I have been bitching about political correctness for decades (e.g., “Why we love to hate p.c.,” Toastmaster magazine, June 1996; copies available on request) to no avail, and it keeps getting worse. The list of offensive words has grown and grown. New terms have appeared – “trigger words,” “hate speech,” “micro-aggressions” — as grievance groups continuously refine their exquisite sensitivities.
A recent example: you can’t refer to America as a “land of opportunity.” Because not everybody has (or had) the same opportunities?
There are lists and more lists of forbidden words and phrases, many such lists coming out of universities, whose mission (I thought) should be to teach tolerance, reason, and clear thinking about language. Indeed, the simple principle that would defuse the “lighter is better” firestorm (see below) could and should be taught in grade school.
But it’s good for politicians, clerics, and advertisers (the top three language manipulating frauds) for citizens to be ignorant of the fundamental workings of language – because then they’re easier to manipulate.
First, let’s stipulate that there is absolutely no rational reason for anyone to be offended by language of any kind. As Lenny Bruce, George Carlin, and many other comedians have told us for decades (as with everything else it takes comedians to tell the truth), they’re just words — meaningless sounds grouped together into meaningful units..
Why do words have such power? Because we give them power. As we learn the mores of language use, we learn how to use words appropriately in context, and further, that certain words must not be used in any formal context, and – here’s the really important part — that we must allow certain words to trigger certain reactions in us.
There is actually a category of words called “fighting words.” They are one of nine categories of language not protected by the First Amendment.
Most of the nine have real-world consequences that cause actual harm – threats, incitement, defamation (including libel and slander), child pornography, perjury, blackmail, incitement to imminent lawless action, true threats.
(BTW, I’m a little unclear as to why blackmail is on the list. The harm has already been caused by the person being blackmailed. The revelation of the misdeed[s] – or the cost of avoiding it – is the punishment.)
But like obscenity, which harms no one and has no business being illegal, fighting words are on the list.
They are, as first defined by the Supreme Court (SCOTUS) in Chaplinsky v New Hampshire, 315 U.S. 568 (1942), words which “by their very utterance, inflict injury or tend to incite an immediate breach of the peace. It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.” (https://www.law.cornell.edu/wex/fighting_words)
So where’s the list? How do I know what to avoid? Exactly what words are so awful that by their very utterance they inflict injury or tend to incite and immediate breach of the peace. They upset “order and morality”?
Better question: Since words themselves cannot “inflict injury,” what words are people taught to react to with hostility and aggression?
I don’t know. The answer is complex because it varies with context (only blacks can say nigger) – and because the list keeps getting longer. Beyond a handful of profanities and racial/sexual epithets, who knows what someone else will find offensive?
Without a list, a fighting word (substitute “hate speech,” “micro-aggression,” etc.) can be anything that anyone chooses to be offended by, which is where we’re heading today.
This brings us to the ill-fated beer commercial.
Let me respond as a former PR practitioner, with a press release:
We at Heineken are in the business of delighting consumers with our premium beers. We advertise our products on the basis of their distinct properties and consumer appeal.
We would never intentionally offend consumers. We meant the slogan “lighter is better” to be understood in the context of beer marketing, as should have been obvious.
The commercial did not show an individual spurning a darker-skinned person and preferring to drink our beer with a lighter-skinned companion. That would have been racist.
We apologize if anyone chose to be offended, but we would point out that the word light has dozens of meanings. We meant ‘the beer meaning.’
That words are to be interpreted in context is a principle that the easily offended should have learned in the third grade – and indeed, children could not learn to read unless they understood it.
So for adults to pretend that they do not understand it is deliberately disingenuous. Our advice to them: lighten up, get a dictionary, and enjoy a Heinecken’s.