SS: Sticks and stones – and words


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When I was a university student (so many years ago) I was a big fan of Lenny Bruce. He was one of the best stand up comics of the time (all time?).

One of his routines began with “Nigger, nigger, nigger; fuck, fuck, fuck” – obviously for shock effect. And once he had the audience’s attention he would go on to talk about words: their power and our propensity for censorship. I am currently reading a fascinating book, Mick Hume’s Trigger Warning, which poses the question, “Is the fear of being offensive killing free speech?” Salman Rushdie writes of the book:

“This is an important book, and couldn’t be more timely. It’s strong- minded, unafraid, determined to knock down all the various specious arguments against free speech, unapologetic about insisting on the value of free expression, and terrifically will argued. In these weak-minded times it’s good to have so uncompromising a defence.”

A former student of mine tells me that he remembers the first day of class (so many years ago) and that I arrived, put my books down and said, “Fuck, fuck, fuck; . . . now that we have that out of the way, let’s get to work.” I doubt if I would do that today. It would offend someone who would complain to the human rights committee. Self censorship is a powerful deterrent.

Tainted words. Words we cannot use. Today we say “the N word and the F word” – how does that help? Even science has a problem with tainted words. “Social Darwinism” has been pejorative from the beginning. David Sloan Wilson has a short piece here talking about the E-word.

I solicit readers’ responses. Are there limits to free speech? If so, what?