Monday, November 22, 2004

Taboo Words

MelbournePhilosopher

For most people, there will be some kind of taboo topic, especially in the media. Today's Age newspaper had a story running about how they mispublished a URL to the winner of Australian Idol, and instead published a URL to a gay porn website. Frankly, I thought this was really quite funny - not to mention being the result of lack of basic understanding of web technologies on the part of that particular journalist. Clearly someone or another didn't distinguish between ".com.au" and ".com" - as any technical person knows these are as different as chalk and cheese, but in the mind of the average person are essentially indistinguishable. For example, I always publish MP as http://melbournephilosophy.com/ rather that http://www.melbournephilosophy.com/, but people without even thinking frequently just assume I meant "www.". Hey, that works too, on account of I created a virtual server pointing at the same place, but I only did it because I needed to cater to people who couldn't discern the difference.

In any case, I tried to post a discussion on this to Whirlpool, but the thread got deleted for being inappropriate. I'm reminded of a movie I saw recently, called "Lenny" about a US comedian who eventually got drawn into drugs and depravity, but was helped on his way by an oppressive police force inhibiting what he saw as a necessary use of free speech. He couldn't deal with the way that people were muzzling him for talking about scary ideas.

It's funny how people can find ideas scary. The one place I think it has relevance is in the eyes of the very young, who tend more than others to accept what they read as true, and tend to assimilate the knowledge in an unbalanced way. Even then however I tend to think that ageism is probably a self-fulfilling prophecy to some extent. It's hard to say. Our comedian Lenny certainly felt he should be allowed to say anything he liked. "Nigger", he says (I paraphrase), "it's a dirty word. Everyone's shocked. It's the power we give words that makes them rude, or offensive to people. I wish people would just use it - the President should just say nigger nigger nigger nigger until it doesn't mean anything any more. Then it would stop making children cry because someone at school called them a nigger and they didn't understand why."

There's a grain of truth in that. We get afraid of certain words and ideas, don't use them in polite company, don't even talk about them. I'm not Lenny - I don't think we should just ignore our social environment - but I'm not his oppressive policeman either. I think that our society would be much better off if more things were open to discussion, including in public. The article on today's error was closed by the whirlpool staff, because the article contained a link to the offending website. Firstly, that website is breaking no law. Secondly, the Age article is freely available. Thirdly, it's the power we give to words and ideas that makes them taboo, not the ideas themselves. Reducing bias and discrimination means bringing issues into the light, not censorship.

-MP

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