You Don’t Kill Hateful Words’ Powers By Ignoring Them

The problems discussed in the middle section of this post’s essay are epitomized in various ways by this video:

The Stoics, with some wisdom that is in need of some qualification, advise us to always be mindful about the difference between what we can control and what we cannot. Stoics typically argue that we are free only insofar as we are dealing with things that are in our power and we will only be miserable if we stake our happiness to our ability to control what is not in our power. Epictetus puts the point like this:

Some things are up to us and some are not up to us. Our opinions are up to us, and our impulses, desires, aversions–in short, whatever is our own doing. Our bodies are not up to us, nor are our possessions, our reputations, or our public offices, or, that is, whatever is not our own doing. The things that are up to us are by nature free, unhindered, and unimpeded; the things that are not up to us are weak, enslaved, hindered, not our own. So remember, if you think that things naturally enslaved are free or that things not your own are your own, you will be thwarted, miserable, and upset, and will blame both gods and men.

So on this thinking we can only control our own actions and our own attitudes, and not what happens to us, what others do, or what others’ natures are like, etc. We can only maintain our own virtue and rationally accept the course of a rational nature. It is irrational to wish things to be other than they are and suffer over what we have no control over. It is for this reason that we should, without pain, accept the transience of those we love, that they will die. It is for this reason that we accept that there will be bad people with flawed characters and all manner of inconveniences throughout life. Vicious people are making intellectual mistakes and so not to be judged harshly. We should also refrain from judging others since we can never presume to understand why they have misjudged the good as they have.

While it requires some serious qualifications or amendments here and there, much of this is very good advice. But one seriously problematic interpretation of this advice is the idea that being offended is all in one’s own mind, such that if you do not take the attitude that you have been harmed you have not been harmed. Many a target of vicious insults and other forms of verbal assault and denigration are told that if only they would change their frame of mind such that verbal attacks did not emotionally damage them, then there would essentially be no wrong done. This advice is even given in cases where the insults and verbal assaults take the forms of slurs or are in comparable other ways gendered, racially antagonistic, homophobic, transphobic, xenophobic, ableist, classist, atheophobic, etc., and so actually target not only the directly verbally abused person but others who share a class with them. And sometimes this advice is hostile, contemptuous, threatening, and filled with accusations that if the target does not just let these insults and/or slurs go that he or she is (apparently culpably) choosing to be a victim.

This is galling for many reasons. Often these people counseling others not to be “be victims” are ostensibly indignant that anyone would ever try to stop others from using the kinds of language they use or saying the kinds of things they say, no matter how hateful. Under the guise of free speech absolutism they act appalled that anyone would tell anyone else what words or phrases they can or cannot use. That is supposedly “silencing” and it is done by people who supposedly want to be “victims”. So on their account, standing up for yourself and saying you will not accept insults and verbal assault is laying down and playing helpless out of a desire to feel like you were victimized and could do nothing about it. And supposedly it takes a choice to be insulted in order for words to be insulting even though the very words that are used have very standard definitions as insult words or normal linguistic functions that are well understood to be insulting when used in particular ways.

Astoundingly these people enjoining stoicism to the targets of words like “cunt” or “bitch” or “fag” or “stupid”, etc. are blaming the words’ insulting powers not on those who are vigorously employing the words with full intentions to insult, demean, marginalize, demonize, silence, etc. but they are blaming the occurrences of insults on the words’ targets for taking the words as their definitions and normal usage naturally indicate they should be taken. It’s supposedly not the fault of the people knowingly using insulting terms, it’s the fault of those saying “stop insulting me and trying to verbally assault a whole class of people like me in the same gesture”. This is like blaming someone who is punched for falling down and making an act of violence happen. Had only they had not been physically affected there would have been no violent effect!

These often vociferous defenders of the right to verbal abuse try to convince targets of slurs, insults, and verbal bullying that there is just no stopping people from verbally abusing them and complaining will only encourage them so it is morally incumbent on them to be quiet and ignore it or they will get what they deserve when their complaining is met with further retaliatory verbal abuse.

Unbelievably, for all their adamant explicit insistence on everyone’s freedom to say whatever one wants, they don’t think that complaining about insults is the sort of free speech that should never be criticized. One is allowed to engage in any kind of silencing, bullying speech, unless that silencing speech takes the form of “don’t bully people”. Then suddenly their hypocritical free speech absolutism reaches its limits and they tell others what kinds of speech not to engage in.

They don’t think that complaining is just people’s prerogatives. They don’t take their own advice and stop complaining about the complainers on the theory that complaining about their complaining is only going to encourage the complainers to do some more complaining. No, these selective defenders of everyone’s rights to say whatever they want draw the line at complaining about bullying. You can say whatever you want. But complain about the abusive things others say? Whoah, whoah, whoah, now you’ve crossed the line. And there’s no point in complaining about what others say, people just can’t be stopped. Except if you’re complaining about other people complaining because that’s a moral necessity. Those people need to learn to shut up, and totally can be taught to do so so we’re just going to keep on telling them to shut up.

Their attitude that abusive verbal behavior should never be complained about because it can never be stopped is an astounding sort of immoral reactionary conservatism that denies the active role that people play in creating, perpetuating, and enforcing social and moral norms. No matter how “progressive”, “liberal” or “libertarian” their ideological beliefs, anyone who tells you to stop complaining about something immoral or harmful or unjust because that’s “just how things are”, that person is really a conservative in the worst and most consequential of ways. They are protecting implicit norms that make it socially acceptable (whether in the culture at large or in subcultures) to denigrate certain despised classes by pretending that verbal bullies are just unstoppable forces of nature that cannot be tampered with. They implicitly deny verbal abusers’ moral responsibilities and place great moral responsibility on the verbally abused to never complain lest anyone ever be made to feel like a word is off limits to be spoken or lest the complainers ever “let” themselves be victims (a much more heinous crime than verbal assault). Words are sacrosanct, even when they are used hatefully. Except they are not sacrosanct when they’re used to complain about other people’s hateful uses of words, naturally. And those complaining are assured moral and social norms can never change. So they should just stoically learn to deal or they want to be a victim and it’s their fault they feel abused.

But sometimes a more sincere argument emerges. Sometimes members of marginalized groups and survivors of abuse themselves vociferously argue against anyone taking offense, on similarly stoic sounding grounds. Having themselves learned through great struggle to affirm themselves despite others’ hatreds and to endure without succor or mercy from their oppressors, they define their dignity by their ability to be impervious to the slings of others and they loathe the part of them that was once vulnerable and which once suffered at the hands of others.

And they get angry, and sometimes even abusive themselves, towards other survivors of abuse or subjects of marginalization for exhibiting, to their minds, the very weaknesses they despised and have lived vigorously trying to extirpate from themselves. They define themselves by their victory over victimhood. When they see others saying they are offended or upset, they see them as letting themselves be wounded. Having, to their minds, adamantly not let themselves be so reduced to victims controllable by others, they have contempt. They feel their own superiority in not being like those others who are like them but who, unlike them, apparently give their mutual tormentors the satisfaction of seeing they got to them.

So the counsel these types of survivors of abuse or marginalization give is that if only the targets of slurs and verbal bullying would stop taking offense the words would lose their power altogether. Words are just combinations of sounds (aurally) or shapes (in writing). Apart from conventions no arbitrary combinations of sounds or shapes has any intrinsically harmful meaning. The argument goes that only if people stop getting offended and reacting woundedly, those who verbally bully would lose this weapon to hurt those they seek to marginalize and abuse and oppress. If it never phases the targets a word loses its power and they, the thinking goes, lose their power over the minds of those they seek to victimize. By not “letting themselves” be victims, by not letting words have the power to hurt them, they suck away their oppressors’ power.

The problem with this idea is that not taking offense at a word does not make it meaningless. It still holds a vicious, Othering meaning in the mouths of those who use it in describing those they seek to marginalize. Neither the hatred, the demonization, the contempt, nor the dismissiveness is any less in the intention. And no less do the words signal to susceptible others that the words’ targets are people to be disparaged, mistreated, and marginalized. And when people don’t fight back against this language, the aggressors are not discouraged in these efforts of theirs to throw their weight around and silence. If those who they are trying to silence just keep letting it roll off their backs, they don’t challenge the dominance play that’s at work in the oppressors’ insistence on using threatening, “place-putting”. Or, when those in a privileged class are not consciously malicious but merely have a passive aggression they never face up to fully (even to themselves) or they are more ignorantly negligent, they still nonetheless still replicate in themselves and pass on to others oppressive patterns of thinking, feeling, judging, and treating others that is inevitably going to have consequences in countless small ways and occasional huge ones.

Hateful language and abusive verbal treatment is both a symptom and a powerful perpetuator of deeper rotten attitudes that will inevitably have consequences in behaviors. While those on the receiving end of it should steel themselves emotionally and intellectually as best they can so that it has little damaging effects on their own sense of self as possible, they should push back vigorously against it. Such pushback is an integral part of an overall demand for their dignity to be recognized morally, legally, politically, behaviorally, and attitudinally.  All of this starts with thought and speech. Those who benefit in crass ways from their oppression understand this and use abusive language as a tool both to keep oppressive attitudes in place and to keep their targets in their subordinate place. Their vociferous arguments in favor of slurs and other abusive expressions are dominance plays implicitly meant to silence, intimidate, and keep those they want subordinate in place.

Your Thoughts?

Related posts:
In Defense of Taking Offense
From Normal to Normative, Human Minds’ Conformist Conservative Prejudice
I’m not against “dirty words”. I’m against degrading words that have malicious intent and functions built into them
Stop Calling People Stupid
No, Not Everyone Has A Moral Right To Feel Offended By Just Any Satire or Criticism
Moral Offense Is Not Morally Neutral
Vulnerability, Victim-Blaming, and the Just World Fallacy
No, You Can’t Call People Sluts
Why Misogynisic Language Matters
My Philosophy on What Free Speech and Freethinking Really Entail
The Camels With Hammers Civility Pledge

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Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.


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