The Toxicity of Words

Some argue offensive words like “whore” or “slut” should be banned from usage—not in a legal sense but as a matter of social acceptability.  I believe society need not render more words as so socially unacceptable that their very utterance destroys lives, causing those that speak such words to be shunned or lose their jobs. An example of one such word in existence is “nigger.” The word is so toxic that even words that sound similar (“niggardly”) create controversy.  This, in its most literal sense, limits our freedom of speech.  Such toxicity should not be expanded to other words (context notwithstanding), no matter the outrage they cause.

In today’s society, the evils of racism and (to a lesser extent) sexism are so ingrained that people automatically scoff at any defense of such speech.  Some believe such speech damages society as much as physically harmful acts.  This idea is troubling.  Uttering racist or sexist words has never physically harmed a person.  However, physically harmful acts harm people per se. Though racism and sexism may convince one to commit harm, other, less scrutinized ideas like jealousy and political ideology do so as well.  Society’s decision to equate logical fallacies like racism and sexism with activities that cause actual harm, in effect, chills unpopular speech.

Speakers should be able to speak freely without fear that they will lose their job or social standing because they commit a logical fallacy in speech.  Other than the fact that free speech is a fundamental right, there is a utilitarian justification for this proposition.  If a word fits what is in a speaker’s mind, the speaker should use that word to communicate effectively. If by doing so the speaker commits a logical fallacy, another speaker should notify him so that he may correct his error. This is a better option than labeling such a speaker as “racist” or “sexist” and exiling him from society.  That tendency encourages others to avoid speaking, lest they commit a logical fallacy.  The silenced see that society disallows the speech they wish to express. But they do not necessarily know the why.  This allows existing logical fallacies to fester unchallenged, becoming part of an attractive underground counterculture and perhaps, back into the mainstream.

The current level of scrutiny given to speakers of “whore” and “slut” seems appropriate, i.e. casual usage will not result in one becoming a social pariah.  It would be ideal if society treated utterances of “nigger” the same.  Though it may cause “outrage,” there exists no right not to be offended.  However, there is a right to hold unpopular views.  If society continues to exile speakers for expressing unpopular views, those being exiled may expand to include not just those who commit certain logical fallacies, but those with rational political ideas.

In no way do I reject the criticism of another’s words.  Of course, words have consequences.  But I propose that the consequence logically follow the nature of the speech.  I reject the severe social punishment of speakers who use certain, unpopular words.  As for the two initially discussed, society should not ban these for causing outrage.  In fact, their use may be proper.  “Whore” is just a synonym for prostitute. “Slut” is a promiscuous woman.  If the definition fits one’s thought, one should be inclined to use the word.  Whether that usage is sexist depends on the context.  If so, the audience’s logical reaction is to identify the ad hominem as a logical fallacy and explain the error in the speaker’s reasoning.  A reference to Graham’s Hierarchy of Disagreement may be beneficial.  Exile simply cuts off discussion in much the same way as a government ban.

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