Sticks and Stones…

Remember the old child’s chant: sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me?

It’s more complicated than that.

We have a legal system that distinguishes between acts and words, that protects expression of even the most hateful sentiments while forbidding people from acting on those sentiments.

There are all kinds of reasons–practical and theoretical–for prohibiting government censorship of even the most vile speech. I have addressed many of them previously. (If you want another exposition of those reasons, you could do worse than John Stuart Mill.) The Founders of this country certainly recognized that speech can be dangerous, but they believed–correctly, in my view–that giving government the power to decide which ideas could be expressed is a far greater danger.

Recognizing the difference in the degrees of harm inflicted by hurtful words and violent or otherwise harmful acts does not require us to ignore the very real–and deleterious–consequences of words. But we also need to understand that the only effective remedy is culture, not law.

Refusing to use bigoted terminology is not “political correctness.” It is recognition that decent adults do not contribute to the coarsening of society, and do not participate in the creation of a culture that winks at bad behavior.

Language shapes culture in ways too numerous to count. The nature of discourse considered appropriate for a civil society shapes the attitudes of the young and influences the behaviors of adults. Widespread use of language that diminishes people based upon their sexuality or religion or country of origin creates a belief that discrimination against those people is justified, and in the case of unbalanced folks (of whom there seem to be many), is seen as a license to harm them.

Do people have a right to express reprehensible opinions? Of course. I am one of those free speech purists who, like Voltaire, may “disagree with what you say but defend to the death your right to say it.” But the fact that people have a right to be hateful is not the same thing as an endorsement of their venom, and it does not require us to ignore or fail to condemn the unfortunate effects of such speech on American society.

The law cannot require us to grow up. That doesn’t mean we should behave like spoiled children– and it certainly doesn’t mean electing people who don’t understand the very real and very important difference between “political correctness” and adult behavior.


  1. Sheila:

    “Recognizing the difference in the degrees of harm inflicted by hurtful words and violent or otherwise harmful acts does not require us to ignore the very real–and deleterious–consequences of words. But we also need to understand that the only effective remedy is culture, not law.”

    If that’s the case then you must have effective NGOs. But we don’t have any. Now what?

  2. Trump decries political correctness, yet screams bloody murder when words are used against him.

  3. We all have a responsibility to counteract hate speech. Be calm. Speak softly, but speak up.

  4. I am a communitarian on this issue. When it comes to hate speech, the well-being of society is at stake. Making sure that all people are treated fairly and with dignity requires and justifies some restrictions on the free expression of fighting words when that expression includes illegal behavior. This case still makes me mad: R.A.V. v. City of St. Paul 505 US 377 (1992). A 14-year-old in Minnesota burned a cross on the front lawn of a black family’s home. Minnesota law at that time made it illegal to place a burning cross (or a swastika, or any other symbol) likely to cause “anger, alarm, or resentment in others on the basis of race, color, creed, religion, or gender.” The US Supreme Court said the Minnesota law was unconstitutional because it focused on the motivation for burning a cross (free speech) rather than on intentional damage to another person’s property. In other words, the kid could have been prosecuted for property damage, or even for intimidation, and that would have been a legitimate criminal charge. But burning a cross in someone’s yard as a racist message was just free speech.

  5. This topic is of great interest to me… while I do believe that our society is better served when we behave more like the decent adults you describe, I, for one, am quite pleased that some adults do not. Especially this one particular adult who is campaigning to become the President of the United States. Every time he opens his mouth you can feel the real adults in the room become more and more uncomfortable… you can even feel it through the television screen especially with his professional apologists. So in order to save our Republic, I encourage him to “keep on truckin'”! [Now, you may want to check with me in early November to see if I have checked myself into a mental health facility].

  6. Dear Prof Kennedy…

    This is Good…of course…

    We expect it from you…

    It needs to be better though…

    Your colleagues who are Literacy, Language and Ethics professionals can help here.

    You say, “But we also need to understand that the only effective remedy is culture, not law.”

    As a professor of Literacy and a minister of Religious Education, I find that troubling…

    There is an understanding that we have of “Speech Acts” and the “Performative” dimension of Language…and also of “Law as Culture”…all of which points to the inadequacy of that absolutist statement that you’ve made here.

    Life, the Universe and Everything is from all rational and material evidence a Messy Thing… Purity, Perfectionism, Superlitives, Absolutes, and “Best-ism” in its many forms is misleading…

    I see your Voltaire quote…and I match it and raise the stakes…

    “Dans ses écrits, un sage Italien

    Dit que le mieux est l’ennemi du bien.”

  7. Here’s another example: A Baptist pastor in southern California delivered a sermon this week in which he praised the massacre at the Orlando night club. He feels that Christians should rejoice when sodomites are killed, and he was sorry that the Orlando shooter did not finish the job. This is, of course, free speech, just as it would be free speech if I were to call that pastor an ignorant asshole. The video of his sermon was pulled from YouTube because it violated their hate speech policy in one important way: The pastor called for another massacre. It’s the word of the bible, don’t you know, so that makes it OK. YouTube didn’t think so, and neither do I. A call for criminal action should be prosecuted.

  8. The concept of “hate speech” is baloney. If our desire is to ban that then we should START with the Koran, the Bible and the Tanahk as well as the various proclamations of the Abrahamic religions since. My guess is that the 4 billion people who worship those words of hatred as the word of their god will not be happy about that condemnation. Until we can accomplish that, punishing a person who says something that hurts someone’s feelings is like punishing the wetness of one drop of water in the ocean.

  9. One of the reasons that I frequent this forum is because of Sheila’s academic treatment of law. It’s stuff that I would not think about otherwise. Law is government and government is only capable of achieving a limited number of things. I’ve never felt that we the people have to limit government, only exercise our democratic duty to decide who governs and let those qualified make sure that laws only address things that laws can be effective at managing. (I’ve always imagined that those who are thus qualified work for, as staff, those who we elect who are really only the marketing arm of their little enterprise.)

    Speech is a great example. It simply can’t be regulated effectively by law. It must be self regulated by each of us. Strangely enough it is more fashion than fact.

    My wife for instance reacts to what have been euphemistically called “f-bombs”. To some they are a current fashion. To me they are a choice and not compatible with who I am like perhaps purple silk suits are not.

    To me language is a representation of diversity and I’m all for that.

    One of the things that religion uses as a sales pitch is that government needs religion to fill in the gaps by specifying dysfunctional behaviors that can’t be effectively legislated but I think that in most cases religion doesn’t bring those behaviors about. It’s merely a club for people who behave like that for other reasons.

    One of the things that the politically correct crowd tried is to make a dirty word out of is “progressive”. To me progress is something that law can and should promote. Like way fewer automobile deaths and hopefully soon way fewer gun deaths and obesity deaths, all really just aspects of health care.

    So have at it government. Insist on progress, that’s what leadership is about. If you happen to wander into areas that can’t be legislated you will know because the behavior won’t change. The more of us there are the more diverse we will become and the harder and more necessary your job will become.

  10. As America has unfolded it has turned out that the most pressing need for further legislative regulation is in the area of business. Business has always needed regulation but I’m afraid that recently their ability to out maneuver the law has outstripped our representatives ability to hold them in check.

    Of course the existence of the GOP is one reason but there are others as well and they are mostly fueled by our inactivity in campaign finance reform.

    I’m hoping that Bernie Sander’s leadership to the left will break up that logjam.

    It’s a miracle that his vision and popularity came along at our hour of greatest need. Our greatest need is to keep coal in the hole and oil in the soil or forever change the climate that all life has adapted to. There’s nothing optional about that and hopefully government can and will save us from next quarter’s profits.

  11. Just for the record, “politically correct” had its origins in the Kremlin decades ago — to describe an insider who toed the Moscow party line. The term was then taken up by liberals, sometimes to make fun of their own behavior and sometimes to congratulate themselves on speaking truth to power. When Dinesh D’Souza used the term in his 1991 book Illiberal Education to tar and feather all of academia, the right wing latched onto “politically correct” and still own it. So it’s an interesting term for Trump to use against those who are asking him not to stop talking but simply to use thoughtfulness in his utterances.

    Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic earlier this year: “Trump has been running against ‘political correctness.’ This has sometimes meant attacking taboos that prevent real discussions, foster social exclusion, and signal snobbery. One key to taking Trump down is pointing out that he is also violating norms that are essential to American democracy. And that is a different offense. Every ‘crazy’ Trump quote may be ‘politically incorrect,’ but those labels conflate all categories of controversial rhetoric as if their substance is equally wrong. Neither impoliteness nor tone-deafness nor crude insults are to his credit. But a pol who seeks to gain power by demonizing ethnic-minority groups and threatening their core rights is engaged in a special category of leadership failure.” (

  12. EFK,

    From the last sentence of the link from The Atlantic:

    “Trumpism cannot prevail in a contest of logic and rationally differentiated controversies; but in a contest of emotion, tribal loyalty, and stigmatizing out-groups, I’m no longer sure that it can be beat.”

    Trump’s campaign will never be about logic or rationally differentiated controversies. He isn’t that stupid.

    We better start finding another way to beat him and “pronto.”

    Thanks for sharing the link with us.

  13. This is 2016 and adults no longer chant taunting language at minors in pubvlic places, or in classrooms with adequate and mature enough supervision in loco parentis financially and photographically, especially x-rays of a human’s broken bones among all others — whether on “Bones” or in an intensive care unit now. The law is already there where we each learn who enforces laws in our passing assembly places for 18 years each to military-industrial-human rights age Earth-around. The foundations of Indianapolis were there, swampy and loaded with mosquitoes before 1492 as regards “speech” records. So long as racial slurs are permitted by government workers — not the style book authors or dictionaries either — “sticks and stones” is way better than the usual terms of endearment on Facebook, Twitter, as Commerce style.

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