Monday, February 13, 2006

On insult

I don't really like fundamentalist Christians and fundamentalist Muslims. I feel that the(ir) One God should smite them by throwing them, even temporarily, to the Hell they have prepared here on Earth for women, children, sexually active people of all orientations -- and many others. Still, I am in full understanding both of the right of free speech and of respect for others, their views and sensitivities (including theirs).

As I am not competent to comment on the recent events regarding the above tension between free speech and respect for others, I will quote Paul Postal, a very influential theoretical linguist. In a recent book of his, of a technical nature, he nevertheless dedicates the last chapter to discuss some guidelines by the Linguistic Society of America about avoiding sexist usage in Linguistics examples. I am not in position to comment on this topic, either, but I noticed a very interesting excerpt therein
Let me expand on the second point first. The guideline only addresses sexist usage. But it can hardly be doubted that many people are offended by some or all of the following:

(3)
a. obscenities
b. demeaning of certain racial, ethnic/religious/social/age, etc., groups or figures
c. criticisms of certain political/entertainment/sports figures
d. characterizations of people, real or not, in drastically unkind ways
e. demeaning of physical characteristics
f. articulation of certain political/social/moral views
g. denials of deity status to various claimed deities
h. denials of greatness in various endeavors
i. assertions/denials of quality of various products
j. assertions/denials of the sacredness of various texts
k. invocation of various national, ethnic, etc., stereotypes
l. calls for violence
m. linguistic depictions of sexual activity
n. calls for increased consumption of tobacco, cocaine, heroin, or high-cholesterol snacks
o. laws and proposals seeking to limit the rights of Americans with respect to firearms

There are countries where engaging in some of these activities not only pretty widely offends, it can get one killed. The list could be expanded essentially without limit. And that is the problem. If linguistic organizations and powers are to police examples so as to effectively reduce the possibility of offense, the scope of the necessary guidelines will be enormous. In fact, it could well prove impossible. The result of banning every sort of statement which could offend someone or even ‘many’ people would necessarily yield at best examples of enormous banality. What then if some people are offended by banal examples? More seriously, is the fact that no doubt many people are offended by obscenities to lead to a situation where it becomes impossible to publish linguistic studies of such forms?

What to do? [...]
That is the question.

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