The Mistake in Legislating Language


The New York Times had an article about the steps some universities take to ensure their students understand cultural differences. The opening of the piece begins with a nervous incoming freshman wondering if it was okay for her and her white female friends to say the N-word when it comes up in the lyrics of a song while driving in a car.

According to Sheree Marlowe, the diversity officer at Clark University in Worcester, Massachusetts, the answer was categorically “no.”

I had to disagree. Common sense always led me to believe the answer was definitely “maybe.” Chris Rock even confirmed as much in one of his specials when he talked about the Dr. Dre Rules. So why such a firm “no?”

In promoting cultural acceptance, she makes the mistake of putting restrictions on the ways in which people use language. It should be obvious that this runs counter to our free speech ideals. Simply put, you can’t make people speak the way in which you think is proper. Doing so ignores so much about language and takes attention away from the many other ways she could promote her message.

In another example, she admonishes those who say “you guys” to address the second-person plural. Perhaps the English language is not the greatest at differentiating between gender when talking in generalities, but a lot of people grew up saying it this way and it has become imprinted on their speech. In no way do I think saying this skews their views on gender equality. Nor do I think that the many women I hear say this are not subconsciously resenting their own sex. For those who are offended, I’d suggest you start with the plenty of other issues to be angry at regarding women’s rights.

This desire to control language overlooks three very important things. Free speech, for starters. Second, it disregards how colloquial speech becomes ingrained in our English, and as a result, it dismisses cultural differences in speaking, the irony of which is most likely lost on her. And lastly, it fails to realize the very key issue of context.

Now, I don’t know anything about what the white girls in the car were like, but I do know that singing along to lyrics with the word “nigga” never made me dislike black people. In fact, there was probably a lot more in those lyrics that helped me learn about black Americans than Marlowe realizes. If I let the word loose while singing in a group of my friends who know where I stand on racial issues, there doesn’t have to be subliminal prejudices behind it. No one that I’m hanging out with is offended and it doesn’t mean I dislike black people any more. It’s the context of the situation.

Context is important. It’s why a word like “nigger” can go from such a hateful, ugly word to a term that might denote a sense of brotherhood when the people who it was originally intended to be used against take the word back. It becomes “nigga.” Then just as quickly, it can change to a word that makes people cringe when said by naïve white teenagers who pepper it in their speech while trying to emulate rappers.

People say words have power, which is definitely true, but we should not ignore who gives words power in the first place. It is us who determine the context and evaluate whether or not something is offensive. This is how words gain their influence and meaning. Accordingly, there are some cases when words are offensive and some when they aren’t.

This is something that some in the left haven’t always been great at doing. They might understand the importance of cultural acceptance, but at times they go too far in trying to legislate it. Not only does this become ridiculous in how it limits free speech, but it doesn’t prepare students for what it’s like in the real world where life gets a whole lot more offensive. A lack of political correctness becomes the least of your worries. Perhaps we should allow students to confront harsh realities in academia so that they are better prepared to handle them when they arise in real life. We don’t need to infantilize them by whining about semantics.