Does it make sense to be offended when informed that your words may be offending other people? At what point does our use of language impact the intent of our message, and cause the audience to turn on the speaker?
In October 2015, we examined the role comedy plays in a free society. Earlier, we analyzed whether the emphasis placed on proper language was a useful tactic for audiences to avoid engaging in a battle of ideas. This past year, we have witnessed a similar form of escapism surrounding calls for political correctness.
No doubt, removing the onus of civility on the part of an audience has a chilling effect on the speaker. Yet, a society in which ideas are discussed both openly and respectfully is one we should still all strive for. To this end, as for purposes of illustration, many argue that there is no greater lack of respect in discussion than use of language suggesting preeminence or superiority on the basis of race.
According to the Anti-Defamation League, "racism" is the belief that a particular race is superior or inferior to another, that a person’s social and moral traits are predetermined by his or her inborn biological characteristics. Because of this definitional emphasis on belief, we know that whether a comment is "racist" depends primarily on the mindset, understanding, or intention of the speaker.
Ironically, in a world where our idea-makers are under constant supervision in order to prevent otherwise racist or culturally insensitive comments, more and more are themselves taking offense to the suggestion that they may be offending others. Some, in fact, believe that this culture of political correctness has reached a level whereby many potentially good ideas will not see the light of day due to room for overblown sensitivities.
Evidently, a balance must be struck between these hightened demands for empathy and the ability of others to speak freely in advancement of a seemingly preeminent thought. Specific words themselves may or may not matter, depending on where you fall on this spectrum; but intent clearly does. And, in the context of racism, while certain comments may initially come across as "racist," audience members must be willing to acknowledge that the intent of the speaker is the true barometer for determining whether they are actually so.
With this in mind, and as thoughtful speakers seeking ourselves to advance our own intellect (as well as that of our audience), we should also take care not to be so offended ourselves in these situations of language policing. Rather, such outcries should be seen as opportunities (even if a bit forced) to grow, learn, and become better lectors.
“If you hide your ignorance, no one will hit you and you'll never learn.”
Even comments absent racist intent may be interpreted as such by those who are left in the dark as to the speaker's true intent or motive. Problematically, our methods of reasoning, where we are taking our thoughts, what our "end goals" are, are known only to us. Some misunderstandings, inevitably, are a direct consequence of our inability to adequately convey messages in an appropriately sophisticated manner.
It is undeniable that free speech is a fundamental right. But those who take it upon themselves to convey a message, comedy aside, need not feel so indignant or resentful when asked (hopefully kindly) to at least taste their words before they spit them out. The sky is not falling here. As idea makers, as movers-and-shakers, we must be willing to accept the added need to explain to others, step-by-step, what our minds have already processed in advance. In short, we must be thoughtful of others, known and unknown, in order to truly get our thoughts across. We all have blind-spots, and it is perfectly fine to be reminded they exist; just don't let them stop you, or us all, from continuing to drive society forward.
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