The Catholic Church for centuries maintained a list of banned books, the Index Librorum Prohibitorum, only abolishing it in 1966. Governments, particularly fascist ones, also have had a pronounced tendency to ban books for moral, religious, or political reasons. Such censorship is a repugnant form of thought control. It is no surprise that the fascist dystopias of George Orwell’s 1984 and Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 center around the destruction or mutilation of the printed word.
While banning books may no longer be in vogue, it appears that banning individual words is fashionable if not de rigueur on today’s college campuses. The justification is that some words are too hurtful to use. Some words carry so much historical and racial baggage that their use is always off-limits. Certain racial epithets can’t be used in any context, not even in a discussion of how bad it is to use racial epithets, because the very act of speaking these epithets is an act of violence. Thus words are imbued with almost magical powers, and some words are so evil that they can never be spoken out loud. The “N-word” is akin to “He-Who-Shall-Not-Be-Named” in the Harry Potter books. People generally will avoid these forbidden words (as I will do here) partly out of a genuine desire to avoid hurting others’ feelings, but also, to be honest, out of fear — the fear of backlash, much like the fear of the media to publish cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed, though this is less a fear of outright violence than a fear of being ostracized and called racist.
This is what happened to the writer Wendy Kaminer when she used one of the proscribed words at a forum on free speech at Smith College in reference to teaching Huckleberry Finn, which, if anyone nowadays is allowed to read an unedited version, has a major character whose name contains that proscribed word. Read her article in the Washington Post. It is amazing that in this context (a free speech forum, in a discussion about a classic book that contains that word) she has been deemed a racist merely for using the actual word instead of its baby-talk equivalent. This reminds me of the scene in Mel Brooks’ film, High Anxiety, when, at a convention of psychiatrists, the word “woo-woo” is used instead of “vagina” because one of the psychiatrists brought his young children with him. Political correctness is childish. Political correctness and freedom of speech don’t mix. The United States Bill of Rights makes a big deal out of freedom of speech. It does not mention politically correct speech.
I have been living in Paris, France the past 6 months. Despite being the home of Voltaire and Charlie Hebdo, freedom of speech is more limited here than in the United States. For example, shortly after the Charlie Hebdo massacre, comedian Dieudonne M’bala M’bala was arrested in Paris for anti-semitism and hate-speech. Broadly defined hate-speech and holocaust-denial are crimes here in France and in Germany. As reprehensible as this kind of speech is, it is not a crime in America. In America we put up with the Westboro Baptist Church and their God Hates Fags signs at military funerals. We allowed the American Nazi Party to march in Skokie, Illinois (though ultimately their march took place in Chicago). We allow hate-speech because we allow all speech short of yelling “Fire” in a crowded theater. We don’t want the government to decide what we are allowed to say, write, read, or hear.
It is unfortunate that in the name of political correctness some people think nothing of placing limits on such a wonderful and powerful freedom — the one freedom that really sets us apart from the rest of the world. Americans seem all too willing to trade our hard-won freedoms for short-term comfort. The Patriot Act is a case in point, with which we gave the government carte-blanche to spy on us in exchange for — what? Is it so comforting that Big Brother is watching us all the time? Personally I would rather apply the word “patriot” to Edward Snowden than to the act.
It is disappointing that after the Charlie Hebdo murders, despite the wide-spread Je suis Charlie signs, there was a tendency among some in the media to blame the cartoonists and writers, though stopping short of saying that they deserved to die for their “hate speech” (see here, for example). And college campuses predictably went back to business as usual, promoting suppression rather than freedom of speech, denying (or attempting to deny) commencement speeches to figures such as Bill Maher, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, and Condoleezza Rice. The Ivory Tower has never been so heavily defended against the onslaught of reality.
Words are powerful. Words allow humans to download the contents of their brains in a format suitable for upload to other brains. Words express ideas that can be disruptive and disconcerting to the status quo. It is no wonder that others want to control our words. The best weapon against bad ideas is unfettered freedom of expression. Bad ideas need to be exposed to the light of day. In the marketplace of ideas, good ideas will drive out the bad. It is not necessary and indeed counterproductive to ban bad ideas, bad words, or bad books. The most effective way to destroy the Westboro Baptist Church is not to ban their demonstrations, but rather to allow them to display their hateful ignorance in public. In their own way, the Westboro Baptist Church has probably done more to advance the cause of the LGBT community than most pro-LGBT activist groups.
I find it sad that left-wing groups on college campuses, who in past years were at the forefront of freedom of expression are now the ones who are most willing to shut it down in the name of political correctness.