So a couple of days ago The Nightly Show aired an episode talking about free speech and the banning of words. You can see the full episode here: Nightly Show: March 11, 2015. In particular he mentions two examples, one being Florida governor Rick Scott attempting to band the phrase “climate change” and college campuses banning offensive words.
There seemed to be a distinct lack of nuance in the discussion, particularly by the panelists. Don’t get me wrong, I’m against outright bans of words, but I think they fall prey to false equivalence when they compare Rick Scott’s attempt to ban the phrase “climate change” with these programs on college campuses. The first is a clear attempt to silence debate about an important topic, the second is a well meaning, though ultimately poorly conceived, attempt to protect people from hateful behavior or statements.
Things were at their worst when conservative comedian Nick DiPaolo (I’d never heard of him before this) spoke up, claiming that this sort of censorship was primarily done by liberals against conservatives, particularly white males. The others rightly shot him down saying it was a problem on both sides, but what was really telling was that he complained that statements he made got him labeled racist or homophobic. He essentially says that he thinks liberals are trying to silence him by using their free speech to voice an opinion about him, and therefore they should not voice their opinion. The irony is pretty hard to miss.
However, the larger point is that it always feels like people are asking the wrong question when they discuss this topic. Think about it this way. On the show they brought up that “crazy” was one of the words that had been banned, and said “banning the world crazy is crazy.” Now if the only question we are asking is should it be legal for me to say this my answer, beyond incitements to violence, will always be yes. However I can only think of two contexts in which one might use the term “crazy.” One of those uses is to refer to someone with a legitimate mental illness. We can discus the legitimacy of this, but I can certainly see how people with a mental illness might find this term marginalizing, and why exactly would I choose to hurt someone’s feelings over something a trivial as a word choice?
The second use is to refer to a person who either holds a belief or has taken an action that does not seem reasonable or correct, just as it was used by the panelist in on the show. It’s particularly common for this to occur in discussions where two people have a strongly opposed ideological positions, I see it all the time in discussions involving religion and/or politics. It doesn’t seem to me that this is a particularly helpful idea to express in those conversations. Not only do you still run the risk of hurting the feelings of any person who currently suffers, or once suffered, from mental illness within ear shot of (or able to read) the conversation you are having, you haven’t actually furthered the conversation. The person on the other end will often become defensive at being called a name, you haven’t actually provided an argument to dissuade them of their position, and as wrong headed as their beliefs may be they probably don’t actually qualify as having a mental illness.
Some people might argue at this point that such expressions are just letting off steam, or venting frustration at the futility of conversing with those we disagree with. I agree that it can seem futile at times, though I don’t think it actually is, but we need to find ways to express ourselves better, and if we can’t, sometimes it’s better to just bow out. Believe me, I’m not perfect, I’ve lost my shit on occasion, and I know I’ve used the term crazy to describe people more than once. The point is that sometimes we get so caught up in arguing that we have a right to say something that we forget to ask whether we ought to say it.