28/03/2012 18:56 BST | Updated 28/05/2012 06:12 BST

Going Sane: Language and Political Correctness

One of the big news stories this week has been the Swansea University undergraduate who was jailed after sending racist tweets.

Liam Stacey showed extremely poor judgement when he tweeted offensive and thoughtless statements shortly after footballer Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the field, and the situation quickly escalated when Stacey mentioned picking cotton. Muamba, of course, was born in what is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo, and Stacey's comments were clearly a reference to slavery. Hence, he was charged with inciting racial hatred.

Not surprisingly, some people have responded with the expected comments, such as "this is political correctness gone mad" or "this is the beginning of the end of free speech". Others have defended Stacey; he was drunk, they say, and was just being stupid, and some claim he wasn't actually a public menace in any way.

So was it right to jail Stacey? Is this a challenge to free speech?

Well, it depends on what kind of society we want to have. Do we want a society where anyone can say anything, no matter who it hurts or offends and no matter what effect such words can have? Or would we rather have a society where people can say almost anything they want, but with some limits in regard to decency, common sense, and respect, and where these limits are used to encourage education and tolerance?

If we choose the latter, we are protecting people's feelings (and this in turn could help some, especially young people, from learning to hate themselves and from becoming suicidal), but we are also doing more than that; indeed, we may potentially be preventing hatred - in the form of racism, sexism, homophobia/transpohobia/biphobia, anti-Semitism, classism, ageism, and so on - from spreading. In fact, in the long-term, we could even stop so many genocides from taking place.

Think about it this way. To take a rather extreme example, if Hitler had been prevented from making his racist and anti-Semitic remarks, would he have gotten as far as he did? Would his policies against Jews, Roma, the disabled, homosexuals, Jehovah's Witnesses, and others have had such devastating and far-reaching effects if he had been put in jail for inciting racial hatred?

The answer is probably not. He would have been part of a very different society, one that respected all types of people no matter what their background. Isn't that something to strive for?

Is this all sounding rather idealistic? Possibly. But isn't it better to aim high and to try to help people get along? If we didn't "other" each other so frequently, through our words and actions, we could have many fewer problems in the world.

If we continue to forgive people for being 'thoughtless' or 'stupid' (one thinks here of Prince Harry's infamous Nazi costume) because we want to believe that everyone has the right to do or so anything she or he pleases, then we are saying that it doesn't matter if young gay children continue to kill themselves because they are heart-broken from being called "fags" or "dykes" and from not seeing the possibility of a better future, and it doesn't matter if Jewish children get bullied and beaten up, and it doesn't matter if blacks have a harder time getting job interviews or are repeatedly reminded of the shameful history of slavery.

But if we instead say that there are some common sense-based limits to free speech and if we work to educate people about different races, religions, sexualities, abilities, etc., we might end up with a much more tolerant, equitable world. Education is the key here, but adults can't be good role models for the next generation if they are busy calling one another names or putting down certain groups of people.

A positive example of this from the past month took place at my own workplace, the University of East Anglia. Members of the rugby team went to a 'bad taste' party, some dressed up as Ku Klux Klan extremists, among others. The student union responded by disbanding the team, an action the university has praised. One wonders exactly why those rugby players thought it was entertaining and amusing to dress up as racists. Luckily, the student union recognised that this could not go unchallenged or it would send out a worrying message about the university's beliefs and priorities.

So is this political correctness gone mad? I don't think so. On the contrary, it's political correctness gone sane.

(With many thanks to FW for suggesting this topic.)