Do news organizations hurt free speech when they ban offensive words?

2013-05-27T00:00:00Z Do news organizations hurt free speech when they ban offensive words?Michael Gonzalez Arizona Daily Star
May 27, 2013 12:00 am  • 

"The decline of a language must ultimately have political and economic causes," George Orwell wrote in "Politics and the English Language," a prescient 1946 essay that anticipated the political correctness that would befall the English language half a century later.

Sure enough, The Associated Press has banned "Islamic terrorist" and, more recently, "illegal immigrant" from its reporters' vocabulary. Reuters long ago barred the term "terrorist."

Political correctness, can of course, sap a language of meaning. But there's a higher price to pay. As Orwell observed, the decay of language affects thought, which in turn produces even worse politics.

For example, the forces of political correctness today have made it all but impossible to write the sentence: "The Islamic terrorists were illegal aliens." The subject, "terrorists," is judgmental, they say. And it can never be used with the qualifier "Islamic."

To be sure, Islamic terrorists have not gone away. But thanks to the arbiters of political correctness, we no longer speak their name, at least not in polite society. Though Islamic terrorists present a clear and present danger, we are denied a concise way to describe them clearly.

Let's turn now to the predicate, "were illegal aliens." The object "aliens" is simply gone, unless you are referring to ET. Back in the 1970s, I carried that word in my wallet - on the "green card" that identified me as a "resident alien." I don't remember ever feeling that the word minimized my existence, yet today it is expunged from our vocabulary when discussing people. As for the adjective "illegal," that can never be used for people either.

The only acceptable term now is "undocumented immigrants." But in making the change we sacrifice meaning and purpose.

The problem here is that if we don't express ourselves clearly, we don't think clearly and then we can't act with purpose to fix our problems. If we can't ever say that there are Islamic terrorists in the world or people who are in our country illegally, then we can't articulate real solutions to these problems.

At its worst, political correctness becomes totalitarian, not just dictating our words, but even our thoughts and actions. Say the wrong thing and you will be kicked out of your university or job, which means you will find it hard to enter another, which means your life has suddenly changed, and not for the better.

As a result, you will avoid even thinking the wrong thought. It would be suicidal to do so. It's Soviet Russia without the gulag.

Orwell knew what he was warning us against. After all, he lived through some of the worst "isms" of the 20th century.

To fight for the good, we must be able to name the bad. As Orwell put it: "To think clearly is a necessary first step toward political regeneration."

Yes, and the decay perpetuates itself

Editor's note

The Star does not follow the new AP style and uses "illegal immigrant" to describe someone in the country without permission.

Editor's note

Every Monday we offer pro/con pieces from the McClatchy-Tribune News Service to give readers a broad view of issues.

Michael Gonzalez is the vice president of communications at The Heritage Foundation.

Copyright 2014 Arizona Daily Star. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Latest Fitz Report video

More

Fitz studio: How to draw the President

In this video tutorial, Star cartoonist and columnist David Fitzsimmons teaches you how to draw the Preside…

Latest Newsmakers video

More

Sarah interviews Dr. Peter Rhee, part 2 of 3

Dr. Peter Rhee discusses mental health and other issues surrounding gun violence.

Most Popular

Featured businesses

View more...