A curious document has begun to make the rounds on social media. The “Alternatives/Substitutes for Problematic Language” (you now need to request permission to view the document . . . hmmm) is a remarkably candid distillation of what the Social Justice/campus Left in particular and the political Left more broadly have been agitating for and saying for years. In this document, their position on speech and wrong-think is conveniently expressed and detailed for you with no possibility of confusion: There are words you cannot say. They’re not even trying to hide it anymore, folks. This chillingly Orwellian document employs euphemism to sell political censorship under the guise of good manners. The document is wickedly pernicious in its scope and, should it be taken seriously, its likely effects.
I should be clear. There is no indication that this document embodies any formal power of enforcement aside from social pressure (though that is bad enough). It is, however, an accurate and explicit summation of what those who happily share it on social media would like to see implemented society-wide—and eventually enforced by the heavy hand of the law.
The standard rebuttals to this asinine way of thinking are well-known and need only a cursory review. It violates the indispensable principle of free speech. Deciding who would be authorized to enforce these regulations is an impossibility. Even if it could be enforced, it would not be enforced uniformly, which is unjust. And, finally, the content of the list itself would surely be decided along highly suspect partisan and ideological lines. Because we will not agree what should be on it, naturally, the progressive Left, for all intents and purposes, will unilaterally dictate what is licit and illicit in speech since they, far more than the Right, have a quasi-religious fervor for such questions. (Note well, too, that the administrative state—essentially a permanent, progressive government-within-a-government—would have the role of enforcer.)
But there’s much more to be said about such an illiberal and anti-intellectual list. It is wrong because, as a moral matter, no person is the sort of being who can validly restrict the thoughts, ideas, or speech of another; there are no Nietzschean Übermenshen walking around. As a practical matter, the nature of speech is such that we ought to opt for a position of free speech maximalism to ensure that we can, to the best of our ability, weed out bad ideas and promote good ones. As a societal-legal matter, proponents of speech codes will often fall back on a tired trope—“This is just about being a decent human being, okay?”—to defend their penchant for these liberty-killing proposals. But this betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of our society: Nobody in a free society is under any obligation to conform to anyone else’s standards of what it means to be a “decent human being” vis-à-vis speech. Even if we agreed that one version of being a “decent human being” was the best one (and we won’t), nobody legitimately could be compelled to conform to that model, especially under pressure from relentless social engineering such as this; we have the right to choose to be lazy or apathetic persons.
Second, the purveyors of this list betray their lack of fitness for living within a classically liberal society, committed as such a society must be to ethnic, religious, and ideological pluralism. The document exhorts you to “Think about why you feel compelled to use this term instead of a substitute and what image you are trying to convey.” The implication, obviously, is that we should not (soon: cannot) use a word from this list of now-very-popular-words because to do so is in some way to inflict harm upon those from whose culture the word or phrase originates. Except, in a pluralistic society, no particular group of people gets to push an “official” narrative. They must accept that there will be, without fail, those who will fundamentally disagree with them about the nature of reality, the sort of thing a human being is, and what the good life consists in, among other weighty questions. They must accept that the law cannot legitimately be employed to bring such persons to heel. They must accept that the only way they will get their way on this matter is to establish a theocratic state, or one that doesn’t recognize the natural right of all human beings to speech, assembly, association, and conscience.
Finally, the list itself is predicated on the nonsensical premise that “minority” cultures are permitted to determine what words are off-limits to non-members (whether they be members of other minority cultures or members of the “majority” culture), but majority cultures cannot under any circumstances legitimately impose their own speech codes on minority cultures. There is no principled or logically coherent reason(s) to accept that minority cultures get to control what words majority cultures can and cannot say. What would those reasons be? Why does a group defined as a “minority” (primarily because of numerical inferiority) get to impose weighty duties on others but is itself exempt from those duties? What is it about their smallness that bestows such power to minority groups?
The answer: There is nothing. The entire idea is prima facie absurd.
But, still, I’ll make a deal with those who think lists like this are good ideas and moral imperatives. I would be willing to accept the legitimacy of lists such as this one—offensive as it so clearly is to free speech—just as soon as those peddling them are willing to be consistent. By this I mean that members of minority cultures will also agree not to use words or phrases that have their origins in any culture other than their own, particularly “white,” “Christian,” “European,” or “Enlightenment” cultures—so they would have to say goodbye to words like “internet,” “rights,” “air conditioning,” and “iPhone”; the list, of course, could go on.
Imagine the frustration on the part of minorities each year when the newest version of the iPhone is released, and they can only point or grunt in order to indicate their interest in acquiring one! And what about that? Wouldn’t using such a device (or enjoying the benefits provided by the internet or air conditioning or a robust conception of rights, for that matter) be another example of appropriation? People in classically liberal, pluralistic, and free societies will not and should not abide the kind of authoritarianism presented in this list, and they are right to bristle when ideas like this poke their heads out from inside the Social Justice hellscape. Those who tout them should be ashamed of themselves and be given a strong foretaste of precisely what sort of intellectual ghetto a regime like that would spawn.