No Words Should Be Banned

No Words Should Be Banned

We should never ban any word, no matter how offensive

In what must make for the most awkward family gatherings, those who speak the Australian Aboriginal Dyirbal language are forbidden from doing so in the presence of their mother-in-law and certain cousins. Says Steven Pinker, “speakers have to use an entirely different vocabulary (though the same grammar) when those relatives are around.” Though this is extreme, it is hardly alien: think of what words you allow yourself to use in different company. Presumably most of us would not use, say, expletives in the presence of bosses, maybe parents and almost definitely in-laws. Thus, what separates the dynamics of the Dyirbal language-users and our awkward Sunday lunches is one of degree, not kind.

What fascinates me – and, by fascinate, I mean “irritates” – are claims that certain words and their use, by themselves, corrupt, degrade or otherwise harm individuals or their ethics. There has been no evidence that specific words corrupt or harm. And we should take any kind of restriction on speech seriously – and when words are restricted, we cannot afford to be idle. After all, ideas are usually packaged in words; in ink, sounds, and pixels. Thus to restrict certain words is to deny the transmission of ideas, due to some compliance with comfort and the status quo.

Let us admit from the beginning that words are not blunt. There’s a reason people are put to death for writing simple sentences (that I write this in the present-tense should make us hate our species that much more). As I said, words package ideas, thus undermining submission to power dynamics that would rather keep people unthinking, grey and compliant. There’s no truth lost in this assertion as illustrated by history: For example, the genocide in Rwanda was not, for example, brought about ex nihilo but through the gradual erosion of Tutsis as people, as sentient entities, into less than humans; they were vermin, quite literally called ‘inyenzi’ or cockroaches. Of course Hutus didn’t see them as cockroaches but as part of the pestilence, part of the problem, that needed to be removed. They filled a slot in a human equation that required subtraction, turning all manner of people from different walks of life into serial murderers. The idea to eliminate anyone with Tutsi blood was brought about through fierce propaganda, years of apartheid which used pseudoscientific racial nonsense to distinguish between Hutus and Tutsis, and playing on the fears of the majority Hutu rule. Words altered perceptions. Rules like "You must be careful to disembowel [pregnant Tutsis] and make sure the fetus in their womb [is] dead” were common and acted upon.

Again, I use an extreme example not as the exception of a rule, but to indicate differences in degree not kind. Words mean something. They shape belief, which themselves shape action. But does restricting or limiting individual words actually have some kind of positive effect?

We Bleep Ourselves Over

Who do we bleep out expletives on television? Why do certain people use and hate words like ‘cunt’ or ‘nigger’ or, as was said to me, ‘camel jockey’? How do mere sounds translate into articulating feelings, emotions, viewpoints?

Look at the previous paragraph. Somehow, putting bad words in quotation marks castrated their power (for most of us). After all, how are you going to say which words you want banned unless you can name them? (Similarly, one of the filthiest bills the US has ever had is the Clean Airwaves Bill, which seeks to ban the use of profanity. It’s wonderfully laughable.)

Why do we think keeping airwaves clean is something the government needs to do? For example, in Britain, Peter Foot of the Teletubby-sounding National Campaign for Courtesy said of a judge’s rule to get rid of profanity bans: “the police have to be able to judge whether someone is being particularly abusive. And of course they would complain when it's combined with an aggressive manner towards them…If you want to do it in your own room, that's fine. But if you're in a place where you're in earshot of other people it can be very distressing."


And who is Foot to decide which words may and may not be used?

In 2008, Preston, Lancashire the ‘Respect our city’ scheme made it possible to fine people for what was considered ‘antisocial behaviour’. Said Kate Calder:  "We want to put a stop to anti-social behaviour such as fighting, littering and swearing around town so that everyone can enjoy a happy, safe Christmas. We're spreading the message in shops, pubs, restaurants and on buses and streets across the city.”

How does swearing equate to anti-social behaviour? As Pinker highlights, in several instances, swearing within groups conveys immersion, since it shows a relaxed atmosphere. If you can swear without people’s hearts exploding, presumably you’re in a safe, like-minded environment. Furthermore, why is it the government’s job to tell us what is and is not social? Isn’t that something we can decide for ourselves? Littering and fighting we hope they would stop, since these can infringe unnecessarily on one own freedom. But swearing?

Eff off

There is no good reason for us to ban swearing nor to arrest people for using the term. Presumably, we can make informed decisions as to whether there is merit to the individual cases of swearing. For example, the words “knife”, “cut” and “children” are not so bad – but we can easily formulate a sentence, use a harsh or threatening voice, and use those words to constitute an actual threat. But we don’t ban the words “knife”, “cut” and “children”. The problem isn’t the words but the context or sentence in which they are used. It is true that expletives perhaps are often inappropriate, but that only means one must be more socially aware or a better writer. To say that all swearwords all the time require government intervention is to submit to bills being written in crayon.

We can change the channel. We can be alerted to it by the channel’s notifications. We can close a book. We can look away. I agree with Pinker that broadcast companies should be able to set their own rules; after all, people will pay with their wallets and viewing time. They don’t need the government to intervene and punish a show for swearing – companies can see whether it’s a good idea to have reruns of George Carlin the same time children arrive home from school. We don’t need to be treated like children or require others to tell us what we may and may not say.

Of course, some words appear worse than others. At Freethought Blogs, Jennifer McCreight took exception to Penn Jillette calling a female writer a ‘cunt’. The idea that sexism should be treated with same malice and outrage as racism is completely justified. Whether or not ‘cunt’ is worse than, say, ‘idiot’, is of course another matter. For Ms McCreight it certainly is; for Mr Jillette it is not. But Ms McCreight despite her hatred of the term did something cultural conservatives do not: She did not call for Penn to be banned, she did not ask for the word to never appear again, and so on. Instead she called him out on it and wrote an argument about why she thought he was wrong to use that term.

I’m not convinced that Jillette is a sexist from this one example (but that also is not Ms McCreight’s point). Nor do I know personally what words or identity labels would make me react the same way many women (and men) did to Jillette’s use of the term ‘cunt’. It would be interesting to see what words do that - but we need to use them to be able to discuss them!

However, there are no words – no individual words – that should be banned. Who would we let decide for us the limits of our words and sentences? Who would be allowed the power to decide what the correct context or application of the term is? As rational adults, we can do that for ourselves. If we do not like terms – because in and of themselves they package ideas of racism or misogyny – we can argue about it. We can make a rational case for not using it – thus, if you use it, you harm yourself by doing so since you have been given the reasons not to use it. For example, comedians and actors kill their careers when using racial slurs – but that doesn’t mean we should ban those terms from television or books or have people arrested for using them. As with broadcasters, people will vote with their wallets, their ears and their attention. Thanks to McCreight there is probably a fair amount of people who will no longer pay attention to Mr Jillette (and perhaps a few who now will?).

But we convince others through words. By banning certain ones, we are allowing someone or some group the authority to empty our quiver as they see fit, when we are using it directly to defend ourselves and our individual liberty. Cutting out words is the very thing that would undermine our ability to communicate with each other. Thus, undermining free speech and the free exchange of ideas. The mechanism to aid us and to counter words we dislike is not jail, but discussion. Words have power – but silence is not the answer to undermine or overcome that power, if we disagree with what that power does.


More reading:

Steven Pinker wrote a 2008 essay about Washington’s crusade against swearing.

It's not just expletives that people want banned or banished. Imagine not being able to use the word 'amazing' anymore. Not entirely a "serious" policy , but insightful into what people want discarded.

Image Credit: Rene Ramos/

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
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  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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