Content vs Intent.
Is what you mean more important than what you say?
In almost every discussion about the use of language, George Orwell’s 1984 rears its head. So I’d like to begin by apologising for my lack of originality. I just want to quote one passage, I’ll get it out of my system, and we can all move on. Ok?
I’ve read some of those pieces that you write in “The Times” occasionally. They’re good enough, but they’re translations. In your heart you’d prefer to stick to Oldspeak, with all its vagueness and its useless shades of meaning. You don’t grasp the beauty of the destruction of words. Do you know that Newspeak is the only language in the world whose vocabulary gets smaller every year?
Winston did know that, of course. He smiled, sympathetically he hoped, not trusting himself to speak. Some bit off another fragment of the dark-coloured bread, chewed it briefly, and went on:
Don’t you see that the whole aim of Newspeak is to narrow the range of thought? In the end we shall make thoughtcrime literally impossible, because there will be no words in which to express it.
Of course, we all know that Newspeak is bad and that Syme is the bad guy, but let’s think about this for a second. What is it about the world that he’s describing that we find worrying? A world where it becomes impossible to think a bad thought? Where nobody can think something hateful because the concepts have literally been erased. Isn’t that a good thing? Would you be willing to sacrifice your ability to speak freely if it meant a world without oppression? Without war. Without hatred. Would you be willing to go beyond limiting people’s freedom of speech, and limit speech itself?
This is the trade-off which people who strive to control language are struggling with. And frankly, it’s easy to see where the source of the struggle lies. Prejudice is so pervasive, cruelty seems to come so naturally to us, words can be so hurtful. Why is removing a word from the vocabulary of humanity any more immoral than, say, removing any other type of weapon? If it were this simple, I think that there’s be a serious case to be made. But there are several reasons why it isn’t.
Firstly, we can eradicate words, but the eradication of cruelty and hatred doesn’t necessarily follow. The effort to control offensive language is fought on two fronts. There is the word itself, and then there is the intention behind the word. And to focus on the former is to completely abandon the fight for the latter. Focusing exclusively on the content of what we say, on the particular words we choose, is simply an exercise in teaching people to speak in a certain way. It implies that as long as the correct words are being used, the language itself is ok.
It’s the reason why Donald Trump can go on national television, claim there are “fine people on both sides” when one side includes actual white supremacists, and those who wish to support him can claim that he said nothing wrong. Donald Trump, and people like him, are smart enough to stay just on the right side of what you’re allowed to say and it has no impact whatsoever on what he or his supporters feel. You might argue that it makes his intended targets feel safer. But if the aim is the illusion of safety, or perhaps a more polite version of hatred, I’d say that was a pretty shallow goal.
Secondly, if we lose the ability to judge the intent behind words, we limit our ability to have actual conversations about these issues. We see insane over-reactions as in the case of Netflix executive Jonathan Friedland, who was fired for using the n-word in a meeting about offensive words. The word wasn’t directed at anybody. He wasn’t trying to attack anybody with it, he was simply talking about the word itself and didn’t use the “n-word” coding that we’ve all accepted for some reason. He was fired. The content of what he was saying completely trumped the intent behind it.
What if we take this attitude to its logical conclusion? How would we talk about this word and the historical evil of it at all? How would we teach future generations about the history of oppression and cruelty that this word represents? How would we teach them about our ability to overcome this oppression and reclaim our dignity? Does saying “the n-word” really do the job just as well? If so, how long until that too is beyond the pale? And how can one sound be more acceptable than another when they both refer to exactly the same thing?
Thirdly, don’t we place our feelings on too high a pedestal if we pretend that the feeling of offence is inseparable from the intent to cause offence? Do we seriously dismiss the possibility that sometimes we overreact or are being overly sensitive? Do we never give the people around us the benefit of the doubt? This is the price we pay for valuing the content of speech over the intent of the person speaking.
Instead, what if we embrace the shades of meaning that words possess? What if we ask whether any offence was intended, or better yet, why we’re offended? Why don’t we make ourselves stronger instead of more fragile? Language is imprecise. It is an attempt to translate the untranslatable. If we’re to even attempt to communicate with each other, we need to make use of all of our resources; the good, the bad, and yes, occasionally the ugly.
Pretending this ugliness doesn’t exist doesn’t remove it from people’s hearts. It teaches them to hide it more skilfully, to pass it on more subtly, and to hate those who suppress it more vehemently. Instead of hiding the ugliness, we should shine a light on it. We should look at it. We should talk about it. We should question it. If we keep doing that, maybe one day we’ll solve it.