a week in wireless

War of words

This week the Informer reports from the front line of a war. Not an actual one with guns, bombs, etc – the Informer’s journalistic commitment doesn’t extend that far – but rather a cultural one, with moral missiles, rhetorical trenches and fortresses of dogma.

A cross-section of the national news in any given week reveals a growing proportion of stories concerning words, specifically bad words. Some of these stories might concern swear words, typically with some or all of the letters replaced with asterisks, and the apparent public interest is not that the word exists, but the context in which it’s uttered.

If a regular person happens to swear that’s not news, of course, but if a public figure swears that’s another matter entirely. They clearly hadn’t read their celebrity’s handbook, which states, just after the bit about having to regularly humiliate yourself on reality TV, that your conversation must now be confined to platitudinous clichés and that under no circumstances must you state an opinion.

Then you have banned words. These are words loaded with such culturally sensitive inference that it’s impossible to use them without provoking some kind of backlash. Often these words are stigmatised with good reason, and their use is equated with a certain disapproved-of set of views or mindset, but rather than seek to qualify, contextualise or even challenge their use, we tend to just ban them.

What’s remarkable about this censorious trend is that it’s not some dystopian piece of top-down social engineering. This suppression of free speech is being enforced by ourselves, the mob, and is enabled by social media. Journalists and politicians often have the common aim of saying what they think the public wants to hear. They used to have to guess, and risk saying things that Joe Public might disapprove of, but now that we have social media – especially Twitter – the nation’s steam-of-consciousness reaction to anything is immediately laid bare.

The result is that mainstream journalism and politics are now almost entirely at the mercy of a million 140-character, ephemeral statements a day. Trends are scrutinised, retweets commercialised, hashtags weaponised. The abbreviated, fleeting nature of the medium means individual words often become loaded with so much excess baggage that they’d have to remortgage their house if they attempted to travel on Ryanair.

A friend was recently travelling in China and found their access to sites like Google, Facebook and Twitter mysteriously disappeared, even though they were still online. China is in the process of opening up culturally after the nadir of the ironically-named cultural revolution, but the fact that it still apparently feels the need to ban parts of the internet serves to illustrate how privileged we are to have such freedom here.

It is therefore ironic to see social media increasingly used for censorship. Just this week Oxford University, of all places, cancelled a debate because some students had created a Facebook page objecting to it. A B & B in Blackpool has updated its Ts & Cs to allow it to effectively fine people who leave bad reviews about it on social media, while a politician has been forced to resign after tweeting a photo of a house with some flags on it.

The most insidious trend, however, has to be the growing influence of self-appointed moral custodians, whose apparent remit is to combat ‘offensiveness’ wherever they find it. If you’re even remotely in the public eye and you use a banned word you’re in trouble. The word police will hunt you down like the blasphemer you are and publicly denounce you. And it’s spreading beyond celebrity utterances – a comet scientist was recently compelled to make a weeping public apology because his shirt, of all things, was considered offensive, his scientific achievement thus completely forgotten.

The thing about the word ‘offensive’ is that it’s inherently subjective. There is no absolute, objective definition of the word; it’s entirely determined by perspective. So when something is called offensive it has merely offended the person making the claim, often nothing more. What remains highly debatable is whether their offense should override the original point. Both perspectives have value, but they need to coexist rather than compete.

The war of words is an ad hoc, ill-defined battle. We’re making the rules of engagement up as we go along and there is no arbiter more formal than weight of public opinion. Words like ‘offensive’ and ‘inappropriate’ are deliberately vague in order for them to be applied to anything the user would like censored. Like any other word or idea they need to be challenged, and only by doing so can we ensure the freedom of speech we’re so privileged to have is maintained. Over to you Monty.

Take care.

The Informer


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