Unkind speech

Insights Newsletter
2 July, 2021

Humans are fallible creatures.

We make mistakes. We suffer errors of judgement. Sometimes we even drop conversational clangers that cause offence.

Worse, even when we try to do right, it can be hard to tell whether we have erred.

“When you see it, you know it,” said Jacinda Ardern of hate speech. But even the Minister of Justice has had trouble articulating just what might draw prosecution under Labour’s proposed hate speech legislation.

Perhaps technology could come to the rescue, saving us from our human foibles and enhancing our collective wellbeing.

We’ve seen it with the NZ COVID Tracer app.

Notifications from this app have helped remind us of the importance of the Alert Level measures. They have shown that we all have an important part to play in New Zealand’s collective wellbeing. And they have helped us change our behaviours accordingly.

Couldn’t similar or even better technologies be deployed to combat other social ills – like problematic speech?

To help both our elected representatives and the Team of Five Million, the Government should commission a SafeSpeech app. It’s clear that we all need a helping hand. Who better placed than the state?

It would make the Minister of Justice’s task much easier. Rather than having to say what would be banned, he could just remind us all to trust the app to tell us. As the government’s guidelines evolve, so too will the technology.

The app would prompt users to practice kindness in their daily discourse, and act as a repository of offensive terms that could hurt feelings. It might also serve as an interactive encyclopaedia, where historic figures can be vetted and warning labels applied based upon our modern social norms and sensibilities.

Artificial intelligence and machine learning processes powering the app will allow it to predict what the latest offensive terms might be and deduce when a user might be straying into unkind discourse. Of course, this would require the SafeSpeech app to always be on, recording all of our speech, processing it, and updating itself regularly to monitor against newly discovered types of offence and offences.

Turning on Bluetooth connectivity would allow the app to warn you if potentially offensive people are nearby, until the offenders are arrested.

It is said that to err is human. But in 2021 and with the technology at our disposal, should we really settle for that?


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