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We Are Running Out of Insults

photographs of different people yelling

When it comes to speech, kindness is often the best policy, but those who need a sharp word may find themselves in a predicament: how to express what they mean without using language that is demeaning towards marginalized groups.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, many words used as insults have historically been used to oppress. One prominent example is the trio “idiot,” “imbecile,” and “moron,” which were codified as scientific classifications for mental disability in the 19th century and then popularized by the eugenicist psychologist Henry Goddard in the early 20th century. A word you might call your little brother when he is being — well, frustrating — is deeply ableist and tied historically to eugenics.

Language has long been used as a tool of oppression. But in many cases, the link to a word’s more explicit oppressive use is lost to many contemporary users of that word.

Awareness of many words’ oppressive histories is growing, thanks in large part to efforts from scholars and members of marginalized communities, such as disability activist Hannah Diviney, who called out Beyoncé and Lizzo for use of an ableist slur in their lyrics. However, many people are simply unaware that the words they are using are tied historically to ideologies and practices they themselves would find immoral.

Is it permissible to use words that are historically tied to oppression, especially when many people are unaware of the link? In many cases, a person’s ignorance of facts relevant to a situation can absolve that person of moral responsibility. For example, if I give you a ticket for a flight that unbeknownst to me will end in a crash, I will not be morally responsible for the harm that comes to you when you board that flight. I could not have known. But we are morally responsible for ignorance that is borne out of negligence, and higher stakes increase our responsibility for educating ourselves.

Because the terms in question have been used to suppress entire groups of people, there’s ample opportunity for collateral damage when they are used.

For example, if someone calls their friend a misogynist slur, that slur not only aims its disdain at its direct target (the friend), but also at women and girls in general. In fact, many misogynist insults work only via their denigration of women. When someone is called a sissy, for example, the insult just is the identification of the target with femininity — and therefore, by implication, weakness. This point of view is communicated to anyone who reads or hears the insult.

The philosophical term for the idea that certain words can cause damage to those to whom they are not directed is known as a term being “leaky.” A leaky term is one which, even when it is merely quoted or mentioned rather than used, is still felt as damaging or offensive. The n-word is a paradigm case of a leaky term. The n-word is so-called because, for many, saying the full term in any context is racist.

Not only are insults tied to oppressing marginalized groups potentially leaky and prone to cause collateral damage (often by design, as in the “sissy” case); people’s speech also reaches further now than any time in history. Gone are the days of cursing out a politician for a small audience consisting only of one’s family in one’s own living room. Now, a simple @ of the public figure’s username will direct one’s insult right to the screens of hundreds, thousands, or millions of users of social media. More is at stake, because more people are affected.

Generally, when the repercussions for an action are greater, the moral responsibility for carefulness increases.

It may not be a big deal for a parent to serve their family food that seems unspoiled without first consulting its expiration date; the same cannot be said of a restaurant. Similarly, the wider one’s speech reaches, the less one’s ignorance of its meaning is morally exculpatory. Put simply, the leakiness of insults and the far reach of social media increase the stakes for considering the meaning of one’s speech, even beyond speech that is very obviously ableist, racist, or misogynist.

We can also question whether the connections with the past uses are really lost, even in cases less commonly thought of as full-on slurs. The current use of a word can reveal a tacit commitment to the immoral ideals the word represented more explicitly in the past. Consider “idiot” with its historical tie to eugenics. It was an ableist term meant to designate a so-called mental age of the person being evaluated, designating low intelligence. It’s still used to designate low intelligence today, as an insult rather than a clinical diagnosis. And as such, it still carries an ableist dismissiveness of people with cognitive disabilities.

So what’s a non-ableist, anti-racist, non-misogynist to do? The answer may be, of course, that one could simply refrain from insulting another person. This is an excellent suggestion, and it has much to recommend it as a general policy. However, some cases will require the use of an insult, and some people, at least, will find it easier to change their terms than to quit the habit of insulting others.

More generally, people need the ability to transgress a little with language — as when reserving taboo words for special expressions of outrage. Wouldn’t it be helpful for a language to have terms of insult that hit their intended target and no one else?

Perhaps we should invent new insults. Media aimed at children often does. The problem with novel insults is that they often come across as unserious. Similarly to fictional profanity, such as “frak” in place of “f***” on the TV show Battlestar Galactica, novel terms often lack the bite of the original. The attempt to replace the original term, which is damaging beyond its intended meaning, results in a term that is often not strong enough. “Dillweed,” with its surprisingly illustrious career, may get a laugh on TV, but real life may require something stronger.

Numerous lists offer examples of alternative words, but as with much of language, change comes slowly. It may be that change in social consciousness surrounding terms that are ableist, racist, misogynist, etc., must precede widespread use of insults that avoid these pitfalls.

The Free-Speech Defense and a Defense of Free Speech

Image of two human stick-figures arguing

Of the things about which people across the political spectrum deeply care, morally and politically, freedom of speech is very highly valued – even if there are disagreements about exactly what it licenses you to say and what, if any, caveats should be placed upon it. In recent years free speech has emerged as a hot topic for conservatives – often taking the form of pushback against ‘political correctness.’ The view that ‘liberal’ or ‘left-wing elites’ are trying to silence those who do not gel with a progressive social agenda is a particular flashpoint. 

Yet, in these quarters, one detects a pattern which suggests that the principle itself is not quite what is at stake: those calling for freedom of speech or decrying its endangerment are often simply defending a desire (viewed by them as a right) to say certain things against others for whom those things are offensive or harmful (for examples see my “Separating the Freedom of Religion from the Right to Discriminate” or Kenneth Boyd’s “Online Discourse and the Demand for Civility” also on this site). In many such scenarios there is a legitimate question over whether certain brands of archconservative really are staunch supporters of the principle of free speech ‘all the way down,’ or whether there is a tendency to use the concept as a way of crying foul when someone calls out the noxious content of their views.       

Something like this seems to be the case in a political stoush that has erupted in Australia over the inaugural Australian Conservative Political Action Conference, or CPAC to be held in Sydney this week. The conference is backed by the powerful American Conservative Union (ACU), and speakers include Brexit campaigner Nigel Farage, former Australian prime minister, climate change denier and staunch opponent of marriage equality Tony Abbott, Fox News host Jeanine Pirro, Raheem Kassam, editor-in-chief of Breitbart and an especially noxious misogynistic loudmouth, One Nation politician Mark Latham

The caliber of speakers and the conference agenda has many people worried about the echo-chamber of right-wing ideology, as well as the growing influence of American-style firebrand conservatism on Australia. The ACU’s executive director Dan Schneider and ACU chairman Matt Schlapp have joined forces with the Australian right-wing think-tank the Institute of Public Affairs (IPA) and the conservative campaign group Advance Australia – two of the event’s major sponsors.

High-profile opposition Labor senator Kristina Keneally criticized the conference, labeling it as a “talkfest of hate,” and called on the government to deny a visa to Raheem Kassam, citing Kassam’s suggestion that Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon’s mouth and legs should be taped shut “so she can’t reproduce.”

Prime Minister Scott Morrison defended several of his government’s MP’s speaking at the event on the grounds of “the principles of freedom of thought, speech, expression and association.” Daniel Wild, the IPA’s director of research and a speaker at the event, called Keneally’s criticisms “yet another example of how Labor wants to stifle free speech, open discussion and dialogue in Australia. This is a threat to democracy.” Donald Trump Jr. weighed in tweeting: “one of the major political parties in Australia is trying to silence Raheen Kassam because of his conservative views. The insanity needs to stop!”

Free speech is, according to all these defenses, under attack. Luckily, the conference agenda will have this important topic covered. The conference organizer Andrew Cooper said that “It will include a lot of discussion on free speech, and what I would call the authoritarian left’s opposition to it.” 

Freedom of speech is a core tenet of old school political liberalism. The best-known formulation of the argument for freedom of speech is still to be found in John Stuart Mill’s book On Liberty, published in 1859. Mill may be regarded as the father of political liberalism and the book is still one of its central texts. 

A central concern for Mill was the limitation of the coercive power of the state on the freedom of the individual. Mill’s argument for the freedom of thought and discussion is given in chapter 2 of On Liberty, and in it he aims to show that there should be no attempt “to control the expression of opinion.” He argues that truth or falsity of an opinion cannot be a deciding factor in whether that opinion is disseminated, because such a judgment cannot always be made in advance – and if such a judgment cannot always be made with certainty, then it should never be made at all – just in case the judgment turns out to be wrong. In other words, it is better to let some falsehoods roam free than to imprison a truth. 

Mill also thinks that exposure to all views, however erroneous or harebrained, will actually help people’s capacity to discern between truth and falsehood: whether an opinion is true or false, its being aired will, in either case, be useful for discovering and maintaining the truth — and as such should be welcome. To assume that because one thinks a view is false it should be suppressed, Mill argues, is to assume infallibility of one’s beliefs. Yet, he thinks, all of our beliefs must remain open to revision in possible light of further observation. As such, discussion must remain free – even on issues that we think are established with certainty. Mill argues that people are rarely in the position to see the “whole truth” for themselves, and the only way for it to emerge is by “the reconciling and combining of opposites.”

The point, for Mill, is that a liberal democratic society cannot afford to compromise on the principle of absolute freedom of speech because every which way lies the possible suppression of truth, inflated assumptions about one’s own possession of it, and the possibility of the fallibility of one’s views. 

But also, fundamental to Mill’s view is that the truth, or the ‘right’ opinions will ultimately win out; and that prevails upon a particular view of the public’s engagement with political life, commitment to rational and critical thinking, and capacity to detect and then ostracize false opinions. 

Mill’s liberalism puts a lot of faith in individuals as the best judges of whether a viewpoint is truthful and whether it deserves attention and assent. That Mill puts such faith in individuals is one of his philosophy’s merits, and also one of its pitfalls. It is arguable that recent political events in Australia, the USA, and Britain (not to mention many other countries) suggest this expectation may be too optimistic. It is also possible to point to other reasons for such developments which Mill may not have accounted for, such as dangerous forms of populism and demagoguery. 

Nevertheless, support for Mill’s argument for freedom of speech remains solid, and one of its consequences, or costs, is certainly the airing of opinions and views we may not agree with or may not like. Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison makes a defense of the CPAC conference almost worthy of Mill in arguing that the way to defeat “unacceptable views is through debate.” 

Two further points are worth noting, as some evocations of freedom of speech as a defense for the airing of certain views don’t quite fit the picture of free speech Mill envisaged. 

First, Mill argues that offensive, incendiary or harmful opinions are not likely to fulfill the role of helping to bring truth to light, and thus do not deserve an equal hearing and do not constitute the kind of ‘debate’ that Morrison apparently wants to defend. 

The second point is that defending the principle of free speech is one thing, and it is generally a good thing, but it does not justify the content expressed. To defend offensive views through reference to the principle of free speech is disingenuous. A leader does not have to hide behind freedom of speech – but is perfectly free to defend the right while also disavowing the message.

“This Crazy Anxious World”: Racism or Political Correctness?

Photograph of tennis athlete Serena Williams with a crowd behind her

Last week a cartoon of Serena Williams appeared in the Herald Sun, a tabloid newspaper published in Melbourne, Australia. The subject was Williams’ dispute with the referee during the women’s US Open tennis championship final. The way cartoonist Mark Knight drew Williams has been compared to caricatures and illustrations of African Americans from the US during the Jim Crow era. The cartoon was picked up and shared widely on Twitter in the US where it dominated the media and was resoundingly criticised as racist, and it provoked widespread anger and condemnation internationally. In the wake of the response to his cartoon, Knight was subject to a torrent of vitriol and abuse on Twitter, and his account was suspended after threats were made against him and his family.

Knight is a Walkley Award winning, highly respected cartoonist and he reacted with surprise and trepidation to the response. Defending the cartoon he claimed that it was about Williams’ actions on the court and not about race or gender. He said: “The cartoon about Serena is about her poor behaviour on the day, not about race. The world has gone crazy.”

Meanwhile, in response to the controversy, the Herald Sun doubled down, republishing the drawing of Williams on its front page accompanied by other of Knight’s satirical depictions of public figures, with the ‘headline’ “Welcome to PC World.” In several editorials the paper defended Knight’s claim that his cartoon merely depicts Williams ‘having a tantrum’ (in Knight’s words). Many a pundit complained bitterly that political correctness is effectively censoring satire, and that there is a general overzealousness for finding grave offence where it is not intended. The outrage provoked by Knight’s cartoon was dismissed ass hypersensitivity. Cartoonist Paul Zanetti wrote: “that’s a default position of a lot of people to be triggered into being offended… it’s PC madness.”

Michael Leunig, another Australian veteran award-winning cartoonist wrote, in Knight’s defense:

It’s getting harder to be a cartoonist in this crazy anxious world – in this fragile angry humourless environment where leniency and understanding are in dangerous decline, and where psychic infections spread chaotically on social media with terrible consequences.

If a bit overwrought, nevertheless he strikes a chord. Knight’s defenders take him at his word that his drawing contains no allusions to the racist caricatures to which it is likened. We will return to the question of whether this defense can stand. Leaving aside Knight’s cartoon for a moment, whatever else it may be, this argument is a flashpoint for the political correctness versus free speech dispute that is becoming increasingly vexed in contemporary political and social discourse.

A certain disaffection with political correctness is breaking out on many sides of the political spectrum. From the left Slavoj Žižek complains, “there is something… fake about political correctness.” He thinks that “without a tiny exchange of friendly obscenities you don’t have real contact with another, it remains cold respect… we need this to establish real contact. This is what is lacking, for me, in political correctness.” He has in mind the kind of humorous exchange where people can make fun of each other – something that might be thought of as respectful disrespect. And he implies that such exchanges add colour and depth to our interactions with others.

On the other hand, from the point of view of the conservative right, political correctness is construed as a danger to freedom of speech – because it acts as an injunction on certain sorts of opinions being aired in public. This view was epitomised by George Brandis, erstwhile Attorney General of Australia, who famously proclaimed that “people have a right to be bigots”, reflecting a growing sense in some quarters that political correctness is a form of censorship threatening other rights.

Free speech isn’t absolutely free because it doesn’t licence hate-speech or speech inciting violence. Yet free speech inevitably leaves some possibility for giving offense. (The reason for this is rather more practical than ethical – in a pluralistic society people have different beliefs and values and also different customs of expression and idiom.) The question is where and how the line ought to be drawn. That is why, in terms of the importance of free speech for a free and open democratic society, the distinction between free speech and hate speech is so important.

Cartoons of the ilk of Mark Knight’s can be penetrating and revealing, and are almost always barbed. Knight has depicted Pauline Hansen, a populist Australian politician as a cane toad, Harvey Weinstein as Jabba the Hut and Donald Trump as a white-cat-stroking super villain with ‘stupid hair’. None of which is pretty. Satire as a medium walks the line between humour and ridicule, and it is usually offensive in some sense.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines political correctness as: “conforming to a body of liberal or radical opinion, esp. on social matters, usually characterized by the advocacy of approved causes or views, and often by the rejection of language… considered discriminatory or offensive.”

Given that, as the definition indicates, PC has usually stemmed from a socially progressive agenda, it has often been a source of irritation, sometimes outrage, for social conservatives.

Yet the core value of political correctness is about rejecting discriminatory and offensive language. Though the term has become somewhat pejorative of late, it is, at its core, about not causing others hurt and offense by not using words, idioms, images, etc. with intrinsically pernicious meanings – meanings that are often tied to historical iterations of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of oppression. Political correctness is concerned with rooting out casually degrading language from everyday discourse and in this it has been important to the social progress made in raising awareness of forms of degradation embedded in our social and cultural milieu.   

So, back to the Serena Williams cartoon: Knight claims that he was not drawing on the kinds of racist depictions of black Americans his cartoon has been criticised for resembling; he says that they were not on his mind as he satirised William’s ‘tantrum’.  But should they have been? It seems genuinely true that the cartoon was not drawn with malicious intent, yet looking at the drawing it is difficult to miss its likeness to those racist images, and difficult to escape the conclusion that Knight’s depiction of Williams is indeed connected with that imagery – consciously or not.

The salient point is that the images of black Americans from the Jim Crow era were produced and used as a way to humiliate and dehumanize an already deeply wronged people. They were used to enculturate and justify enforced racial segregation by perpetrating hateful stereotypes and so were part of the apparatus of oppression. Contemporary depictions of African Americans that resemble them are culturally loaded because of that history in a way that Knight was insensitive to.

Even if Knight doesn’t know it, his depiction of Williams is recalls the portrayals of black people that participated in their oppression. His cartoon is not divorced from that history. That is to say, racism is not only an actively pursued ideology; racism isn’t always manifested from a fully formed prejudice or conscious hatred (though, of course, in some quarters it is). It can also be manifest in a passive acceptance of a status quo which harbors stereotypes that are harmful. Part of the legacy of racism that we are still dealing with is the ways in which it is so embedded that sometimes it is simply not seen.

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and the Ethics of Black Humor

a panorama of a rural Missouri landscape

Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri (directed by Martin McDonagh and starring Frances McDormand) has been showered with praise since it came out in November. It’s been nominated for seven Oscars and received the Golden Globe for Best Picture of 2017. The critics love it and audiences love it, but there’s a contingent that thinks the movie is marred by racism. It makes a dark joke out of a police officer’s history of harassing black prisoners, and that’s allegedly unacceptable. Consider, though, what these critics apparently see as acceptable forms of black humor—considering that they only complain about the racism. (Spoiler alert: I’ll be holding back nothing.)

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Pronouns and Provocateurs: Wilfrid Laurier University’s Free Speech Controversy

A photo of an academic building at Wilfrid Laurier University

At the beginning of November, Lindsay Shepherd, a graduate student at Canada’s Wilfrid Laurier University,  made the fateful decision to show a video clip of a debate about pronouns to her tutorial for students in a large first-year writing class. The debate, which aired on Canadian public television a year ago, featured firebrand Jordan Peterson, a professor of clinical psychology at the University of Toronto and a crusader against political correctness.

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Finding New Language to Reimagine Disability

Back in 1994, Sarah Dunant published a collection of essays titled The War of Words: The Political Correctness Debate, and it was met with a great deal of media coverage. A large portion of the country had been moved by a sensitivity to language that could offend or contribute to an undesirable power schema, and this sensitivity had been met with scorn or doubt by another large portion of the country, often along party lines.

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Putting Politics Aside: A Lesson in Common Courtesy?

President Obama has been making headlines lately for missing the funeral of Supreme Court Justice Anton Scalia, who passed away unexpectedly on Febuary 13th. When asked why the president would not be in attendance, his aid deflected the question, instead relaying that “Vice President Biden and Dr. Jill Biden will be attending Justice Scalia’s funeral.”

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Walking on Thin Ice: Political Correctness and Redefining the Problem

Everyone is walking on thin ice. In modern America, it seems we are called to constantly filter our words in an effort to respect those different from us. This mandate–political correctness–has the best of intentions. However, it has grown into a roadblock; we cannot further understand our differences and progress in the fight for equality if we are so compelled to tip toe around tough subjects and often avoid them altogether for fear of being politically incorrect.

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A Student Perspective on Trigger Warnings

I first encountered the classroom trigger warning in the fall semester of my junior year. The course in question covered humanitarian intervention, a particularly dark topic amongst any number of dismal subjects in political science. As a result, soon after talking through the syllabus, our professor made special mention of the topics at hand. The classes to come, we were told, would cover a number of heavy topics: genocide, ethnic cleansing, wartime rape and other forms of systematic violence. Reading about such material on a daily basis, the professor warned, could be emotionally upsetting. Drawing attention to this fact wasn’t an effort to silence the topics or distract from their discomfort. In communicating their emotional gravity, our professor was simply trying to prepare us, encouraging us to keep tabs on our mental well-being as we proceeded through each difficult discussion.

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