I’ve been thinking lately about the power of language and the role of government- and society-enforced censorship. Many people – including yours truly – hold seemingly contradictory views on the power of words and liberal public policy. When is it permissible/optimal for the government and society to enforce norms on what is “ok” regarding language and rhetoric?

I’ll start by saying that the youthful me believed censorship to be almost always wrong. Books like Fahrenheit 451 and 1984 put censoring in the context of stopping radical ideas, free thought, questioning authority, and artistic works that made people uncomfortable. Music and video games, of course, were common targets for censorship.

Here’s a clip of Frank Zappa testifying in front of Congress, claiming that words in music are only words. Essentially, a “sticks and stones can break my bones but words can never hurt me” argument.

I don’t think Zappa was telling 100% of the story. Words of course can hurt. Language is incredibly powerful. Deirdre McCloskey believes a change in rhetoric was a huge impetus for the Industrial Revolution. Using the n-word or any other racial slur should not be tolerated. We should be conscientious of using inaccurate words like “Indians” to describe “Native Americans” and it goes without saying that we shouldn’t call them offensive terms like “savages.” Pronoun usage is an important consideration for people who identify as trans or non-binary genders.

Much of “censorship” comes not from a Parental Warning on an album cover as much as social norms of people telling their peers “yo, that’s not ok” when they use language that is not deemed permissible. So when is censorship, or more broadly “socially enforced norms on language,” acceptable? The liberal tradition is based on the idea of people being able to live together, even if not living the same lives; it’s accepting differences of preferences, tastes, and values.

[I think when to give certain views a platform under the pretense of “diversity of thought” is a slightly different conversation to have. This has been a hot topic recently, with Kevin Williamson having been fired from The Atlantic for some extreme anti-abortion comments and climate-denier Bret Stephens being hired to the NYT editorial board. Giving a platform to flat-earthers and holocaust-deniers to “hear both sides” is not the ideal we’re striving for, but where this boundary lies I am not sure. However, again, I think this is a different conversation.]

The standard liberal recipe for free speech is that offending someone is fine, but you can’t threaten/slander someone else. What happens if the standard for “threat” is as low as writing Trump on a sidewalk at Emory University? Is using an incorrect gender pronoun really considered a threat or slanderous? Is showing a gay couple on tv considered a threat? Consider your opinion on these three matters and what your reasoning is. Is your reasoning consistent about when it is “ok” to do something even if you disagree with it? Remember that the formal legal system is often uninvolved in these judgements of tolerating certain behavior.

This debate is interesting to me because, like many topics, we have our own intuition about what is right, use boilerplate rhetoric to defend our position, and yet never really fully consider the roots of our view. I’m not going to shame someone for being in favor of gun rights, but I probably will shame them for denying slavery existed. My shaming is a form of censorship, even if it’s not government-imposed. In most situations, people are in favor to some extent of disapproving certain beliefs. We all recognize the power of language.

The point I want to get across is that if one holds the view that racial slurs are harmful to our social fabric, one implicitly recognizes the power of language and expression in certain contexts and needs to acknowledge the power of art/music to also be powerful. To this extent, I naturally tend towards the position that people’s views on censorship or political correctness are very likely to fall in line with their own preferences/beliefs rather than a well-grounded philosophy on when or when not to censor. I will call out use of the n-word but not push for censorship of music. Why? Well, it probably has a lot to do with how I don’t like racism but I really like music that is usually the target of censorship. What needs to be fully recognized is that my opposition to music censorship cannot claim that the lyrics are unharmful. I could argue that I don’t trust the government to make that judgement for us, but I don’t think I can use the Zappa defense that the words are meaningless.