Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Or so we were told as children. Of late, alas, this maxim has come under sustained fire, as the conflation of physical violence and verbal criticism has become de rigueur.
Hate-speech laws, which are now ten a penny outside of the United States, rely heavily on the preposterous presumption that opprobrium and disdain are equal in severity to battery and bloodshed, and that the state is capable of sensitively superintending their use. Once, it was accepted as a staple of the Enlightenment that any government that attempted to closely supervise speech was destined for disaster, if not for tyranny. Now, even the home of John Stuart Mill has slid backwards into the mire. In Britain each year, as across Europe, tens of thousands of people are investigated by the police for nothing more than being awful in public.