Words and things, pt. 3

by CarlD

True to the logic of fighting the last war, I am completely, unequivocally on board with the project to use language in affirming rather than demeaning ways. (Note: ‘denigrating’ is often used in these discussions but shouldn’t be, because of the notorious ‘nigr’ root. It means ‘blackening’ and careful speakers should question whether they think that should be their image of a bad thing.) In principle, no word that may cause distress should be used by any thoughtful person. Care for the feelings of all others should be a profound moral duty. I really think these things; and they are enshrined in law in many jurisdictions.

Yet, when I get history papers from students that take this moralizing form I gently diagnose them with a case of the shoulds. It’s not that one doesn’t agree (although I also get “all illegal immigrants should be rounded up and deported” kinds of should papers) but that the level of analysis is so low. Young children can produce formally adequate shoulds. A should basically stands between an implied real and a projected ideal. But because the real is only implied, then swiftly gutted for its poor fit with the ideal, the actual relations and dynamics of actual human beings in diverse contexts and situations are obliterated. Further, this procedure reflexively guts the ideal, because without reference to practical relations in the world it can’t actually be clear where the ideal is coming from and whether it is possible or even desirable. To get there from here we need a really good grasp of the here, which is what and why I teach. Even then the paradox of unintended consequences haunts the shoulds.

Putting context aside for a moment, let’s look more carefully at the proposition that distressing language should not be used, and what happens if we follow it through to conclusions. There are many words in a variety of categories that commonly qualify for excision from polite discourse because they distress; examples include (brackets indicate clinical usage here; it’s alright, I am a Doctor) [shit, piss, fuck, cunt, cocksucker, motherfucker, tits (yes, Carlin’s famous old seven words, see below), bitch, midget, kike, kraut, guinea, we all know a couple that are missing here, faggot, dyke, damn, cripple, etc.]. Each of these, one of which is incidentally my family name, has a history and current practice of oppressive or at least intentionally offensive use; each is associated for some fraction of the population with involuntary emotional and even physical distress. Readers, it’s just much nicer to certain real human beings to never, ever use these words.

Here are a few more words that also qualify as traumatizing for some fraction of the population: [prick, muffin, clam, beaver, salami, vegemite, monkey, chick, castrate, clitoris, crazy, dormitory (my university desperately, aggressively wants them to be called residence halls), puke, priest, father, school, Republican, no]. In most of these cases the distressing association is either more indirect or more idiosyncratic, but I don’t suppose I need to dwell on explaining the problem with each of these for certain real human beings.

The second list is tricky for at least two reasons. First, the words each have common, everyday meanings for many of their users that are not associated with trauma. They are “part-time” dirty words, as Carlin says, although this distinction evaporates if they cause full-time distress to someone(s). Second, those traumatized by them are smaller or more plainly idiosyncratic minorities than those for the first batch. From the standpoint of universal morals this should not make a difference. This is not a slippery slope, it’s a principle. If the rule is that distressing language not be used, if the motivating ethic is care for the person and commitment to do no harm, the undistressed majority may not use their emotional privilege to tyrannize the distressed minority. We do not get our way simply because there are more of us than you. Morally speaking we need to not be using words that hurt anyone. At all. Ever.

Eventually we realize that each of us has a variety of words that cause us intense involuntary distress; and without question, life would be better without them in it. As an example, I have many, including, thanks to kind training from friends, most of those in the first list. More personally, I am deeply traumatized by that odious combination of otherwise innocuous words with which I am asked if I just got a haircut. The reasons for this have to do with the petty cruelties of a suburban adolescence and long apprenticeship in the sort of intensive feminism for which any scrutinizing gaze is objectifying. Although this example is trivial and you’ll have to take my word for it, the question kicks my adrenal glands into high gear, prompts an anxious fight-or-flight response, and knocks me into a defensive, angry, one-down personality that I do not recognize as myself.

We do not need to use words to empower ourselves by judging others, any more than we need monkeys as metaphors for our amusing failures to reach our full human potential or we need our savory cured meat products to be shaped suggestively like penises. Every one of these outrages against care and decency is arbitrary and optional, and should be eliminated. To clarify the resulting world we do need a Harrison Bergeron for the infliction of verbal harm. I imagine a society in which we each carry a clicker and brain implants with which we can electrically jolt each other’s language centers to disrupt utterances we each find distressing. Eventually we would learn to keep our big mouths shut and just smile and nod to each other, which would be very pleasant, and put George Carlin out of business.

This nightmare dystopia of personal veto over any conceivable utterance follows directly from an obviously correct ethic of care for the feelings of others and an equally obvious rejection of majority tyranny. Since the consequence of following the logic of these sound principles through is a disaster, but I don’t suppose we’d want to draw the conclusion that we shouldn’t care for others or that we should tyrannize the weak, there’s some incentive to see if something’s missing from the analysis. Fortunately, there is at least one unstated premise. The above fully follows only if we make speakers radically responsible for the consequences of their speech. If you remark that I’ve had a [haircut] and my defense systems go into an uproar, or I wear a t-shirt advertising jamaican [cock] soup and yours do likewise; or, to be less coy, you call me a [cocksucking faggot] and I call you a [fucking mental midget] (and if both are in some less offensive sense true, so not merely laughable), we are responsible not just for being [churls] (oops sorry, a classist reference there). We have caused and are morally culpable for that emotional harm the words did.

Well yes, duh. And with all of the power and responsibility in the situation thus assigned to speakers, the only morally acceptable remedy is to modify the speakers’ behavior, by diplomacy if possible and by force if necessary. This is the slippery, sloping one-lane road of moral purity that leads straight to the personal veto and the shocking cortical implants. When people fret about censorship of plainly harmful speech this is why.

Hm. Without abandoning the notion that we’re responsible for our speech and morally tasked with self-censoring right down to silence if need be, let’s pause a second to doubt that all of the power and responsibility between speakers and hearers is lodged with the former. Do hearers have any power other than that of righteous censorship? Is it possible that we too have a responsibility to the other in conversations we find distressing?

First, responsibility. Yes. The same ethic of care for the feelings of others we’d like to require of speakers requires hearers not to reject or silence speakers. If the remedy for distress is itself reciprocally distressing, a compound harm has occurred. Rejection and silencing are distressing to speakers. So we have a mutual responsibility not to offend as speakers and not to take offense as hearers. This is not a slippery slope, it’s a principle. Out of care for the other we may well have some leeway to encourage them to use their speech more affirmingly; but only within the limits of respect for their feelings.

Finally, power. As hearers of upsetting language we have a common interest in not being upset; we would therefore like (and we humanly deserve) the power to manage our situations so that we are not upset. If our only mechanism to accomplish this is to compel the actions of others, our serenity depends on the actions of others, so this is by definition a highly contingent and dependent empowerment. Even if there were no jerks in the world, I could get complete polite compliance on the don’t-comment-on-my-haircut rule from every person I ever met and still live an uncertain and uneasy life as new people come into it and need their training. Just because some of the more common offending words can be handled in a more wholesale way does not change the basic problem. To give the agency of our serenity to others is inevitably a form of subservience, unless our aim is to control others absolutely. Machiavelli’s Prince is a cautionary tale.

I’m reminded of the legendary emperor who wanted to have all the roads paved with leather, until an advisor suggested that strips of leather be tied to the bottoms of his feet instead. The obvious solution is to take what power language has within ourselves; and to deny to all others, known and unknown, trained and untrained, well-intentioned and evil, clod and jerk, the power to distress us with a word. Since we cannot be certain of our ability to control their behavior and we may be responsible not to, even to our own detriment, our locus of control is our own interpretations and reactions. Treating words as offenses may be emotionally ingrained, but it is intellectually optional. Bracketing our emotional responses (feeling them but not acting on them) is hard but well within each of our power, much more so than controlling the language of the whole world.

Sticks and stones. So go ahead. Say something about my [haircut]. You shouldn’t, but I should have it covered.

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