The Case Against Banning Offensive Words

Why Instagram wins by letting users legislate for themselves which terms are abusive

National Gallery, Oslo, Norway

This week, Instagram rolled out a new functionality: Users can now block specific keywords from appearing in their comments sections. The service is selling the tool (and users are celebrating it) as a “bully-blocker”—an acknowledgement that words can be weaponized to empower humanity’s worst tendencies. “Bitch”? “Stupid”? “Slacks”? Whether the words you don’t want to see are abusive or profane or simply empirically icky, you can now simply inform Instagram that you don’t want to see them, and any comments that contain them, regardless of their author or their grammatical context, won’t show up in your feed. Pooooof: gone.

The new capability whiffs on the one hand of what you might call civility theater. Instagram has been, as have its fellow social media services, hesitant to legislate among its users’ activities even when clear abuse has been involved (recall the racist depths to which @nero plummeted before Twitter finally kicked him out of its party). Here it is, now, essentially outsourcing its housekeeping responsibilities to its users. But the move, with its embrace of subjective censorship, also acknowledges a broader linguistic phenomenon: “Offense” itself is—and to some extent has become—a deeply individualized affair. Instagram’s ban-your-own-words functionality is tacitly endorsing one of the arguments that Benjamin Bergen, a UC San Diego cognitive science professor, makes in the new book What the F: What Swearing Reveals About Our Language, Our Brains, and Ourselves. Offense, like so much else, is relative.

Compare Instagram’s à la carte solution to, say, the workings of the FCC, which is empowered to decide on behalf of all Americans which words constitute a public “nuisance.” Or to those of the NFL, which regularly fines players for the f-bombs they drop on the field. Or to those of the MPAA, which via its partially language-based movie ratings system has been effectively issuing trigger warnings since long before it became politically complicated to do so. Instagram’s individualized anti-lexicon (lexi-non?) may be a superficial solution, considering the underlying problems that ultimately give offensive words their power; it is also, however, a deeply revealing one. Here is Instagram, taking the libertarian impulses of Silicon Valley to their logical linguistic conclusion: One man’s crass is another man’s treasure.

What the F’s title, much like its predecessors in the books-about-profanity genre, revels revealingly in its own cheeky euphemism. It’s a sweeping book, exploring not just the history of English profanity in words and in gestures, but also the impact that swears and other taboo words can have on the human brain. Even thinking about profanity, studies have suggested, can make people sweat more than they would otherwise. Employing it can increase people’s ability to withstand pain. Profanity can increase sexual arousal.

All of that is interesting, making What the F a valuable addition to the literature about profanity (which, Bergen notes, has been unfortunately scant). But it’s Bergen’s discussions of slurs, in particular, that form the most compelling, and urgent, sections of the book. Words may be innocent, as George Carlin put it—it may be their human context alone that give them their moral power—but slurs carry their own kind of violence. While we live, as Michael Adams argues, in “the age of profanity,” with Tumblrs like Fuck Yeah Kale and Twitter feeds like Shit My Dad Says (rendered on network TV as $#*! My Dad Says) and the many sheeeeeeits of The Wire, a slur still has the power to shock and abuse. To employ one, Bergen argues, “is the linguistic analog of closing your eyes and swinging in full knowledge that there’s a nose within arm’s reach.”

That would seem to make a good argument for banning slurs outright in public spaces, as has been the standard practice of the FCC and the NFL. But blanket bans of “indecent” language will almost always be self-defeating, Bergen argues. That’s because language, particularly in the age of the Internet, moves so quickly. (Take the speed at which suck and douche lost their shock value, and the speed at which contextually epithetic terms—queer, fag, slut—have been re-appropriated by the people they were meant to denigrate. Take, too, the haste with which recently novel terms—on fleek, yolo, basic-as-an-insult—now seem decidedly stale.) The story of swearing, Bergen suggests, is a story of serendipitous cyclicality: Words will sharpen, and then lose, their edges. “Dick” was a common English name for baby boys until, in the early 20th century, it obtained its anatomical associations. Archaic swears like swive (“to screw”) and fart-sucker (self-explanatory) were edged out of the standard English vernacular in favor of more modern innovations. Words meant to offend lose their luster when they become common; with their shock value thus smoothed and tempered, speakers and writers simply come up with new words to take their place.

So Instagram, yes, could have gone the way of the FCC, attempting to preserve decency from [bleeeeep] to shining [bleeeeep]. It could have issued a blanket ban on the words fuck and shit and their ilk. At which point millions of users, with intentions ranging from the cheeky to the malicious, would almost inevitably have responded with a flurry of “fvck”s and “shIt”s and revived “fart-suckers.” Instagram, basically, would have initiated an ongoing game of Whac-a-Mole against millions of endlessly creative human brains. It would have found itself permanently applying the Sisyphus filter.

So that’s one argument against blanket word-banning. But there’s another one—one that takes into more direct account the dynamics of offense relativity. Attempts to define “bad words” from the top down, Bergen argues, and particularly attempts to censor slurs, run the risk “of causing disproportionate and unfair injury to the very people it aims to protect.”

Take the n-word, and the many wide-spread and well-meaning attempts to ban it from public use in the name not just of some fuzzy notion of “decency,” but of empathy and respect and, you know, actual decency. In 2014, Colin Kaepernick, before he became the topic of national debate for words left unuttered, was fined for a word he (allegedly) did say: one that began with n. Context is key, as always, but the NFL, a private organization, decided that the 49er had indeed violated its policy against the use of “abusive, threatening, or insulting language or gestures,” and punished him accordingly.

What that policy doesn’t account for, however, is the linguistic variety of the n-word: It can be the most despicable, hated-filled term in the current iteration of the English language … but it can also be a term of endearment, and a verbal gesture of inclusion. (Indeed, so profoundly has the word evolved, Bergen points out, that some speakers have recently reconfigured it as its own pronoun.)

And yet: Kaepernick was fined. And so, who was harmed by the NFL’s attempt to regulate its way out of racial inequality? Colin Kaepernick. The policy meant to ensure that he be treated with respect ended up doing something that would seem to be decidedly disrespectful: punishing him simply for speaking. Here, again, offense is relative. As Charles Barkley put it in 2013, “I’m a black man ... I use the n-word. I will continue to use the n-word among my black friends and my white friends.” And as Bergen sums things up: “If someone thinks banning words is a silver bullet that will eradicate racism, sexism, heterosexism, or any other offensive ism, with no downside, he or she is mistaken.”

Which brings us back to Instagram and its insta-bans. The service’s workaround is not necessarily satisfying—it puts the onus on the abused, after all, to prevent future abuse—nor is it, scaled to television or other mass media, terribly practical. But it is, in its way, sensible. And more importantly it anticipates the direction that English—and the people who, in their varied ways, use it every day—is going. This is a cultural moment that is newly respectful of the individual experience, of the individual voice, of the individual truth. It is a moment that is grappling, belatedly, with the many flaws of mass media and monoculture; it is a moment that is respecting, finally, how varied people’s sense of the world can be. All of that involves, intimately, the words people choose to share that world with each other. In that landscape of fast-moving language, one person’s slur is another’s term of endearment. The regulatory body with the most authority to determine what will offend you is, in the end, you.