Ursula Hall has a campaign called #wedon’tsay. It’s a collection of posters around the college that have prominent members of the college with quotes attributed to them like “I don’t say fag because it only serves to hurt and oppress gay men” or “I don’t say whore because it degrades women and their personal sexual freedom”. These posters have been, by no measure uncontentious. They have suffered vandalism, theft, or just general derision from mainly visitors to the hall, but also from some residents. I recently had a conversation with a newer resident, whose argument can be paraphrased as follows: “I mean, I feel like I should be able to say retarded without other residents breathing down my neck. Obviously I try not to say it, but it just feels like a nanny state when someone says #wedon’tsay every time I say anything remotely offensive. And more than that, it just shuts down the debate. If I can’t say something without offending someone, then there are legitimate viewpoints that just can’t be expressed.” This view is more widely held about politically correct speech in general: the proponents of the view believe politically correct speech has the right intent, but also that a little bit of catharsis every now and then is fine, and so is genuine criticism of certain movements and groups. This article is a response to those views.
Firstly, in direct response to the freedom of expression. That is to say, there are genuinely well meaning people who probably think that it’s unacceptable to use “nigger” pejoratively, but think that “retarded” and “fag” are borderline, mostly inoffensive and therefore probably okay if used in moderation. There is some validity to this argument – it is almost certainly true that, used between two heterosexual friends, “fag” can have friendship value as almost a term of endearment, just as hurling “retarded” as an insult can be incredibly cathartic. So these words have value to their users – that’s not in question. The issue is whether or not the value to the users is worth the damage it causes to relevant parties. For someone who has suffered targeted insults as a queer* person, or for a person with a disability, those words often go beyond merely offensive. They can be debilitating triggers for anxiety, depression and any host of other mental health problems. More importantly, even if “in context” that word was meant innocently, that doesn’t take away the host of negative connotations that those pejoratives normally bring. This is why the “get over it” argument is holistically invalid – there is a cost to not being able to say the word (loss of catharsis, inability to call someone a “fag” in a friendly way), and there is a cost to being able to say the word (debilitating mental health problems, the sense that your demographic is worth little more than its pejorative value). The cost is quite obviously less for one group. I’ll let you figure out which.
But Nishanth, I hear you say (looking at you, libertarian scum), what about being able to express possibly offensive arguments that have real merit? This, once more, is an argument with legitimate weight. It is eminently possible that there are criticisms of the queer* movement, or of Islamic communities, that could well offend members of those communities and remain true. There is, however, a distinction between saying something that could offend someone, and saying something inherently offensive. Words like “faggot” and “slut” add nothing to a debate – they exist purely to offend. It is probably valid to say that promiscuity is increasing, and that we should lament the loss of monogamy as the dominant and exclusive relationship norm. It is probably not valid to say that today’s women are a bunch of sluts who are destroying society with their sleeping around. Note how one of them can be read as offensive. The other one is just inherently offensive. Pretty much any viewpoint can be expressed in a way that doesn’t make your average person want to cringe. If the opinion can’t be expressed like that, it’s probably not an opinion that would have advanced the debate much in any case.
People may deride campaigns to the effect of #wedon’tsay. They are often called overreach, oversensitive, and left-wing dogma. But Ursies seems to be fine. There’s still debate there, people still interact without slowly dissecting each of their statements for possible offence, but I’ve never heard anyone be called a whore there. I’ve never heard anyone be called a faggot. And the fact that those people who are the most vulnerable, who are most able to be hurt by those comments, can live safely without fear of verbal attack seems to be worth the inconvenience of some person who can’t say “this is retarded” when their computer doesn’t work.