Past weekend, during the later, drunker stage of a wedding reception, a sultry lawyeress confessed to me her secret penchant for the word “cunt”. Being of a mediterranean provenance where the artfully woven expletives preserve their unspoiled blasphemous power, she expressed a sadness for the lack of such power in English language. All the expletives here are just too trite. Lacklustre. With the exception of “cunt”, that is.
This reminded me of a curious occurrence several months ago, when an otherwise open-minded acquaintance of mine was made visibly uncomfortable by my repeated deployment of the c-word. I’m usually not that much of a sadist, but in this situation I may have derived a certain pleasure from causing such discomfort. It reminded me that words can have power. And powerful words – such as insults, blasphemies, and expletives – are supposed to have power. Power derived entirely from the negativity with which the society brands such words. The more we demonise, ostracise, and taboo a word, the more we impregnate it with power. The more commonplace and overused the word grows, the more emaciated and hollow it becomes.
Take, for example, such mundane expletive as “fuck”. Despite the best efforts of broadcast regulators, prime time TV features more fucks that a cage full of bunnies hopped up on Viagra. Add to this the gratuitous use of the word by the music industry, and the ears of anyone with access to cable TV are thoroughly desensitised to the once dreaded f-bomb. I recently overheard a back-of-the-bus conversation among a group of tweens which was so saturated with “fuck” that it would have made a Victorian sailor blush, yet nobody on the bus seemed to pay any attention. The monotonous f-bombing has, by its incessant repetition, lost its power to shock. Despite the word being probably the most versatile and interesting of English expletives (see a fantastic piece by Christopher Hitchens here), it has become vapid and dull.
Anyone familiar with the flowing cadence of Italian dialect swearing, or the disturbing imagination of Russian prison slang can testify to the poverty of English expletive vocabulary. And though the rest of the languages are also growing more coarse and habituated to swearwords (we can leave David Starkey to hypothesise as to the reasons why), English is left with a particularly scant supply of foul words. Between the systemic desensitisation of some words through pop culture, and systematic reclamation of others by minority groups, an exasperated person looking for a truly strong word to hurl in someone’s face is left with a shamefully limited choice.
But this is not an article bemoaning the demise of creative swearing. Once in a while I hear gems such as “twatwaffle”; plus, if English ever fails me, I still have the comfort of creatively violating your mother’s dignity in Russian. As the title says, this article is actually about Nazis. Well, neo-Nazis. And hate speech. And the laws that instead of undermining it, actually empower it.
Currently making its way through a Saskatchewan courtroom is a case of Terry Tremaine, a part-time math teacher and a full-time rabid racist and National-Socialist Party of Canada founder. He is being charged under s. 319(2) of the Criminal Code, which prohibits “communicating statements, other than in private conversation, [which willfully promote] hatred against any identifiable group”. If convicted he will face up to two years in prison.
Unlike other hate speech provisions in the Code, the hate speech in s. 319(2) does not have to lead to any sort of harm – the mere communication of hateful statements is enough. More than two decades ago, this provisions was constitutionally challenged all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada in the case or R. v. Keegstra, but the Court upheld its constitutionality on the basis that the harm that the section prevented justified the limitation it imposed on freedom of expression. Yet I can’t help but wonder if instead of protecting the society from harm, s. 319(2) (and its equivalents elsewhere) are actually harming the society.
As I said before, words have strength, and this strength is imbued in them by the society. Overused ad nauseam, words like “fuck” lose their power. Tabooed and suppressed, words like “cunt” gain more strength. Hate speech in Canada is hardly a problem – the occasional ranting racist is not likely to be taken seriously by anyone. Men like Tremaine would have a closet group of white-trash friends, occasionally getting together to play dress-up with pillowcases on their heads. And that’s it. Any acts or words of theirs that would cause actual harm would be punishable by Criminal Code. But mere frothing at the mouth would be dismissed as just that. The more the society would hear their ridiculous doctrines, the less power they would have. But if we make these topics taboo and punishable by jail, suddenly they begin to acquire strength and a certain mystique to some people. And men like Tremaine, when prosecuted, can be twisted to become libertarian martyrs” of sorts.
In short, by criminalising “harmless” hate speech, we give it power, and actually make it more harmful (see Andrew Coyne’s discussion of harm and hate speech). On a more direct level, hate speech prosecution also provides otherwise obscure low-lives with a free platform of publicity. Fortunately, in Canada, such hate speech is a rare occurrence. But the rise of 21st century racism in Europe may be a sign of things to come. If this is the case, then empowering racists with hate speech laws is the last thing that we need.