Civility Project: Banning Words, Part 2

In Part 1, I argued the recent moves to ban words — either officially or symbolically — exposes the growing lack of a shared moral vocabulary in our society. The goals of those who seek to ban certain offensive words are often laudable, namely, the creation of a more respectful and civil public space. In Part 2, I argue seeking to ban words actually undermines these goals because it hinders the kind of character formation required to have such a civil public space.

Sheryl Sandberg wants us to ban the word “bossy” from our vocabularies, especially when applied to girls. The Ban Bossy campaign says when boys assert themselves they are praised for displaying leadership, but when girls exhibit the same behavior, they are called “bossy.” The Girl Scouts, Michelle Obama, Condoleezza Rice, Beyoncé, and Arne Duncan support the campaign to encourage young girls to become leaders. They hope the efforts of this campaign will end the double standard.

The use of the term “ban” is intentional. While the leaders of the campaign do not want an actual law banning the word bossy, they do want us to take this matter so seriously that we act as if laws prohibiting its use exist. The strong language is meant to stimulate us to consider our words. Just as the Ban Bossy campaign wants us to consider our use of the term bossy, I would like us to consider their use of the term ban.

Ban is a legal term. A ban places an external control preventing certain behavior. External controls are often necessary to protect the public from harm, but they are limited in their ability to foster a civil society. The Ban Bossy campaign hopes we would reflect on what words we say, to whom we say them, and what we communicate. An external control such as a ban — even an imaginary ban — will not necessarily lead to that reflection. Martin Luther King, Jr. points out the necessity and limits of external controls in his speech “Towards Freedom.”

It may be true that morality cannot be legislated but behavior can be regulated. It may be true that the law cannot make a man love me; religion and education will have to do that. But if it keeps him from lynching me, and I think that’s pretty important also.

When my son began opening drawers and cabinets containing items that could harm him, my wife and I placed child safety locks all around the house. For a toddler who lacked impulse control, those external controls were necessary to keep him from hurting himself or destroying our hand mixer. The locks, however, only taught him he could not get into certain spaces in our home. He did not appreciate and the locks could not teach him the moral reasons for his banishment from the appliance cabinet. As he gained motor skills and figured his way around some of these safety precautions, my wife and I have had to change our parenting to helping our son develop internal controls. It became foolish to say to him, “You can’t go into that cabinet,” when he was clearly able to bypass the safety lock. We had to help him understand that he should not go into that cabinet because it was good to be safe and good to treat our hand mixer with care. Our parenting required us to teach him to internalize values like respecting other people’s property. (This is, to state the obvious, a work in progress.)

Let me be clear. In questioning the efficacy of campaigns to ban certain words or phrases, I am not saying we ought to use those terms. I support the elimination of harmful speech from our vocabularies. Racist, sexist, homophobic, and otherwise bigoted language has no place in public discourse. Our language should emerge from a commitment to respect our neighbor, especially when he says something with which I deeply disagree. Furthermore, the work the Ban Bossy campaign does to encourage girls in leadership is impressive and deserves support. My point is that we should not think the work needed to foster a civil society is accomplished because we have banned disrespectful language.

We like to apply legal terms on offensive speech because saying one is banned from using certain words appears to have more force than saying one ought not or should not use those words. In reality, the moral language of ought and should carries far more force because it requires us to reflect and choose how we treat others. When we consider what we should say, we have to think about what legitimate claims others have and how we go about respecting those claims.

To grow as moral beings, we need to develop internal controls, that is, we need character formation. Our language must shift from asking what can we do to what should we do?

Consider David Brent, the paper company manager played by Ricky Gervais on the original British version of the television show The Office. Brent can occasionally recognize sexist language. He knows the laws of England and the policies of his company do not allow him to say sexist things in the office, but he has no understanding why women would be offended by such talk. Thus he remains utterly sexist while attempting to adhere to the external rules his company and the state have put in place. Brent says all sorts of sexist comments and objectifies women regularly because the external controls have not produced the kind of reflection and change Brent needs to be a truly civil manager. He must develop internal controls, that is, to go from,”I can’t say sexist things,” to, “I shouldn’t say sexist things.”

With regard to offensive speech, banning words merely places an external control on us when we need to develop internal controls so that we might have a more civil and respectful society. Having a person say to himself, “I can’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ because it’s offensive and is a banned word,” ends the moral discussion. He does not have to move beyond the prohibition. So long as he doesn’t use the banned word, he has fulfilled what is required of him. “I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,'” opens further moral reflection. Now he must to ask, “If I shouldn’t call a girl ‘bossy,’ what should I do instead?”

The task then becomes shaping people who respect one another and whose language emerges from that respect. We will start with the positive question, “What kind of society do we want?” instead of the negative question, “What sorts of actions do we not want in our society?” The former seeks a vision of the good life whereas the latter plays Whac-A-Mole with objectionable behaviors. Of course this means we must reflect publicly on what is the good life and how our neighbors fit into that good life. When our vision of the good life includes children growing into their full potential so that they might help shape a more just world, we will see that we should encourage girls to use their gifts of leadership to help others. Then, as our characters are properly formed, we will choose to not call girls “bossy” when they assert themselves. We will naturally celebrate young women growing into good leaders.