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/

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