When Did Language Become Violence?

“You want free speech? Let’s see you acknowledge a man who’s words make you blood boil, who’s standing center stage, and advocating at the top of his lungs that which you would spend a lifetime opposing at the top of yours.” -Michael Douglas, The American President

And, that is what free speech comes down to, isn’t it?  But, no one can deny that our ability use words has changed.  I had the opportunity to witness a conversation between my teenage, and noticeably liberal daughter, and my classically conservative father. As the GenX’er libertarian between the GenZ’er and the Boomer, I sort of stood as moderator in what, to my surprise, turned out to be a rather cordial interaction.  What started out as a conversation about gender, became a conversation about pronouns, and the effect mistaking someone’s pronoun had on them.  Listening to them and trying to figure out how to translate teen into old fart, a light bulb went on in my head and I suddenly realized what had changed in the way we as humans communicate with one another.  We no longer judge words, and language on the intent of the speaker/author, but instead on their effect on anyone hearing and/or reading it.  My father needed clarification, so I committed what is today a mortal sin.  I dropped the N-Bomb.  A word I’m not even willing to type here as an example. My daughter’s reaction was typical.  She got angry with me.  I apologized to her and turned to my father. “See!” I told him, “There was no consideration that I was in no way using it as a racial slur, but merely as an example, and yet she’s angry with me over the effect it had on her, and anyone else who may have heard it.  The fact that there was no malicious intent, even in fact an instructional intent, makes absolutely no difference!”

So I’m left with a question.  Do we as a society and culture actually want free speech anymore?  Personally I find that idea to be utterly tragic. But, in a culture where words are judged by there effect on the person who hears or reads it, rather than on what the speaker or author is attempting to communicate, what people have coined “Hate Speech” is now treated as violence in it of itself.  It’s self evident that words, can cause physical harm or violence. There’s the well known cliche of shouting “FIRE” in a crowded theater, or the well publicized idea of speech inciting violence.  But more and more we are punishing people for the considered emotional harm that words can have on someone.  We are literally destroying people lives because they said something that made someone feel bad, and feeling bad is something we expect to be safe from.  So language has become a form of assault.

“War is what happens when language fails” -Margaret Atwood

When its all said and done, communication and language is imperative to the functioning of a healthy society. But, here we are, afraid to speak.  Hell, you’ll notice that I haven’t used my name on this blog.  In the past if I put my foot in my mouth and said something that was not appreciated, or considered inappropriate for the time and place someone would say so, giving me the opportunity to either, apologize or prove myself to truly be an asshole.  Now, there is a built in assumption that if you made such a mistake, you, my friend, are an asshole.  So, if I say something that makes someone feel bad, my kid may not go to college.  What worries me is that the commonly held belief is that this is ok. And, maybe it is. Maybe this is simply a generational change in culture and the way people communicate now.  But this leads me to 2 questions who’s answers I have a gut feeling for, but I don’t truly KNOW the answer to. Does the punishment fit the crime, and do we really want to limiting speech in this way?

“Free speech and the ability to tolerate offense are the hallmarks of a free and open society” -Greg Lukianoff, The Coddling of the American Mind

Whats the end result of limiting speech? Are we simply evolving towards a new level of inclusiveness and civility, or are we destroying the free exchange of thoughts and ideas? I know which I hope it is, but unfortunately I’m too much of a cynical student of history.  I’ve seen where this has always lead in the past.  I’d hate to wake up one day and find out that the only thing George Orwell got wrong was the date.

“…words will always retain their power. Words offer the means to meaning, and for those who will listen, the enunciation of truth…. Cruelty, injustice, intolerance, and oppression. And where once you had the freedom to object, to think and speak as you saw fit, you now have censors and systems of surveillance coercing you conformity and soliciting your submission” -V for Vendetta

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