The use of language in society

Several issues have arisen lately in Australia that have convinced me more than ever standards of communication are dropping.  I have previously described my dissatisfaction with Australia’s politicians: they use personal attacks that have no place in society against their opponents.

We then had four specific incidents in a month here.

  • The protest in Sydney and elsewhere against a film made somewhere slagging a man held in the highest esteem by millions
  • Cory Bernardis saying rather nasty things in parlimentary debate – I say nothing further about this as I don’t want to appear in certain search types
  • Victoria Police and others pleading with people to be careful what they said on social media so not to prejudice the case against the accused after the murder of Jill Meagher
  • The uproar over Alan Jones’ slagging the Prime Minister of Australia: read Chrys Stevenson’s “Why I’m Defending the Prime Minister against Alan Jones” for further discussion

All four are very different situations, yet all have a common thread: what are we teaching our children about the use of language?

This morning I recalled an old saying, “Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me“.  I also recalled another, “The pen is mightier than the sword“.  They seem a little contradictory, don’t they?  I know they are not meant to be used together, but think about it.  The former is defensive: “whatever you say will be like water off a duck’s back” if you like.  The latter is implying words can cut deeper than a sword.  While I know the latter is meant as a call for peace not war, it is also telling when juxtaposed against the former.

I believe we have a responsibility to use language, our ability to communicate widely with many, wisely.  The question of freedom of speech is a very big question for any society: primitive, developing or developed.

My question is this. Just because we are physically capable of saying something, does that mean we should have the right to say it?  (One could ask certain people if punching walls is preferable, but I’ll let others address THAT particular issue.) My personal belief is a resounding “No” HOWEVER the bigger problem is where do we draw the line?  Legislating for common decency is a difficult objective.  We must, MUST not stifle/suppress/prevent serious discussion and debate.  The best example of the conflicting priorities is the anti-blasphemy laws proposed by some in some locations around the globe.  We have already seen the results of such laws in Pakistan.  I am an atheist (although I prefer humanist) so for me the concept of being unable to say “There is no God” would be simply crazy.  Those who believe in God would not like the reverse situation, I am sure.  Should such laws be enacted, what exactly would be classified as blasphemy?  Such laws would provide an easy way to suppress intellectual debate and discussion and could well lead to persecution of non-believers or those who believe differently, depending on the belief system of the prevailing majority in any given location.

The USA reserved their ratification of the United Nations Convention for the Elimination of Racism on the basis the USA would not modify their constitution in relation to free speech.   What we in Australia would consider hate speech is common in parts of the USA.  Even here in Australia I have received bad comments, but here we can and did lodge a complaint with the AHRC.

It is easy for people to say religion and race should be treated the same way. I agree hate speech is not appropriate for either, but I do note there is no scientific support for the concept of racial superiority: equally there is no scientific support for the existence of Gods either.

This latest furore involves one of Australia’s talk back radio hosts, Alan Jones, stating the recently deceased father of Australia’s Prime Minister “died of shame”.  For overseas readers, let me assure you it is common knowledge  Julia Gillard’s father was EXTREMELY proud of his daughter.  Whether one agrees with her politics or not, it is no mean feat to become the Prime Minister, let alone the first female Prime Minister.  Alan Jones has previously spoken of placing Julia in a sack and hoisting her into the ocean – in other words, drowning her like unwanted kittens.

I gather some of those outraged at Alan’s speech started using homophobic slurs in retaliation.  Not good form, folks: two wrongs don’t make a right!  What are you teaching children about the appropriate use of language?

The issue of language surrounding the Jill Meagher case is slightly different, but similar.  Through the use of language we could jeopardise a fair trail and see the accused get off (worst case scenario). Social media has allowed all of us a voice we didn’t have back in the day when letters to the editor were about the only way to “vent” in the public forum.  We don’t always use our new “voice” wisely.

In the Sydney protest, there was a sign saying “Behead all those who insult the Prophet”.  Completely irresponsible use of language.   The words are inflammatory and can give children the idea it is OK to talk about chopping people’s heads off.

What worries me, personally, more than anything is what example we are setting our children.  I am trying to teach four young people and one not-so-young person the finer nuances of the English language.  Every day their questions about what they see and hear illustrate to me the influence such use of  language in society has on impressionable minds.

When my older two were young, the “f” word didn’t appear in their vocabulary until at least high school.  Roll forward to 2011 and I had an 11 year-old asking me what it meant.

If we have public figures thinking it is OK to talk about drowning our Prime Minister or making insulting claims about a person’s father’s death a mere month after his passing, we are teaching our children this is acceptable.  If we make homophobic attacks on people when their orientation has nothing to do with the issue at had, we are teaching our children that is acceptable behaviour.  If we make signs talking about beheading, we are teaching our children that is acceptable behaviour.

If we allow hate speech to flourish, we are teaching our children that is acceptable use of language in society.  We may risk a successful conviction in a court case.

Manners.  Common decency. Play the ball and not the man.  Please do not let us use language to demonstrate the ugly side of the human race.  Do not teach our children this is acceptable behaviour.

I raised the issue of religion and anti-blasphemy laws above.  We can find ways to discuss the existence of religion or different religions without denigrating and insulting believers.  Yes, there are some extremists on all sides of the fences (there is more than one fence here) who will take exception to any words that do not comply with their own belief structure, but is this any different to extremist politicians, racists or, dare I say it, media personalities?  I believe the religious extremists of today would still be extremists even if there were no religions in the world: they would simply find something else to be extreme about!

We can discuss ethnic susceptibility to certain medical conditions without being racist.  We can slap Alan Jones’ misogyny without bringing his private life into the debate.

Let us remember with every word we utter, we are teaching our children what is acceptable behaviour.  Suggesting the Prime Minister should be drowned is not acceptable.  Suggesting women “ask for” rape by the way they dress is only a belief, it is not an acceptable view in society.

Beliefs (by that I mean ideas/concepts/thoughts with no basis in fact), whether they be political, religious, racial or related to homosexuality, are only beliefs, nothing more.   Each member of society has a right to their own personal beliefs PROVIDED they do not hurt others by virtue of those beliefs.  Those who believe differently from others have NO RIGHT to expect others to adopt their belief systems.

We need to ensure our use of language in society underpins the freedoms we value so highly.  In Australia we are free to go to a Catholic church, agree to submit to our husbands if we are Anglicans,  wear a hajib, not wear a hajib, pray, not pray, walk home alone, be a Liberal or a Labor member/supporter. We can be black, white or brown. We can be old or young, homosexual or straight.

We also have the right to disagree with others’ beliefs.  I have the right to not believe in what I consider to be myths  humans never grew out of.  Check out Jesse Bering’s “The Belief Instinct“.  He will be on QandA tonight if anyone is interested in hearing Jesse, although given we are talking QandA here, I’m not sure how much he will get to say about his old book!  His new book seems to say we are all …… hmmmmmm search term risk again.

We do not have the right to denigrate individuals because they are different. We do not have the right to teach other people’s children bad manners or bad behaviour when we are in the public arena.  We do not have the right to teach children to hate through the use of language.

The use of language in society comes with a responsibility: the responsibility to use language wisely and effectively, to the benefit of all.

“It takes a village to raise a child”: we are all part of that village.

Two other related articles I liked (so may you!) are:

The Drum: The truth is we’re probably not very nice

Nancy Cato: IS Freedom of Speech really free? Really?

17 comments on “The use of language in society

  1. […] brings me to the use of language in society. I can perhaps be considered a tad old-fashioned, but I’m not at all in favour of vitriolic […]


  2. […] October 2012 I expressed my concerns over the use of language in society. Since then things seem to have worsened. We still have nasty personal attacks being made in the […]


  3. Language can be used in so many ways; for good and evil… whatever happened to if you can’t ind something nice to say….?” Another great post…


    • Thank you Elizabeth! Nice to see you back, by the way. Hope all is going well for you! I think a few of us are very time poor at the moment! I head to the USA this week, but not near you, sadly!


  4. […] as his “problem with women”.  We should, in that instance, consider it an unacceptable Use of Language in Society, but not misogynistic.  Given his university days and at least one almost fisticuffs pub episode, […]


  5. I’ve taught my children three things; Language is power; The most dangerous thing on the planet is an idea & language expresses ideas; Human beings are the deadliest creatures on earth, not because of their capacity for physical acts of violence, but because language, the fabric of higher order thinking, enables them to communicate ideas and make them as real as any patch of concrete, any weapon and of course as real as the consequences of war, oppression and hatred.
    Language defines the human race much more, so much more, than anything humans build, shape or create. Thought is the same as action at a quantum level and what we think, expressed in words, is how we are really. Judge people by what they say and not by what they do. Kind acts and generosity are not a clear picture of the mind within a person, but what they say and how they say it, non verbals included, can reveal the nature of a mind. Thought is the mother of our actions, but language is father of our our ideals.


    • I’ve always believed “actions speak louder than words” but you have given me much to think about. I think in some instances, such as the spouse who professes love in words, but acts without love, actions do speak louder than words. However I certainly see your point: Hitler’s ideas, as an example, were very dangerous and he used words to spread those ideas very effectively. Language is power, most certainly.


  6. You’ve covered a lot of ground in this post, Robyn. I am in favor of Free Speech. But I am also in favor of people exercising their Right to Free Speech with consideration for the audience in question.

    What I might say in a bar is far different than what I would say on TV or in a kindergarten classroom.


    • I think that was much more the norm when we were growing up Nancy. Now it just seems to be “open slather” in the public forum. Vicious personal attacks on people for no reason other than idealogical disagreement. Because it is public, it gets repeated – often. Slowly this “style” becomes “the norm”, lowering the standards of society in more ways than just speech.

      The audience, if you are in a public forum, is everyone, not just your target audience. That is something Alan Jones found out this last week. 🙂


  7. I agree it does seem as if the standard of public discourse has dropped (has it though, in reality? I don’t know). But the problem as you say is “where to draw the line”. As deciding is impossible I tend to think we have to accept in the words of Obama recently, that “idiots get free speech too”.
    So the law must defend all free speech, but it is morally and ethically wrong to disseminate hateful material such as speeches and films that are going to incite violence.
    Sigh. The problem with this issue is that whatever view you take, when you write it down or say it it gets slippery and then you’re not sure what you think again…


    • I feel much the same way, Jackie. Very slippery, isn’t it? Yes, I do believe the standards have dropped. 50 years ago politicians would not speak about each other as they do now, not down under anyway. I don’t know about your part of the world, of course!

      I don’t know the answer: legislation is rarely the answer to these things, beyond clear anti-discrimination law. You can’t legislate good taste!


  8. Hi – back from a blog reading/writing drought. Brilliant post to which this theist says amen (a koine Greek transliteration of the Aramaic “let it be so!”) The re-infusement in society of the concept of civility is long overdue but not easily imparted.


    • Thank you so much! I did not want to offend believers, but it is a major area of discord these days and as a society we need to address it.

      I like the word “civility”. Very appropriate!

      I know about reading droughts. My situation is bad too: just not enough hours in the day!


      • No offence taken here, I assure you! It seems to me that mutual respect is a universal value that eclipses creeds and philosophical stances and you have expressed this well. Those secure in their life stance know it inherently and don’t have to riot in the streets or poison the airwaves with fear and insecurity. Unfortunately it’s the loudest and most confronting and offensive voices that get heard.


      • So very true! Thank you so much!


  9. “Just because we are physically capable of saying something, does that mean we should have the right to say it? ”

    Perhaps a better question might be, just because you have a right to say something, doesn’t mean you should. Excellent post, thank you.


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