Hands Off My Love Pistol!

By banning offensive words, The Pakistani Telecommunications Authority are limiting freedom of expression to an unacceptable extent are encouraging people to create new slang.

Selection of list of terms banned by the PTA: ‘back door’, ‘barely legal’, ‘black out’, ‘devil’, ‘go to hell’, ‘idiot’, ‘kill’, ‘killer’, ‘queer’, ‘rape’, ‘Satan’, ‘slave’, ‘sniper’, ‘spit’, ‘taxi’, ‘fuck’, ‘flatulence’, ‘pocket pool’, ‘quickie’, ‘butt’, ‘deposit’, ‘fondle’, ‘strap-on’, ‘beat your meat’, ‘crotch rot’, ‘love pistol’, ‘flogging the dolphin’, ‘51 terms with the prefix ass’.

I read in The Guardian the other day that the Pakistani Telecommunications Authority (PTA) recently released a list of 1000+ obscene or offensive words, not just for fun – as I suspected – but because from now on the sending of any one of those words in a text message will result in it being blocked completely. Now, we all know this is wrong. No government body – no matter how many telephones they own or rude words they know – should be allowed to stop people calling their loved ones and telling them what they want to do with their love pistols and where. This much is obvious. But why? Voltaire may once have said: “I disagree with your use of the term ‘barely legal pocket pool,’ but I will defend until my death by fuck-slave sniper your right to say it,” but he never got round to giving his reasons – he was too busy having quotations misattributed to him.

We could invoke the law, after all freedom of speech is included in the Pakistani constitution, but then, according to the PTA, it is also “not unrestricted” – which is a not-unbullshit term for ‘restricted’. We could invoke human rights, but human rights – and it pains me to say it – don’t really make sense without a viable method of enforcement. Without that they are just a blind assertion of what would be nice; they’re a restatement of a belief rather than a reason for one.

What else is there? Democracy? Well, no national poll has been taken yet, and even then censorship might actually be supported. Indeed, a nice man by the name of Zombie_KSA recently hacked onto the Justice Minister’s personal website and demanded that he ban pornography because he had, and I quote, “powefull balls.” He is not alone.

What about something a bit more academic? John Stuart Mill tried to argue that complete freedom of speech was permissible under the ‘harm principle’, that is, the idea that one can do anything one wants so long as it doesn’t harm anyone else. It’s the ‘sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me argument’. Fair enough. But I know a few sensitive souls who might feel genuinely upset – harmed, even – if one accused them of having “crotch rot” or of being one or more of some 51 ass-prefixed words.

The point is this: words can hurt  (in fact, my mate Dave was once crushed under the middle letter of a giant, falling TESCO sign – let no one say their largesse has no victims) so why do we insist on allowing all of them?

There are a couple of reasons. The first of these is the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis; the theory that one’s language shapes – or even restricts – one’s thought. As Wittgenstein had it: “The limits of my language are the limits of my world.” Without the words to express a thought, we lose the thought itself, and that, as a situation, is double-plus ungood. The reason it is double-plus ungood takes us back to J.S. Mill: when he claimed to be defending freedom of speech using the harm principle, what he in fact did was defend it in terms of human progress.

It is only through the free exchange of ideas that progress can be made. In response to this, it has recently become fashionable to say that progress does not exist – and maybe in moral terms this is correct – but considering that what most people want is to stay alive and to have sex, I for one am glad for the existence of chemotherapy and Chanel Allure pour homme aftershave. Neither of which could have existed without a sentence that ended with either ‘cancer cells’ or ‘consenting adults’ and began with ‘let’s fuck these…’

Next, consider that freedom of speech is entirely necessary for political freedom. We, under a mild democratic government, may never have the need to criticise our leaders using such evocative language, but who would deny the right of people under a more oppressive leader to call him a shithammer, fuck deposit or ass-suffix. Not I.

Indeed how really can you stop people from doing this? In the context we’re discussing, the futility of the measure is obvious. Slang, by definition, is a code of communication kept away from elites. Therefore any dictionary of such codes created by the elite will not only be incomplete, but also create ridicule, by allowing the masses to see that, for example, Chairman of the PTA Mohammed Yaseen knows the word ‘strap-on’.

More to the point, when an attempt is made to limit language or limit expression, the usual result is that ever more ingenious and creative slang is invented. The destruction and creation of language is a dialectical process of code and censorship of which ‘beating the meat’ is only the latest example, and that’s something not even the PTA can stop.

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University of Cambridge