The Word Police

Legislating words is silly, arbitrary, and a danger to freedom.

by Bruce S. Thornton

Private Papers

The New York City Council recently passed a resolution banning the use of the word “nigger.” The resolution, of course, is entirely symbolic, since trying to control language by fiat is like King Canute trying to stop the tide. Language isn’t legislated, but grows and changes organically through the people who speak it. That’s why the grammar police always fight a losing battle.

More interesting is what this preening display of self-righteousness says about our culture of eternal childhood. The larger pathology such hypersensitivity reflects is a narcissistic obsession with individual feelings more typical of children. Like a child, we think that freedom from hurt feelings is a human right. We think we are entitled to live our lives without ever encountering any word or deed that does not confirm our estimation of ourselves as wonderful, important creatures. We think that the whole world is obligated to monitor its behavior to make sure that we never feel bad.

Consider this recent event. A law firm recruiter was reading from a 1920s trial transcript containing the word “nigger,” an epithet as common back then as bootleg gin. A student pitched a fit, and the obligatory groveling apologies and protestations of the love of “diversity” issued from the law school and the firm. Instead of telling the student to grow up and realize the world doesn’t give a tinker’s damn (apologies to any tinkers out there who are offended by this metaphor) about anybody’s feelings, they validated the student’s inflated self-importance. Given that any American, of whatever race, graduating from law school like this student will live lives of material prosperity and privilege light years beyond what 99% of the human race has experienced, this kid’s hurt feelings is meaningless in the catalogue of human misery.

This whole obsession with hurt feelings reflects as well a child-like intellectual incoherence. First, the threshold of insult or injury is entirely subjective, existing in the mind of the individual. Thus the rest of us cannot refer to any consistent, public standard to guide us, since the standard is arbitrary and continually shifting. Talking about the word “nigger” rather than directing it maliciously at an individual person would seem to be an obvious distinction we can all observe. But the proliferation of the silly euphemism the “n-word” shows that even this common-sense standard has been abandoned. Or take the Washington, D.C. official fired some years back for using the word “niggardly,” which derives from Scandinavian and so has nothing to do with the word “nigger.” What’s next, banning the word “niggling”? Just to be safe, shouldn’t we ban the syllable “nig”? Surely the loss of words like “renege” or “negotiate” is not too small a price to pay to avoid hurting someone’s feelings. Since it’s impossible to know every individual standard, all we can do is observe strict self-censorship no matter how silly.

The other glaring problem with this obsession with hurt feelings is that it is politically selected, just like those phony claims of “diversity,” which usually means creating a multicolored herd of the politically like-minded. Just about every university in this country insults the beliefs of Christians, Republicans, athletes, white males, and conservatives on a daily basis. Anti-Semitism, thinly camouflaged as “anti-Zionism,” is indulged constantly. The culture of white Southerners is mocked and demonized with glee. No one pays attention to complaints about this insensitivity. Nor should he (apologies to any women offended by my sexist use of the masculine pronoun). Part of being an adult is learning to deal with a world in which you, your beliefs, and your feelings are no more important than anybody else’s. What’s objectionable is the double standard and the censorship, particularly glaring in a university, supposedly the bastion of free speech and free thought, no matter whose ideological or political ox is gored (apologies to any oxen who are offended by this metaphor).

Most importantly, however, this obsession with individual feelings is incompatible with democratic freedom. A political system that allows large numbers of citizens to participate in public debate is necessarily raucous, insulting, and often vulgar. Just look at ancient Athens, where the level of political invective and insult makes our political campaigns sound like a Jane Austen novel. That’s why elitist snobs like Plato disliked democracy. When you give average people free speech, the debate is going to be rough and tough. If you want to participate, you have to be able to take it. The only alternative is some sort of control by an elite that always ends up stifling the expression of ideas and serving a narrow political interest — exactly what we see today in our universities and media. I learned this lesson the few years I was condemned to my university’s Academic Senate. As soon as the debate on an issue started getting close to the truth, someone would jump up and start squealing about “civility,” and nothing useful happened.

You can’t have free speech and sensitivity to feelings at the same time. The issues we as citizens have to debate are contentious, complex, and involve passionately held and conflicting values and principles. To impose an arbitrary, subjective, finely calibrated standard of speech is to impose censorship. Not all true and useful ideas come in nice civil packages. Some of the truest political discourse one can hear these days is on the supremely vulgar and politically incorrect South Park.

A commitment to the free exchange of ideas and speech no matter how rude and insensitive is the sine qua non of political freedom. After all, people have embraced many pernicious ideas because they make people feel good. The attack on racial superiority that reinforced segregation hurt a lot of people’s feelings and challenged some of their most cherished values. But more important than feelings was the Constitutional principle of equal opportunity regardless of the accident of race. Nothing should be more sacred than the truth or soundness of ideas. For of all the hurtful truths, political truth is often the most hurtful. That’s the price we pay for freedom.

©2007 Bruce Thornton

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