Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 1

Since 1976 Lake Superior State University has published an annual List of Words to be Banished from the Queen’s English for Misuse, Overuse and General Uselessness. The exercise offers people a chance to release their inner curmudgeon and ridicule neologisms or clichés that have saturated popular culture. Usually the suggested words are harmless, but their overuse has become annoying. Man cave. YOLO. Selfie. Twerking. Staycation. Viral. Occasionally the lists contain an offensive or politically-charged word (Mister Mom, mama grizzlies, Obamacare, fiscal cliff, waterboarding), though the gripe is usually not with what those words represent, but with how they have become a lazy shorthand enabling our avoidance of real debate on serious subjects.

The editors of the annual list claim no real authority to prevent people from using those words. While the List of Words to be Banished is a silly and fun distraction, in reality it is not so distant from where our society has moved. People have attempted to ban through legislation and lawsuits the use of certain words. Many of the words in question are racist, homophobic, or otherwise degrading. Those seeking to legally prohibit certain words intend to protect a level of civility in public discourse. Not surprisingly, others have pushed back against these attempts to restrain language.

Arguments against these prohibitions commonly take one of two forms. First, those against banning words tell people who are offended to toughen (or lighten) up. This is a largely unhelpful move because often I do not have the negative history with the phrase that my neighbor does and thus I do not fully understand why he would find such a phrase offensive. The call to toughen up often shows a lack of empathy. The second argument wants to protect the freedom of speech and worries about prior restraint and the establishment of an Orwellian Thought Police that dictates what we can and cannot think. This second criticism has more going for it than the first, but both objections do not address the underlying issues. The attempts to ban certain words highlight the growing lack of a common moral vocabulary in our society and poor character formation. I’ll address the lack of a shared moral language in this post and the poor character formation in the next.

Speech can be extremely dangerous. We have numerous historical accounts of how derogatory language dehumanized people and such language helped create environments where violence against marginalized groups was legitimized. I recently heard a speaker cite two examples to show this phenomenon: the Nazis in Germany didn’t see themselves as killing Jewish people, they were eradicating “rats”; and the Hutus didn’t attack their Tutsi neighbors in Rwanda, they “crushed the cockroaches.” Violence against these minority groups became easier to justify because the descriptions used by the dominant cultures made the victims seem less than human. Those seeking to ban certain words often have valid arguments for why these words are unwelcome. The trouble is that because we no longer have a common moral vocabulary, we have few options to help us engage these controversies.

Postmodernism broke down the idea that we have a single, dominant narrative driving our ethics. In many ways, the deconstruction thankfully allowed those on the margins a voice. We were to now consider other points of view beyond the most powerful. Postmodernism was also supposed to give us a marketplace of narratives competing with each other, but that marketplace never really materialized. Instead narratives sit in their silos not knowing how to interact with each other. In the United States we do not have robust discussions of how we ought to live. We find ourselves at a place where each person is to decide what is right for herself, but her decisions are to not have any bearing on what is right for her neighbor.

The trouble with the siloed reality is we have to live with each other. We have to make choices that will affect other people in our community. We need some way to interact. Into the vacuum of no common moral language we have placed the last vestige of shared values: the law. Since we cannot appeal to a common moral basis when conflicts arise, we have to appeal to what is legal. The moral question of whether we should do something has been replaced with the legal question of whether we can do something. We do not ask, “Is it good for me to do this?” We merely ask, “Am I allowed to do this?”

When this applies to offensive words we can no longer say to another, “You shouldn’t say that,” because we lack a shared sense of what is good for a person to do. We may say it is wrong to use offensive words, but we hold little hope that our moral reasoning will convince anyone else. In order to then protect the public square from damaging speech we have to resort to making the use of such speech illegal.

One may argue most of those calling for the banishment of certain words don’t actually write laws in which people who use the offensive phrases would be punished by the government. They use the term “ban” symbolically to express the severity of these phrases. The campaigns to ban harmful words want us to treat the words as if it is illegal to say them. Yet, the language of banning reveals the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary. We do not appeal to what is civil or good. We may appeal to what is right, but even the definition of right has thinned out to mean what is legally right, that is, what is allowed. Is it because we know we cannot assume others share similar definitions of civil and good?

I do not wish to establish a new universal moral language as I do not think one exists that all will accept. Attempting to create one would be a foolhardy feat and would run two risks. First, since most people would not willingly give up their own moral philosophy and adopt another just for the sake of having a common morality, we would run the risk of coercion or worse, oppression, in which I force you to adhere to my moral language. Second, if we commit to not using coercion, we would run the risk of creating a moral Esperanto. It would have high ideals, but in reality, very few people would use it. You would probably see advertisements for it on college bulletin boards and never hear of it otherwise.

I hope instead for that marketplace of competing visions of the good to be a reality. This would be a space where we share our traditions with each other, learn from different views, praise what is good and critique what is bad in each view, and even try to convince others to adopt our moral visions. Such a marketplace demands serious personal reflection and character development, something the calls for the banning of words cannot produce. We have to reflect on what we believe is the good life and figure out how to explain that vision to others. I’ll explore these matters in part two.