Thursday, August 20, 2015

Walter Block on the N Word, the K Word, the F Word and FHRITP

Potty Mouth

By Walter E. Block

For the libertarian, qua libertarian, the only relevant question about behavior is, Should it be legal or illegal? Why is this the case? This is because libertarianism is a theory about what the law should be. This political philosophy does not at all concern itself with what is nice, nor, even, paradoxically, with which laws will best promote liberty. If you want to get to the essence of the freedom philosophy, you must place horse’s blinders on the side of your head, the better to focus, narrowly, on what libertarianism is all about. Otherwise, attention wanders into irrelevancies.

With this introduction, we are now ready to ask what is the libertarian view on potty mouth. Before we do so, however, let us be clear about what we are talking about. What is potty mouth? This is the use of words or phrases such as the “N” word for black people, the “K” word for Jews, the four letter “F” word that is not “fair,” or “fine” or “feel” or “fish.” Another is the phrase “I’d like to FHRITP.” (If you do not know what this means, you have been Rip Van Winkling it for quite a while; look it up.)  [RW note: I had to look it up. If you are the sensitive type, I would not recommend looking it up. This is likely to get Dr. Block in more trouble than Donald Trump's comment to Megyn Kelly---but all is fair in the pursuit of understanding the boundaries of liberty.]  While we are on the subject of sexual harassment, the “wolf whistle” often given by male construction workers to pretty women walking by, while not a speech act, would qualify, at least by extension, as an example of potty mouth.

Note, we are not asking if potty mouth is “nice.” Apart from its use in a play, or in a work of fiction, or even as the subject of a social science inquiry, it is offensive. Most men of good find it appalling. (Note, the previous sentence was politically incorrect in that it did not use inclusive language; at present, it is my judgement that this has not yet risen to the height of potty mouth; although who knows, with society moving in the politically correct direction it now is, one day so called sexist language might achieve that status). But should it be prohibited by law?

According to the doctrine of libertarianism, the only things that should be illegal are the threat or initiation of violence against innocent people. We may take for argument’s sake that all those who hear these words and phrases are innocent.  We also must stipulate that not a one of them constitutes per se physical aggression. That is, none of them in and of themselves constitutes the initiation of force against anyone. That leaves threat. Is the use of the N, F, K word always and necessarily used as a menace? Of course not. This is not to deny such utterances can sometimes be part and parcel of an act of aggression. “Up against the wall, motherF” would certainly qualify in this manner. And so would “This is a stick-up!” but none of the words in the latter sentence are instances of potty mouth.  The point is, there are many, many times that FHRITP, or N, can be used in a manner that has nothing at all to do with a threat of violence.

Therefore, I conclude, that potty mouth, however, obnoxious to many people, should not be against the law, at least not in any society that wishes to be considered civilized.

Is it wise to employ such nomenclature? This depends upon the context. The N word is used by some people in the black community as a compliment to one another. In the movie “Bulworth” it was even used as a term of endearment, by a white actor (Warren Beatty) to a black actress (Halle Berry) who was his fictional girlfriend. A similar motif was used by Larry David in “Curb your enthusiasm.” On the other hand, I once heard a leader of the libertarian movement shout out the F word continuously, as in “F the state,” in the presence of a mixed audience. I certainly agreed with the sentiment, but thought it an awful way to promote liberty.

Why do I say “height” of potty mouth, rather than “depth”? I do so because it is important to protect free speech. All too often in our politically correct times, our first Amendment rights go by the board. It hasn’t occurred in the United States, yet, but in many countries it is illegal to question the exact contours of the Holocaust. If historians are not allowed to disagree with one another about past events, this has a chilling effect on all intellectual pursuit. It is not against the law, yet, to be a “denier” of the hypothesis that global warming exists and stems from human action, but, there are indications that a judicial finding of this sort might occur in the not too distant future.

Libertarians are of course not “absolutists” on free speech. The statement “Give me your money or I will blow your head off” is a “mere” speech act. But, it clearly falls into the category of a threat, and thus must be proscribed by law. And, also, as we have seen, potty mouth verbiage can often accompany a threat. But dirty language does not per se constitute a threat and therefore, if there is any decency left in the world, it must be legalized.

What can be done to stop the use of potty mouth, apart from jailing those who indulge in it?  There was a highly publicized case of the use of FHRITP, or, maybe, it was FYRITP, where the utterer of this obscenity lost his job. This was done in front of television camera, in public, where there was not the slightest chance of interpreting this as a threat. As long as there was no contract vitiating such a decision on the part of the employer, there is nothing in the libertarian philosophy that would prevent such an occurrence. And, indeed, since all employment contracts should be “at will,” unless otherwise agreed upon by the two parties, firing this person might thought to be well deserved. Other forms of boycott, or discrimination against, might also be utilized in the legitimate fight against potty mouth.

But it is important, no, it is crucial, if we are to have a civilized society, that free speech be supported by law. So, the next time you hear of, or witness, the use of such uncivilized circumlocution, think not, or at least not only, of how despicable it is. Think also, of how important it is that such indecent speech be protected by law. This is indeed a paradox to support uncivilized behavior in the promotion of civilization, but there we have it.

Walter E. Block is now working on a book to be entitled Defending the Undefendable III, a successor volume to his Defending the Undefendable I and Defending the Undefendable II. The chapter on the potty mouth will appear in this new book.


  1. Question for Dr. Block: Is the Intentional Infliction of Emotional Distress a valid tort from a libertarian perspective?

    More info here:

  2. George Carlin's meditation on the word "Fuck". George clears the air.

    1. We need a new list of seven things you can't say on television maybe: peace, Ron Paul, federal reserve expansion of money supply, gold, business cycle, nullification, empire (as in US)