Tuesday, 28 August 2007

Words Are Not Offensive, People Are

Words and speech are powerful tools of communication. Combined with inflection and body language, they are used to convey information from one person to another. This is done directly (the literal translation of the words) and indirectly (the context of what is being said). Though it doesn't seem particularly obvious to us at most times, words, when spoken or read, have two separate meanings – the meaning intended by the speaker/writer, and the meaning understood by the listener/reader. The distinction between the two is very important, because the greater the difference there is between what is meant and what is understood dictates how effectively we are communicating. Our goal, then, is to close the gap between what is intended and what is understood. Only then can a free and meaningful exchange of ideas occur, such that real consensus can be reached.

It is with that goal in mind that I address the issue of offensive speech. There are currently words in the English language that are considered offensive. The commonality between them is their association with offensive objects and/or offensive ideas. Thus, society treats these words as taboo – they are avoided in many social and professional contexts and are banned from use by children and general access media. Some words are considered so bad that efforts are made to ban their use completely. What seems to be forgotten, however, is that though these words are concise symbols of offensive things and ideas, they are just that – only symbols – and thus they are not necessary for the expression of such objects or ideas. I can be quite offensive to people by using strictly acceptable words. Remember too, that for a word to be offensive, it requires someone to consider it offensive – if the receiver of the message did not consider it to be offensive, then despite the best efforts of the communicator, the message would be meaningless.

This brings me to my point – why can we not simply stop being offended by words, and thus take away their meaning and power? When trying to be offensive, the goal is to evoke a negative reaction from the receiver of the message. If no such reaction is garnered, then the act is meaningless. We would be effectively robbing bigoted people of a very simple and effective tool. It would be different if banning offensive words actually contributed to a decrease in offensive behaviour. However, only education and understanding can make such a contribution. Ironically, the banning of offensive words only increases the negativity of these words, increasing their power and effectiveness. Additionally, banning words can be counterproductive in that it can provide the illusion that the decrease in the use of the words might equal a decrease in offensive ideas in society and progress in the fight against ignorance and prejudice. It would seem that any benefit in banning offensive words would be purely superficial; the bad clearly outweighs the good.

I realize that ceasing our negative reactions to offensive words is easier said than done, but I do believe that with practice, it is achievable. But then again, what do I know? I’m just some retarded, incessantly rambling faggot.

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