Wednesday, March 7, 2007

I’d Like To Have Another Word With You,

to amplify the capetowndissentator's point. Him being a literary fellow, I’m sure the capetowndissentator would agree that the language we use to describe the world is crucially important. The edict from AP English teachers the world over still stands: Diction Matters. So, for example, when the feminists claim that misogynistic language perpetuates an inequitable social hierarchy (a deeply Foucauldian point), I think they are absolutely correct. Power can be exerted in very subtle ways, and most definitely through language, so we should be very careful to understand the effect our words have.

But there is another side to the issue. Speech and language are (possibly) the deepest and most fundamental forms of self-expression that we have, and to limit self-expression for the sake of linguistic management is problematic. Speech can help us blow off steam. Speech can help us work through issues. Speech can be therapeutic; and honest speech can bring potentially dangerous ideas out into the light of day where they can be dealt with appropriately. Excessive policing of language can block these invaluable properties of speech and wound public interest in the long-run.

I do not know how to mediate these two points. On one hand, you want to recognize that language has real effects and you want to legislate (used loosely- I do not mean write actual laws in all cases) to protect those whom discursive formats may hurt. On the other hand, you do not want to infringe on individuals’ rights, most importantly because it may be in everyone’s long-run interest for people to air their grievances in the public forum. Negotiating this trade-off is at the heart of democracy, and not just as it applies to issues of free speech, but as it applies in almost all facets of our society. This is nothing John Rawls didn’t know half a century ago, or Plato and Aristotle too, going back a little further. I suppose in practice, this stuff gets sorted out in legal disputes; but I offer that law does not operate in a vacuum and our philosophic thinking on these matters may very well inform our particular legal opinions.

My point here is just that political correctness, like most campaigns, has good points in favor of it, but there are good points on the other side as well. And finding the middle ground between the two sides of the debate is not just of pragmatic concern, it is the struggle that characterizes a democratic society.

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