Productive questions as Critical Thinking
1. Why do we encourage free speech in the first place?
2. What do we assume about words when we encourage their expression?
3. What do we assume about humans when we encourage free speech, knowing as we do that for some people certain words will have devastating effects?
4. Is it the number of people potentially bothered by a word that stimulates others to wish to restrict that word's utterance, or is it the oomph of a particular word that is so horrible in its effect that even one pained person is too great a price to pay for allowing the word's expression in a kind world?
A large cohort of Trump supporters are annoyed by the efforts of a substantial set of educated Americans to restrict our collective use of certain words. The words are unacceptable to those who wish to quash their use because the words are said to cause intense pain to some of us.
I share their annoyance. I teach at a university a hotbed of "proper" speech where the use of several words, regardless of the context or purpose, will earn you an awkward visit from a self-righteous arbiter of which words are acceptable and which must be shunned by good and wise people. The list of unacceptable words is long and does NOT include words that turn my stomach such as "fake news", "science is just one point of view", or "greed".
But I am a privileged person in so many way, and as such I may be insensitive to the pain of others when they hear specific words.
Why do we encourage full-throated expression in the first place? We can all agree I think that words are a multi-faceted tool------they inspire, condemn, enthrall, confuse, and liberate us, inter alia. We applaud "free speech" because we accept the idea that all of us have an incomplete understanding of our world; we need one another to help our knowledge grow. When we hear others say the things we would not or do not know to say, we are challenged to rethink, instead of anchoring ourselves in our current level of understanding. We assume that collective well-being is enhanced by robust speaking, writing and listening.
Of course, some words in some contexts should be discouraged because causing a crowd to panic and potentially harm large numbers of other people by a shout of "fire" is a clear social ill. But who draws the boundaries of that "clarity" and what criteria do they deploy when labeling some words unacceptable? Should we vote on which words and contexts are unacceptable? Should we allow dominant political leaders to define which words are unacceptable? Or maybe, we should allow the majority of university administrators, humanities professors, or student affairs administrators to provide the proper list of unacceptable words for the rest of us to obey?
An enormous array of words has the capacity to cause pain to some aggregate of humans. For example, on a college campus certain words that may appear in every 3rd sentence of casual conversations among students can arouse the anger and disappointment of most American families. As a result, should those words be chastised when we hear them? Should those who use them be greeted with sanctimonious protests?
When we encourage free speech, we assume that humans in the main have the ability to endure words they wish did not exist. We know that some will have to work hard to be resilient in the face of words they wish were never used. But we are so committed to the desirability of hearing one another that we are proud that we aim for a culture where undesirable words are heard in public spaces. We value the potential benefits from hearing speech we abhor because we realize that belief perseverance is commonplace and requires a jolt sometimes to permit a re-examination.
What can we agree about? Let me suggest some candidates.
A, Diverse speech is generally desirable.
B. Diversity of speech almost guarantees that we will hear some speech we prefer not to hear.
C. No one has the right to claim that his or her pain upon hearing certain words is so unbearable that the rest of us should stop using the word(s), AND if some people and their supporters do have that right, they need to explain why others do not have the same right.
D. Those who see their word-policing behavior as assistance to the marginalized should do at least 2 things: (1)Explain why the sensitivities of their list of the marginalized trumps the social benefits of free speech and (2) Agree that they should spend at least as much time soldiering on behalf of the marginalized by using their energies to champion wealth and income redistribution so that the marginalized have something at least approaching equal housing, educational, health, transportation, longevity and voting opportunities.
1. Is there systematic evidence that pain from words is so biting that its psychological clout would nullify the desired effects of a much more fair distribution of life's opportunities than we have now?
2. Am I disqualified from making the argument I made above because I am far from being a member of any marginalized group?
3. Do those who feel deputized to enforce proper word usage have a special moral lens permitting them to see horrors that others minimize?