Cf. the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis, the idea driving the current culture wars is that language controls thought, and thought controls behaviour. So he who controls the words we speak controls the world. And, of course, he who controls the world controls the words we speak. It’s no surprise, therefore, that the left and the right, the woke and the unwoke, and so on, are vying for control of what words are acceptable and what words are not. George Orwell understood this. So does post-modern feminism. As does the SJW-turned-language-Nazi. As does the neo-Nazi. In short, we’re all in this war, either as front-line soldiers or as innocents caught in the crossfire.
I find this culture war fascinating. Like you I find some of it frightening, but most of it’s just risible. But what I find most interesting, at least here, is the distinction between prohibited speech on the one hand and compelled speech on the other. That is, there are things we’re not allowed to say, and there are things we’re required to say. And what I find interesting about the distinction is that much as we resent being disallowed to speak our minds, we bridle ten-fold at being required to speak what’s abhorrent to what’s on our minds.
If this be doubted, cast your mind back to when you were a kid, and on pain of being sent to bed without your supper you were made to say sorry to that snotty-nosed little Johnny when sorry was precisely what you weren’t. Or you were called to the principal’s office and he made you address him as sir. Moments like this can scar a child for life. Resentment of authority, for sure. But that’s nothing. What’s something is that serial killers aren’t born; they’re made. But enough about me.
There’s a perfectly serviceable explanation for this difference in our discomfort between prohibited and compelled speech. With apologies to Abraham Lincoln, ’tis far more tolerable to remain silent and be thought a fool – or in our case vile – than to be forced to open one’s mouth and remove all doubt.
Interesting too are the sub-categories within each of prohibition and compulsion. Note the difference between “You can’t say that anywhere!”, “You can’t say that here!”, and “You can’t say that here!” So, for example, there’s nowhere in Canada, save privately, where you can say “Kill all the Jews!” And not even in private if it can count as incitement. But whereas Facebook won’t allow you to deny the historicity of the Holocaust, other platforms will. Funny thing is, though, Facebook will allow you to deny both the Armenian genocide and the Holodomor. Is it just a coincidence that Mark Zuckerberg is Jewish? It’s a criminal offence in France to deny the Armenian genocide, but it’s a criminal offence in Turkey to assert it. And so on.
I propose we parse the taxonomy for compelled speech by indexing it to pain on refusal. If you won’t say sorry to Johnny you won’t get your supper. But Terrence Malick’s latest masterpiece, A Hidden Life – and it is a masterpiece, by the way – is the story of a man who won’t swear allegiance to the Fuhrer, and pays for that refusal with his head.
Moreover, compelled speech has theological implications that prohibited speech does not. Most religions merely encourage its adherents to proselytize, but for many faiths the punishment for blasphemy can be capital. So silence is an option, precisely because compelled speech is nigh-universally understood as egregiously invasive.
Whether consciously or not, I think we all have this God-is-listening somewhere in the back of our minds, with the following consequence: Tell me what I can’t say and I’ll let it go. Tell me what I must say and, on behalf of the God Whose existence I deny – but that’s irrelevant – I’ll fuckin’ kill you! But, of course, I’m not supposed to say that. So I didn’t.