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.