Blog: Denying the Power of Words

Denying the Power of Words
Denying the Power of Words
Date: 2018-Apr-20 02:07:25 EST

There's a beautiful paradox in modern (and perhaps historical) American society, and certain philosophical trends in European society that influenced us. Words have a lot of ability to affect things; en masse they decide if a leader is effective or weak (particularly in monarchies), they can push on our emotions both directly and in how we define things, en masse they help establish or destroy notions of legitimacy (gaslighting is direct manipulation of this facility to destabilise somebody's worldview), and they help shape our well-being, our feelings of safety and its lack, and all sorts of other things.

A direct, full-throated recognition of this is a powerful reason to drop a lot of constraints on speech, whether done as laws, as expectations of violent or career-altering responses, or as social norms. We can prevent all kinds of harms this way. It also, depending on how we recognise it, leads to ideas of crimes of honour (insult somebody in some ways and they might, in order to preserve their status which is essential to their mental well-being which you probably unjustly decided to step on, need to make things right).

So, in contrast to a lot of other societies still extant in the world, we have decided to go for free speech as a legal and social norm, and when it comes up against all these harms, we decide that the harm done by restricting speech, on whole, is worse than any of the harms that speech can do. We get a lot out of this bargain. Some of us consider free speech a direct good (I do); a good independent of its effects. Some consider this a good bargain even if they see free speech as a means to an end, perhaps noting that while it offers potential for a lot of potential harm, it also lets the targeted person blow off steam, laugh at the person who went after them, and lets them go after them right back (as speech, at least).

The way we resolve that tension then, is to dismiss the harms that can come from speech, and teach our children to try to ignore them (sticks and stones, etc). It's not always simple.