Fear of Words

“Retarded”

Scary word? What if I embarked on a story about “the retarded son of an idiot”? Would that be wrong? Hurtful? Tasteless? How about if I was talking about George W. Bush?

I’ve tried out this sequence (admittedly sort of surreptitiously)  on a couple of my caring social worker friends. In the former case, the reaction is tantamount to horror. As to the latter, well, let’s just say it’s considerably less so, in some cases, not registering at all.

It appears the distaste for the word varies inversely with the distaste felt for the individual being described. Does that tell us anything about the inherent vileness of the word? I think it speaks volumes.

“Climate criminal”. We all know that refers to those deluded environmentally-ignorant wastrels now described as “deniers” (or, in a nice recent variant, “denialists”). What’s not perhaps as well known, is that it is legally defamatory to call someone a “criminal” when there has been no conviction registered against them. No matter. Once you’re cloaked in the self-righteous assurance you’re on the side of the angels, you can apparently say whatever you want. Again, the context determines the suitability of the descriptor.

Let’s move on to scary concepts – like Holocaust Denial. Personally, I don’t, but I’ve always been perplexed how stating a view expressing denial could amount to little more than an unfortunate myopia to well-documented history. For a guy like Ernst Zundel, the “cost” of his opinion has been criminal prosecution, conviction and (possibly, as of this moment) a jail sentence.

To my knowledge, Zundel never advocated genocide against Jews, unlike many well-known Muslim spokespersons, none of whom have apparently faced even the threat of a “hate crime” prosecution. Again, the importance of context.

Are you comfortable with vagaries like “who’s talking about whom” being the defining limit of your freedom of speech? If yes, George Orwell was indeed frightened of you.

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