The trick is that even the powerful have learnt to represent themselves as defenders of the vulnerable in society and we must never offend the vulnerable.

At a time when further education is becoming central to the Government's education policy, there is much to be challenged. The philosophy, organisation, management and the curriculum needs some hard criticism. If lecturers are going to be in a position to criticise any of this, they will have to be prepared to be seen as offensive. Let's hope that by 2008 all of us have Asbos.

Dennis Hayes is head of the centre for professional learning at Canterbury Christ Church University

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