I admire Mark Steyn’s gallantry in defending freedom of speech and thought, but his weekend column is less than illuminating. It seems to have been 200 percent felt and half thought. Sorting through and categorizing the jumble of quite different examples that provoked Mark’s dudgeon was nonetheless a useful exercise. Here are my undoubtedly boring conclusions.
When it comes to the legal restriction of speech, or the legal coercion of dissenters, I’ll storm the barricade with Mark. It amazes me that any soi-disant free people tolerate that sort of thing.
The use of speech to criticize other speech is something else, and the distinction between state coercion and cultural coercion is one that Mark typically doesn’t acknowledge, to the detriment of his arguments. That distinction can get pretty blurry in our present legal arrangements, but in principle the people have every right to make pariahs of whom they will, and to slug it out among themselves, so to speak, when they disagree.
Still, Mark has a point, and we should ask ourselves what sort of culture we’d like to live in. The readiness to ostracize those who offend our sensibilities is stifling and unhealthy. Except in very extreme cases, we should criticize speech rather than condemn speakers. This is also prudent. Martyrs are popular; better to make an argument.
On the other hand, I can’t agree with Mark that anything of value is lost when derogatory epithets go out of bounds in polite society. They tend to be bad even for humor, substituting stereotype and cliché for originality. People who used them in different times need not be regarded as monstrous, nor must the canon be censored; we could instead feel good about having awoken to a greater civility and make generous allowances for human fallibility.
By way of criticizing speech, I’ll say that I found the derogatory language in this column, and especially the slur in its borrowed concluding joke, both puerile in its own right and disappointing coming from a writer of such talent.I boldfaced the Anglo-Saxon (A-S) nouns and underlined the A-S verbs to emphasize why I think this is a particularly poor piece of writing. Out of the whole piece, only the most vague terms come from Anglo-Saxon: freedom, speech, thought, time, slur, blurry; only two verbs, "slug" and "storm" are Anglo-Saxon, and "storm the barricade" is terribly worn metaphor.
George Orwell wrote in his wellspring of wisdom, Politics And The English Language:
The inflated style itself is a kind of euphemism. A mass of Latin words falls upon the facts like soft snow, blurring the outline and covering up all the details. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink. In our age there is no such thing as "keeping out of politics." All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred, and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer. I should expect to find -- this is a guess which I have not sufficient knowledge to verify -- that the German, Russian and Italian languages have all deteriorated in the last ten or fifteen years, as a result of dictatorship.