“Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me”. Once heard resonating around playgrounds, this childhood saying now faces extinction.
After all, there was never any doubt that words can cause significant pain. The defiant schoolyard retort contains its own subtle admission of that fact. Attempting to contrast invisible verbal barbs from the severe physical damage inflicted by rudimentary caveman weapons, betrays the fragility of the utterer’s conviction.
As any target of bullying knows, words can hurt, and the damage may take longer to heal than a bruise or broken bone.
In the internet age, bullies have inescapable reach, and the ability to ply their cowardly trade 24/7. Victims struggle to find any place of solace when relentless tormentors follow them everywhere. Technological advancement has failed to mask humanity’s primitive instinct to demean others in the pursuit of personal self-esteem.
Informed by the results of psychological studies, society is increasingly attuned to the agony caused by hostile words.
Generally, in face-to-face interactions at least, there has been encouraging progress. Elements of verbal harassment once entirely acceptable in schools and workplaces would nowadays result in quick rebuke, or a successful personal grievance lawsuit.
Our society is improving its sensitivity to casual racism, sexism, religious persecution and any other form of discrimination. There is a well-intentioned desire to eliminate all varieties of hurtful speech.
More than ever before, we look towards guidelines and moderation to counter verbal bullying, intimidation and hate speech.
Purging the world, both physical and virtual, of bullying and bigotry is an admirable goal. However, there is a worrying trend toward overreach – fuelled by a hypersensitivity to disagreement, and increasingly overzealous political correctness.
The movement to protect society from hurt feelings is inadvertently spreading – or perhaps being commandeered – to undermine necessary societal functions, such as free speech and healthy debate. Its progressive agenda is becoming stained with regressive elements.
In the face of an increasingly delicate line of political correctness, our society seems to struggle with differentiating between hostile attacksagainst individuals or groups, and the genuine criticism of ideas held by individuals and groups. The former results in bullying and bigotry; the latter is fair debate.
“Let me have my opinion”, is no longer an exclamation against the perils of censorship; it is an affronted shriek that someone is challenging a dearly held belief.
“That offends me” – delivered with incensed shock – is a convenient safety blanket used to smother sincere expressions of disagreement, or to silence controversial opinions.
The outrage generation
This inability to deal with disagreement, criticism and controversial topics is rendering our emerging generations helpless to stand up for themselves, and incapable of differentiating between genuine hate speech and opinions they simply don’t like hearing.
Instead of providing the intellectual tools needed to confront and process difficult conversations, mollycoddling educators, in the name of protecting feelings, are encouraging a submissive reliance on authority figures to act as arbiters.
Universities, once protectors and promoters of free speech, are pandering to fragile students. No doubt created with the best of intentions, ‘safe spaces’ and ‘de-platforming’ have become euphemisms for censorship – silencing individuals because they risk causing offence and hurt feelings.
We see instances of university students acting like outraged children – sticking fingers in their ears, declaring, “I don’t want to hear your view, it offends me”. The skill of listening and responding with a clear counter narrative, is replaced with petulant demands to authority figures to step in to silence the unpopular voices.
There has been a movement in recent years to open our playgrounds up to risk – to stop wrapping our children in cotton wool. The same revolution needs to occur in our attitude towards debate.
Dealing with controversial issues: Race, religion and culture
A society fearful of confronting difficult issues – particularly around race, religion or culture – is one that risks allowing religious and cultural inspired discrimination to thrive.
Merely suggesting that culture or religion is, at times, used as an excuse to justify inherently discriminatory practises, invariably results in allegations of racism, bigotry or cultural insensitivity. These hysterics illustrate the problem our hyper-sensitive culture has with differentiating between the criticism of specific sets of ideas and the wholesale discrimination directed towards a race or culture.
For example, the fashionable term ‘Islamophobia’ is used unjustly to undermine those who criticise the medieval tenets and attitudes associated with some interpretations of Islam.
Likewise, ‘culture’ is seen as a legitimate justification for other forms of discrimination. In New Zealand, some Marae protocols prohibit women speaking during formalities and require females to be seated behind men. This practise is justified on the basis of tradition and culture. It is also clearly sexist.
Accusations of racism were once reserved for instances of actual discrimination based on skin colour, but are now directed at anyone who might dare to challenge regressive, illiberal cultural or religious practises.
Shrieking racism is the most effective way to shut down any debate.
As soon as the accusation leaves an indignant mouth the accused is on the back foot, and must redirect all of their focus on explaining why they are not a bigot. All other issues of substance in the discussion are lost. Mud tends to stick, and an accusation of racism, even when unjustified, is harmful.
Our fear of being tarred with a damaging label leads to uneasiness when any hint of race, religion or culture enters a discussion. The line between fair criticism and genuine racism has become so muddied we often find it is easier to simply shy away from these topics entirely.
Paradoxically, however, politically correct handwringing results in its own perverse form of prejudice. Viewing foreign cultures and religions through a separate lens creates a distinct framework of rules for ‘other’ groups, where the only differentiating features are race, religion or culture.
This curious equivocating leads to absurd outcomes. We see examples of University feminists and LGBTQ+ groups – in a fit of moral confusion – acting as apologists for misogynistic Islamists attempting to silence a female ex-Muslim from speaking.
Although inspired by a genuine desire to avoid hurtful speech and to protect minority groups, these mental gymnastics are forcing otherwise liberal individuals to advocate for positions they are generally diametrically opposed to.
Majiid Nawaz, a liberal Muslim, describes this inexplicable positioning as the bigotry of low expectations Ideas and practises ordinarily considered unacceptable, are exempt if the perpetrators are a different colour, or follow a foreign religion. We must not apply our rules to them, we must not criticise – after all, it’s just their culture. How patronising. How racist. And how badly we let down the most vulnerable. The liberals, the LGBTQ+, the feminists and the free thinkers – minorities-within-minorities – ostracised by their own ‘in-group’, and betrayed by the society who should be advocating for them.
Space for the bigots
One potential reason we avoid difficult conversations around questions of race, religion and culture is the fear that confronting these issues will give oxygen to bigots. We are concerned that racists will come out of the woodwork and co-opt the conversation, turning it toxic. In fact, I am slightly concerned that might well happen with this article.
However, not only does this mentality set the platform for restricting free speech, it is ultimately counterproductive. Ignoring the issue leaves the conversation space bare and ripe for hi-jacking by genuine bigots.
The backlash is already evident.
Far-right parties are on the rise in Europe, as many voters feel their leaders have failed to adequately address immigration concerns, and the rise of Islamic extremism within their communities.
In the United States, a diverse range of voters are latching on to Donald Trump. They view him as a person cutting through the ‘PC nonsense’. In the absence of a coherent narrative addressing the difficult questions of mass immigration, Trump’s description of Mexican immigrants as criminals and rapists is, perversely, viewed as refreshing honesty. The failure of serious leaders to effectively address problems with Islamism has provided a genuine bigot the platform to promise a wholesale ban on Muslims entering America – and, in this topsy-turvy world, that is somehow regarded by many as a functional plan.
Because voices like Trump’s are the few speaking freely about religion, race and culture, their prejudiced views more easily become dominant. There is no effective counter-narrative, no sensible middle-ground.
It is important to remain mindful that words can cause suffering – but the answer is not to shut down difficult conversations. By failing to protect free speech, and failing to confront challenging issues relating to race, culture and religion, we are conceding that space to the unhinged populists and bigots.