Ban Derogatory Words; Don’t Believe The Hype

Activists have begun anew, their long-standing effort to ban derogatory and demeaning words from public airways. In 1985, the Parents’ Music Resource Center wanted to ban Prince’s Purple Rain album. Oddly, in 2007 the NFL accepted Prince as a safe choice to perform before an estimated ninety million Super Bowl viewers. During the spring of 2007, Don Imus kick started the activist when he inappropriately used words associated with many rap songs. The NAACP, with its “The STOP Campaign” and Al Sharpton, who through his National Action Network jointly lead the recent “March for Decency” have joined the traditional media activist. The recent efforts also include Russell Simmons’s Hip Hop Summit Action Network which calls for voluntary guidelines for music played on the public airways. The controversial L Brent Bozell III, Media Research Center founder and president has praised Russell Simmons effort (see his May 3, 2007 column). With these efforts in high gear, it is easy to praise the actions and to forget to question, is the effort worthwhile.

I believe the act of banning particular words produces misguided efforts because any ban fails to address the core belief reflected in the word choice. When inaccurate cause and effect relationships underpin public policy, the persuasive effort becomes a waste of human initiative. Those who seek power and influence experience a net gain at the expense of the legion who follow the power mongers and the do-gooders have a net loss when they adopt a false sense of success.

I do not see the fundamental issue as word choice as much as the personal choice to publicly demean and degrade another ostensibly to increase one’s own self-esteem. This choice inflicts debilitating damage to both parties. The speaker enters a downward spiral where the required degradation can only intensify. And the intended target questions their ability to engender human acceptance.

Prohibiting particular words and slang phrases in lyrics, comedy routines, or other forms of public expression relies on the absence of words to drive behavior and intentions. Sadly, the bans do not address the behavior’s cause. For those who advocate banning words, their argument rest on a few core presumptions. A typical point is that public speaking defines acceptable norms for the society and thus the few blessed with reason must protect society from negative words and imagery less unacceptable norms blossom. Alternatively an advocate might structure their argument on the thought that when heroes or role models publicly use objectionable words, they lay the foundation for children and the less sophisticated to emulate the objectionable actions. Finally, advocate arguments default to—generating profit by using messages or imagery that never benefits society is ethically and morally wrong.

Societal norms evolve from various sources. Members of a society communicate and share norms through their words and images—their stories. However, communicating a norm is not the same as creating a norm. Individuals create habits to address their core needs for survival or group acceptance. Societies adopt behavioral norms from the individual habits perceived as successful. The human effort to satisfy needs persist no matter the labels applied by language. Bans of individual words, spur the generation of new words, they do not improve the likelihood of granting acceptance.

A recent survey by the Pew Research Center helps illustrates how people stretch their moral boundaries when the feel threatened. In March 2007, the Pew Survey reported that “most Americans do not rule out the use of torture to gain important information from suspected terrorists. About four-in-ten (43%) feel that torture in such circumstances can be often (12%) or sometimes justified (31%).” Additionally, the same survey reported that “nearly half (48%) think the growing number of newcomers from other countries threaten traditional American customs and values.” The instincts for survival can drive people to adopt behaviors they would never accept for members of their own group.

Consider for a moment; how much do our role models matter? Some people will say, “a considerable amount, highly influential” and others would have difficulty recognizing a name outside their immediate family. However, advocates, who wish to control the behavior and language of entertainers, presume that a) they set behavior expectations and b) fans cannot distinguish when an entertainer is setting a bad example. Therefore, the obvious conclusion to the advocate is people should be exposed to the good and protected from the bad entertainers. This logic is flawed. At one moment we acknowledge children display sophisticated conduct, for example they distinguish between the conduct of their primary influencers: parents, siblings, peers, teachers, caretakers, non family authority figures, or extended family members. Who has not seen a child manipulate their parents or at least play one against the other? Yet at other moments, we fear that the young are too immature and vulnerable to withstand high exposure to entertainers setting a poor example. I find this notion of the vulnerable child inconsistent and naive. More likely, we are sympathizing with parents wishing to reduce their competition, to ease the parental task. The empathy though ignores the value of a child’s exposure and response to new stimuli. The value is in conducting the natural experiment; the ultimate parenthood test. Experiments allow parents and children to learn and grow, it’s not an opportunity to avoid.

As a society, there are many occasions where we restrict profit generation for ethical reasons. To deny profit for feasible actions is a significant demonstration of ethics. Laws against slavery, child labor, or environmental protections are all based on an ethical foundation. The question then becomes: Is the use of specific well-identified words, so morally reprehensible, we should outlaw all conduct seeking to profit from their use?

I have to answer no. For the specific words discussed in 2007, the nature of the speaker and the situational context are needed to finally declare offensive. Words naturally evolved in meaning. Acknowledging that words change and new meanings appear gives support to the idea that outlawing one word is the first step to defining its replacement. In my lifetime, my family has had varying levels of negative response to colored, black, Negro, nigger, boy and Uncle Tom. So which should be banned? Which phrase is so archaic that we need not worry about its use by today’s youth? Today African-American is acceptable; can we be sure the term will be acceptable tomorrow? Chasing words to ban is a fruitless public policy exercise.

Bias and prejudice, those unfounded beliefs we attribute to groups of people, begin with a person’s belief system about themselves. Carol Dweck, in her book Mindset–-The New Psychology of Success, indicated that people believe either their talents and skills are fixed and innate (a “fixed mindset”), or they believe their talents can be developed through work and effort (a “growth mindset”). When faced with a challenge to self-esteem people with the fixed mindset will seek someone to blame for every deficiency, or negative occurrence in life. The reality for the fixed mindset person is new people coming into the social group raises a threat to self-esteem.

I have traveled to many countries and each has a minority group who receives the brunt of the blame for dragging down the majority group. The how and why minorities ruin the larger society remain eerily consistent: low work ethic, will not learn the language, less educated, keep wages low, on and on. These phrases signal the fixed mindset in action. However, people with a growth mindset, see individuals, who can help their growth and development or individuals who cannot help. People with a growth mindset do not place blame others with others, they see needs and opportunities for learning.

When people hear negative language in comedy routines or music, what happens?. I think people use the stimuli to reinforce what they already believe. Everyone has unproven beliefs and bias. Often, we need them for survival. When we receive new environmental stimuli, we perceive the stimuli within the context of our previously held beliefs. If we have, a positive belief about something (for example, Asian people are intelligent) we interpret positive stimuli as reinforcing our belief (for instance we say to ourselves, “I knew that”) and we explain negative events as an exception and not a reason to adjust our bias. If we have a negative bias about something, (for example, black people are lazy) we rationalize positive stimuli as an exception (for instance when we say, “John does not act black”) and we interpret negative events as a reinforcement to our beliefs (we say to ourselves, “I knew that”). Thus restricting an entertainer’s word choice has no significant effect. The restriction merely removes an isolated stimulus leaving the root belief intact, and surely does not help people understand that they too can grow and develop.

Free-speech benefits the majority and the minority members of a society. The minority have a vehicle to guarantee their voice is heard; to provide access so influence is possible. The majority receive insight into the mind of the minority. Ironically, the beauty of free speech in meeting the needs of the minority to be heard it provides the majority with the insight to peacefully preempt rebellion. Without free speech, there is no outlet for the minority group’s frustration. History demonstrates clearly that unreleased frustration boils over into violence

Censorship by government or interest groups is a misguided effort to protect the uninformed and vulnerable. We should resist the temptation to protect by isolation and instead focus on policy arenas that address causal relationships. This would be a more beneficial use of the human spirit.

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