Why Censorship Doesn't Really Work

Language evolves constantly.

Anja Hartleb | June 9, 2016

Language evolves constantly.
Why Censorship Doesn't Really Work

If it was up to the devotees of political correctness, we should never utter certain words or phrases. Why? Because according to postmodern philosophy words are as powerful as fists and guns; they are tools of pain and oppression.

Let’s leave aside for a moment the issue of whether words are really weapons. Let’s also set aside for now the issue of whether the kind of censorship PCers advocate should be pursued at the cost of individuals’ right to free speech. What strikes me as crucial to the debate is that censorship is impossible to accomplish.

Let me explain what I mean. Language evolves constantly. Think about it: As kids we were all taught that profanity is bad. Yet, every generation has developed an extensive arsenal of euphemisms to be used in place of the “bad words” that could elicit reproach.

Not only do we find new ways of expressing old sentiments, we also use old phrases in new ways. Case in point: The other day, a friend wrote to me using a familiar phrase in a new context. He said that he was going to be “out of pocket” for a few days. A quick look in the Urban Dictionary revealed that while “out of pocket” usually means “paying with your own money,” now it is also means “being out of range.”

Clearly, trying to tell people to stop saying certain things is futile because they will find a way to convey them in some other way. For instance, Iranian dissidents defy government censors by using online videos and photos to express themselves. 

Of course, that does not mean we should use harsh language and hurtful terms; being polite and civil are important virtues for which to strive in our daily interactions with others.

But if censorship does not work, what can we do when people say false or mean things to us? In a free society the emphasis is put on personal responsibility. It’s more than the old saying “Sticks and stones ..” We decide how to respond to others’ words. We can be offended, angry, calm, reasonable, or indifferent. We can ignore or retort what is said. The choice and the responsibility of how to react lies with us.

Still, even though censors might fight a losing battle, letting them decide what words we can and cannot use means losing out on freedom of speech. It also means losing out on learning how to deal with people who spread falsehoods or seek to inflict pain on us through words, which is an invaluable lesson for growing up and becoming mature adults. In addition to being impractical, censorship’s message is almost always detrimental to the development of free, self-disciplined and self-responsible human beings.