Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Ponder: the education of speech

Our current panics about causing “offence” are, at their best and most generous, an acknowledgement of how language can encode and enact power relations (my freedom of “offending” speech may be your humiliation, a confirmation of your exclusion from ordinary public discourse). But at its worst, it is a patronising and infantilising worry about protecting individuals from challenge; the inevitable end of that road is a far worse entrenching of unquestionable power, the power of a discourse that is never open to reply. Debates about international issues such as Israel and Palestine, or issues of social and personal morals – abortion, gender and sexuality, end-of-life questions – are regularly shadowed by anxiety, even panic, about what must not be said in public, and also by the sometimes startlingly coercive insistence on the “rational” and canonical status of one perspective only. On both sides of all such debates, there can be a deep unwillingness to have things said or shown that might profoundly challenge someone’s starting assumptions. If there is an answer to this curious contemporary neurosis, it is surely not to be found in the silencing of disagreement but rather in the education of speech: how is unwelcome truth to be told in ways that do not humiliate or disable? And the answer to that question is inseparable from learning to argue – from the actual practice of open exchange, in the most literal sense “civil” disagreement, the debate appropriate to citizens who have dignity and liberty to discuss their shared world and its organisation and who are able to learn what their words sound like in the difficult business of staying with such a debate as it unfolds.
Rowan Williams, "War, Words and Reason: Orwell and Thomas Merton on the Crises of Language."  The Orwell Lecture, 2015.  

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