Banning Words Doesn’t Work

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This week, two separate sources suggested that we eliminate certain words from our conversations, for very different reasons. Time Magazine released a poll asking “Which Word Should Be Banned in 2015?” offering a list of nominees from  “turnt” to “basic” to “feminism,” selections that rightly infuriated the wider internet. (Though I’m relieved to report that Time polls are not legally binding, and the enforcement of any proposed “ban” will be nonexistant.) And Piers Morgan published a crazily tone-deaf column placing the blame for the use of the n-word on black Americans. Actual, honest headline: “If black Americans want the N-word to die, they will have to kill it themselves.”

It was, as Ta-Nehisi Coates so succinctly pointed out, an ignorant proposition. And an ineffective one, because banning words doesn’t weaken them, nor does it discourage their use. Banning words doesn’t work because it only makes them more powerful.

This is a conversation that we, as a culture, seem to have over and over about our vocabularies. When the word in question is something that’s perhaps vaguely irritating but ultimately innocuous, like “bae” or “literally,” the best strategy is to wait it out. People will not be saying “I can’t even” forever, just like the word “flopperoo” isn’t popular outside of those really dedicated to reviving 1930s slang.

But when the word is used as a pejorative term, as hate speech, it gets tricky. Words have weight, and they can be weapons as surely as they are tools. They carry baggage along with them, both cultural and social implications from their years of usage. Recognizing the way implications that words have to other people is part of our ongoing, evolving understanding of language; it is an important to keep your ears open. But rarely does banning a word do anything other than augment its abillity to cut another person. That’s why Sheryl Sandberg’s campaign to “ban bossy” went so badly. Not because “bossy” isn’t often used as a sexist term. It is! But telling people to stop using that word because it’s anti-feminist, well, it was never going to work, even with Beyonce on board. And it was far less of a statement than Kelis’ song “Bossy,” for example.

I’m not the first to observe that one of most effective strategies to rob a word of its power is, in fact, to overuse it. The shock value of slurs is mitigated if you use them on yourself, proudly. See: the LGBT community’s reappropriation of the word “queer.” It forces other people to confront the implications more completely when the word isn’t just one on a long list of no-nos. But the logic of reappropriation is sometimes tricky, as highlighted by all those “but if rappers use it why can’t I use it” pleas, it depends so much on social context and intention. Conflicts over use of the n-word, one of the most frequent flashpoints of these debates, are almost always about power and white privilege and a basic inability to really understand this logic. The elimination of a word is a nigh-impossible task, at least in the form of a grand, sweeping dictum. They are slippery little creatures, words. They are hard to kill. But what really does work is time and education. So let’s apply those instead of proposing a ban.

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