>"I would love to see that word banned," Craig Smith says, referring to the word "retarded." Smith, an advocate for the disabled, is founder of Massachusetts Advocates Standing Strong -- but apparently not strong enough to withstand hearing hurtful words. The intensifying drive to expunge the "r-word" from our vocabulary reflects the lamentably common belief that offensive words (to be referenced only by their initials) are more powerful than the people they target.
I've discussed in previous posts (here and here) our phobias about words deemed so omnipotent that they may not be uttered. Generally, advocates of word purges rely on informal political and social pressures rather than unconstitutional legal prohibitions; crusaders against "retarded" and retard" are asking us to pledge our opposition to their use. (Rahm Emanuel has taken the pledge.) But it would be a great mistake to dismiss this campaign as a purely voluntary effort that poses no threat of censorship. Laws aren't forged in cultural vacuums; censorship regimes are enabled if not demanded by social movements that stigmatize particular words, images, or ideas, alerting us to their presumed dangers, or mere offensiveness. These days, increasingly conventional wisdom dictates that the harm of tolerating presumptively hateful or demeaning speech is much greater that the harm of censorship. "Free speech isn't hate speech," or "Free speech doesn't give you the right to offend people," are common, nonsensical refrains.
So it's not surprising to learn that Rahm Emanuel's penance for uttering the r-word includes a promise "to consider seeking legislation known as Rosa's Law to remove the word from federal law," and an agreement to " 'continue to look for ways to partner with [advocacy groups]' on the legislative front." Of course, removing the words "retarded" or "retardation" from federal law would not violate anyone's speech rights. (And a promise to consider seeking legislation is hardly a promise to press for its enactment.) But this focus on the "legislative front" is worth noting. People who seek informal cultural restrictions on "bad" speech generally end up seeking (and often obtaining) formal legal restrictions as well. When speech is characterized as a serious or dangerous problem, it inevitably becomes the subject of legislative "solutions."
Consider the late 20th century, feminist anti-pornography movement, led by Catherine MacKinnon and Andrea Dworkin (and aided by social issue conservatives). Anti-porn crusaders equated pornography with actual sexual violence; Dworkin and Mackinnon offered up a model civil rights anti-porn statute, and, before long, Indianapolis enacted an ordinance characterizing pornography (vaguely defined) as a sexually discriminatory practice, for which makers and distributors could be held liable. This obviously unconstitutional ordinance was struck down by the 7th Circuit Court of Appeals, in American Booksellers Association v Hudnut, and the civil rights approach to regulating porn was aborted. But the criminalization of pornography only intensified, thanks partly to hysteria over pornography and child abuse stirred up by anti-porn feminists. Today, you can be imprisoned for possessing non-obscene, sexually explicit cartoons of imaginary children, or for merely pretending to sell child porn, or for downloading a single image of child porn, whether or not you have ever actually assaulted or otherwise exploited any actual child.