NY Times Room for Debate Forum on the Use of Offensive Language

To my surprise, the New York Times Room for Debate blog recently asked me to take part in a forum on the public use of allegedly offensive language. The forum is available here. Since I lack the linguistic expertise of co-blogger Eugene Volokh, I tried to focus my contribution on those aspects of the issue that I do have some knowledge of, pointing out that private sector sanctions for offensive speech are greater than many imagine, and that governmental regulation is unlikely to be a superior alternative:

For generations, moralists have denounced supposed degradation of public discourse. In the 1950s, critics claimed that innocent children were being corrupted by Batman comics. Elvis Presley’s music raised similar fears.

Despite constant claims of decline, in some ways discourse norms have actually become less permissive. For example, racist, sexist and homophobic remarks are far less tolerated today than a generation ago….

People who regularly insult others or use language widely considered to be inappropriate suffer tremendous damage to their reputation. They have fewer friends, contacts and business opportunities than they would otherwise. If they are public figures, they face severe criticism in the media and elsewhere. When Vice President Cheney and Vice President Biden used expletives that got caught on tape, they were both widely denounced.

Social sanctions work even in the online blogosphere. Bloggers can and often do ban commenters whose statements get too nasty. When prominent bloggers themselves say offensive things, they get denounced by other bloggers eager to take their competitors down a peg.

Nonetheless, some still argue for government regulation as a solution. Yet the state makes a poor moral arbiter. Government power is far more likely to be deployed against politically unpopular speakers than against those who whose speech is offensive in some objective sense.

Moreover, language is constantly evolving as a result of social and technological development…. The cumbersome processes of government are unlikely to be able to keep up. Finally, if anyone can be trusted to restrict supposedly immoral speech, it should be those whose own moral rectitude is unimpeachable. Few if any politicians qualify.

Many of the other contributors have vastly greater expertise on this subject than I do, especially the big-name linguists John McWhorter and Deborah Tannen. I was interested to see that McWhorter and psychologist Timothy Jay both also made the point that some forms of offensive speech are actually less tolerated today than in earlier eras. This fact is often lost sight of by those who constantly claim that our standards of discourse are declining. Jay points out that, thanks to modern technology, offensive speech today is more likely to be recorded, noticed, and subjected to criticism today than in the past – a circumstance that reinforces the social sanctions I mentioned in my piece.

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