Topic: Society

The Ethics of Censorship By Consensus

There has been another outbreak of attempts to constrain free expression by formally banning words, and its objective is as unethical as it is well-meaning. “Political correctness”—the practice of labeling certain unpopular or controversial views, ideas, expressions and political opinions as per se wrong and not worthy of respect or discussion—is already a remarkably resilient offense to personal freedom, but some want to go one step further: actually banning words by law or policy. The Scoreboard doesn’t advocate silencing the misguided souls who think such censorship is appropriate. It does advocate calling them what they are: unfair. It will resist the urge to call them something else: willful proponents of a totalitarian technique of mind control.

Let’s examine some recent examples of open communication being manipulated or attacked by those in positions of power and influence.

  • The Washington Post, like many papers, decided that it could report the recent controversy over Ann Coulter’s strange use of the anti-gay slur “faggot” in reference to John Edwards without publishing the word itself. Though such censorship might be justified in rare instances, this wasn’t one of them. Coulter’s comment was a specific, if obscure, reference to a media story only devotees of the E! cable channel would have known about: a star of the hit TV show “Grey’s Anatomy” referred to a gay cast member as a “faggot” on a live awards show and was ordered to undergo rehabilitation treatment by the show’s producers. Without revealing the actual word Coulter used, her explanation that her use of it was a misfired joke (meaning “Now that I know you can be sent to rehab for calling someone a faggot, I guess I don’t dare say what I think of John EdwardsÂ…”) became incomprehensible. That is unfair (imagine if the key words giving offense in Senator Kerry’s alleged “botched joke” about the uneducated soldiers who get “stuck in Iraq” were similarly omitted) and yes, it is still unethical to be unfair to Ann Coulter.

  • In Tallahassee, a state legislator has introduced a bill to ban Florida officials from using the words “illegal alien” to describe, well, illegal aliens. “I personally find the word ‘alien’ offensive when applied to individuals, especially to children,” State Senator Frederica Wilson told reporters. “An alien to me is someone from out of space [sic].”

    It makes more sense to buy ignorant legislators dictionaries than to limit expression. She also says she doesn’t like “illegal,” preferring the misleading euphemism “undocumented,” but at least seems to know what it means. However, “illegal alien” is a much clearer description of a person who is not a citizen and in the country illegally than “illegal immigrant,” a term that helps open-boarder activists confuse the public by characterizing efforts to enforce legitimate immigration laws as “anti-immigration.” Banning “illegal alien” makes it more difficult to describe a real problem, which may well be exactly what Senator Wilson and her supporters have in mind.
  • Officials at Maria Carillo High in Santa Rosa, Calif., have disciplined a student for using the expression “that’s so gay” in the school yard. This expression, inexplicably meaning “that’s so stupid” or “that’s dumb,” has been gaining steam in the lexicon of today’s kids. It isn’t a gay slur, though through the transitive principle it certainly seems like one. Still, “stupid” or “dumb” are not traits usually attached to any negative gay stereotype. And as with Coulter’s Edwards comment, this supposed slur wasn’t directed at a gay person. The school’s actions inhibit expression rather than conduct.

    Enforcing civility in school is a legitimate activity. Nobody should argue that obscenities and vulgarities must be permitted on school grounds; after all, children need to learn manners too. But “gay” isn’t a slur; it doesn’t even necessarily refer to homosexuals (remember that other definition of gay, Grandpa?). What the school is attempting to do is micromanage language, Orwell-style. That is impossible to do fairly, as this very incident proves. When the student used the controversial phrase, it was in response to taunting by another student that her Morman upbringing suggested that she had “ten mommies.” A direct reference making fun of a students’ minority religion generates no discipline, while another student’s use of a teenage slang having no derogatory context at all does. That’s soooo gay! It is also unfair.

    The lawyers for the school say it is (naturally, this has spawned a lawsuit): “The district has a statutory duty to protect gay students from harassment,” the district’s lawyers argued in a legal brief. “In furtherance of this goal, prohibition of the phrase ‘That’s so gay’ … was a reasonable regulation.” Uh, pardon, counselor, but where was the harassed gay person? The only person being harassed, the Mormon girl, is the one being punished. “I wouldn’t be surprised if this girl didn’t even know the origin of that term,” said Rick Ayers, who has researched teenage slang. Again, here is an example of distorting the language, this time by attempting to control the evolution of new idioms and meanings.

Activists have intimidated the public from using the term “Indian giver” to describe someone who takes back a gift, though there was never any indication that use of the phrase caused anyone to treat Native Americans badly. Now we have no phrase at all to describe such a person; expression has become more difficult. Still, that was among the more justified of societal censorships, and it opened a slippery slope: soon “a chink in his armor” and the word “niggardly” were under attack, not because slurs were intended, innate, or even present, but that someone (someone with Senator Wilson’s limited vocabulary, for instance) might think that they were. Spurred by Michael Richards’ racist tirade at comedy club, Jesse Jackson and other civil rights leaders are talking about as effort to ban the word “nigger,” however it is used: by Richards, by rappers, by Quentin Tarentino, by Mark Twain. But ugly words can still be essential to sparking thoughts, ideas, arguments and literature.

In the United States, the ethical standard for expression has been set by our Constitution: everyone has the freedom to express any thought or opinion. That freedom means nothing if we restrict the language according to the sensibilities and ideologies of the majority or particularly influential minorities. The news media, in particular, is betraying its function when it refuses to print words essential to a story (or, for that matter, the name of the person accusing a lacrosse team of rape or a series of Danish cartoons that have caused bloody riots). Words are the ingredients of thoughts, and today’s offensive thought might be tomorrow’s wisdom. It is wrong to handicap the thought and expression of those with whom we may disagree by taking their words away, no matter what they are.

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