Thursday, 20 December 2012

Words Matter

Some time ago, I got involved in a Facebook debate over offensive humour, which rapidly disintegrated into an argument over free speech. We managed to avoid invoking Godwin’s Law, but we did successfully provoke the following comment, which typifies the public attitude to free expression: “FREEDOM OF SPEECH means you can say anything to anyone! That does not mean you are right or even moral but you can say it!”

To anyone that’s encountered the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the error will be obvious. Free speech is not an absolute right - most countries have laws which state that freedom of expression may be limited in "the interests of national security, territorial integrity or public safety; the prevention of disorder or crime; [or] the protection of health or morals”. Most mouthy schoolboys and drunken racists will insist that they have a right to say what they like about who they like, but a quick examination of statute will reveal that it's simply not so.

Additionally, the Malicious Communications Act and recent Hate Crime legislation, not to mention defamation law for attacks on specific individuals, have clarified the law on what you may or may not say in a public arena such as Facebook or Twitter. Freedom of speech should be invoked in countries where you're imprisoned indefinitely without trial for criticising your government, not bleated about by people who are cocky enough to think that their need to be funny is more important than respecting the feelings of other people around them. Freedom of speech is a conditional right, not an absolute one, and when you think about it, there’s a good reason for that.

The truth is, words matter. Words are how we make contracts, build relationships, connect with others, and describe the human experience. We’re by no means the only species that communicates meaningfully, but we’re the only one capable of such subtlety and nuance. Albanians, for instance, can distinguish between 15 different types of facial hair, and are similarly specific about eyebrows. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Italians can name 500 different types of pasta, and the descriptions of colour in Webster’s dictionary are a symphony of shade and comparison.

There are currently more than a million words in the English language, their ranks swelled by new coinages like “vajazzle” and “selfie”. A tabloid newspaper will use about 8,000 individual words in a single edition. The average person regularly uses 35,000, a university graduate 50,000, and a writer as many as 75,000. Many are beautiful. Some are ugly, inelegant, or too often overlooked. All are powerful, but some are more powerful than others.

Of course, with great power comes great responsibility. Some words can comfort, praise, and reassure, but others can sting, wound and affront. For some people, it’s difficult to respect the broad vista that language opens up for us. They would use it like an indentured servant, all the while claiming that by doing so, they protect its freedom from those who want to see it muzzled and caged.

Instead, we must treat language – all language – like the rare and delicate gift that it is. Where in the past we’ve hurled shards of it at women, disabled people, those of other races, religions and sexualities, to mock the wounds it makes on impact. The time has come to pick up the pieces. This isn’t being ‘PC’ or ‘leftie’ or any other such ridiculous notion; this is about not deliberately insulting the other people we share the planet with. It’s easy to imagine that our house, our marriage, our family is a tiny ship tossed on a stormy sea of outsiders, battered by the wind and waves – in fact, that’s how we should view our planet.

In an unimportant solar system, in a modest galaxy, in one corner of an infinite and uncaring universe, intelligent life has struggled from a swamp and established an empire greater than that of Rome or Britain – the empire of the Earth. We have developed language, enabling us to begin to comprehend the vastness of our reality, or just gossip about inconsequential details. As I’ve said before, we have only each other – seven billion of us against the infinite coldness of space. We are fellow passengers on that storm-tossed sea, and yet we don’t huddle together for warmth and security; we keep confined to our quarters, the doors and stairwells blocked by obstructive, angry words. The worst of it is, we put them there.

What I’m trying to say, I suppose, is best summed up by a seasonal message that we let our children sing but never actually heed. We’ll pick it up, remove its historical gender bias, and repackage it for use all year round. Dickens said it, Dawkins implied it, and I can only echo it: peace on Earth, and goodwill to all humanity.