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Words and Actions

In the era of political correctness, language has taken the forefront of many political ideologies. We live in a post truth era where everyone can live in his or her own bubble of what the truth is. Truth is an illusion. And if it isn’t your truth then it is just fake news. We can thank Donald Trump and postmodernism for that.

            One topic that has been highly debated is about whether we should censor language or impose certain speech on the people, like gender pronouns for example. So enters political correctness. This is highly anti-freedom-of-speech. The proponents of political correctness believe that by changing the language, they will change society. I believe this is not the case. What it will do is hide the stain. It’ll be like spilling coffee on the floor and just pulling the rug over it, so it is no longer visible. The stain is there, but we just no longer have to see it. Out of sight, out of mind.

            Censoring different words, or labeling words as inherently racist or sexist will not make racism or sexism disappear. Rather it will go underground. That means we might not see it anymore but that doesn’t mean it is still there. There will be rising hidden internet platforms where people will come to sprout their ideas. The political correctness people will drive reasonable people into a corner. Because the question remains: what is political correctness and when is something politically correct? This is highly influenced by ideology. What is political incorrect in the eyes of a third wave feminist might be something totally different than in the eyes of a conservative republican.

            I believe that this hinges on a wrong conception of words. Words are seen as inherently meaningful, as if without people the words would still have meaning. That words have an intrinsic meaning. But they don’t We give meaning to words, words don’t give meaning to us. An example could be different languages. I can call you in a really monotonously way a fils de pute. If you don’t understand French you will not know what I have said to you. You feel nothing for those words. But when I explain the words to you (they mean son of a bitch) then out of nowhere they get a different meaning.

            Intonation is also something weird. Think about the many ways you can say ‘shit’. The written form limits me, but we say ‘shit’ when something bad happens, ‘oh shit’ when we’re surprised, ‘shiiit’ when something cool happens, and so on. A different way of saying something highly influences the meaning of the thing said. Whenever your mom tells you to clean your room, it’s a whole other feeling if she shouts that you should clean your room or asks you gently.

            It is the combination of the word with the meaning the person gives to it together with the social conception of the language action that creates language. It is the statement one makes that can be meaningful, not the words in itself. This is because statements are actions. Like doing something speaking is an action. Words are just a tool for fulfilling that action. Just like a screwdriver is useless without screws, so is language useless when there is no one to speak it or to give meaning to the words. In the idea of political correctness, words are not seen as tools but as actions, which gives them an inherent value. But words cannot have an inherent value without someone able to give meaning to those words.

            That’s why banning or imposing words (even for the supposed beneficial reason of the wellbeing of others) is not only ineffective but also highly dangerous. Banning certain words might start with good intentions but could easily evolve into the censorship of one side of the debate. When freedom of speech is being limited in a country that’s when an alarm bell should be ringing. It happened in the Soviet Union, it happened in Nazi Germany, it is happening right now in China. Freedom of speech is cornerstone of a democratic society and it is something worth fighting for.

By elenchusphilosophy

I'm a Philosophy student in Belgium, trying to talk and write about ideas of all kinds of sorts.

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