You ought to be careful what you say these days. If you ask some of the louder conservatives, they will explain that a careless word will trigger the descent of the infamous P.C. police who have made careers out of being offended. Free speech is under assault, they will say, and good-intentioned people who slip and say something dumb are vilified when the whiny, self-righteous liberals leap to the defense of some thin-skinned voting block with a persecution complex. Meanwhile, it is politically acceptable to say horrific things about any group traditionally to the right of center. This sort of hypersensitivity, the right argues, chills meaningful dialog.
The loudest voices on the left (who may indeed be guilty of self-righteousness) will answer that words can be hurtful and destructive. They will complain about the shocking disregard the careless speaker has for efforts to bridge some of the greater divides in society. They may demand the resignation and demonization of the offending party and explain that such hateful expressions chill meaningful dialog.
Ultimately, the shouting match between the How-Dare-Yous and the Grow-Up-Already does drown out any meaningful communication. Usually the truth is somewhere in the middle. Whatever was said probably was probably more ignorant and less vitriolic. It probably was carelessly harmful, though not intentionally hurtful. It may have highlighted or heightened some existing or perceived animosity.
The numbers show that we still have some pretty stark divides in the country along racial, gender, and economic lines. Without pointing fingers, we can agree that this is a complex problem. When a problem is rooted in perception and assumption, it is, in essence, a language problem. Poorly worded, careless phrases can cause significant harm. Connotations people may be unaware of can invoke and enforce a nasty history of exclusion from and rejection by the mainstream. While the intent may be harmless or humorous, it may vividly reinforcement assumptions of who is Us and who is Them.
In a less politically charged atmosphere, it is obvious that careless statements can have damaging effects. If a corporation’s spokesperson said something disparaging about a branch of the company or an unreleased product, it could devastate employee morale or send the stock price plumetting. The company would get a new spokesman. Sure, the spokesperson has free speech—but the spokesperson is also responsible for the consequences of her words. The spokesperson may be a good, well-intentioned person—but she’s a horrible spokesperson.
Of course, we don’t have a national stock price. But we do have a nation. As a nation is a group of people bound together by common goals, common history, and a common identity, divisive speech does nothing less than splinter and divide the nation. I do not for a second want to suggest any coercive restraint on speech—particularly as free expression and a flourishing marketplace of ideas is one of the defining elements of America and Americanness. I would, however, emphasize that the reason we treasure free expression is because words are powerful. They can tear the nation apart.
Fortunately, they can also bind it back together. That slip or poorly chosen word is a big deal—and it is counter-productive to deny it. But accidents happen, particularly when people are careless or unaware of what is at stake. The relevant inquiry after some much-maligned mistake is not who to blame but what to do next.