Surely I can’t defend racial slurs and such from being removed from public discourse. I can defend them, but I won’t. There are moral grounds for opposing slurs, just as there are moral grounds for opposing curses, because they are vulgar and mean and intended to harm and diminish on their face. But there is no moral reason to oppose all figures of speech, nor is there a reason to make every comparison a slur.
I would say it is easy to tell when someone is being intentionally mean with their language online, but then you would think sarcasm would be obvious to everyone too but there are always some who don’t get it. Online messages are particularly vulnerable to misunderstanding because they are essentially speech, which, since it is always done in person, relies heavily on extratextual factors (body language, tone, inflection, environmental conditions, etc.) that do not exist online. The result is that you tend to hear other people’s comments in your own voice, attaching your own tone and mood to it based on either your own feelings about the message or the feelings you imagine for your opponents, neither of which is probably not how that person intended it. Unless you know the person well, it almost certainly isn’t. In contrast, good fiction (and non-fiction) carries it own voice, puts context, environment, and emotion into the writing itself. Needless to say, most people online aren’t good fiction writers. Most don’t think they are writing at all. They are dictating to a computer. Supplemental emojis are the closest we ever get to expressing emotion.
Attempting to purge any phrase that could possibly cause misunderstanding or harm is a useless and counterproductive enterprise. The human capacity for error, like that for cruelty, is limitless. We might as well try to get rid of spelling errors by removing all the words that can be spelled. We’ll reach and end to words before we reach an end to people hating each other. In the process we will deprive ourselves of all the beautiful ways people express love and compassion and beauty and all the good things in life.
Generosity should be a requirement when reading online. Like you, most of us online have good intentions and genuine beliefs. We may be wrong, we might be careless, we might even be offensive, but if we are then we probably don’t know it. Be generous. Give us the benefit of the doubt. Try to listen to what we are saying rather than what you imagine us to be saying, so that you can either refute it or learn from it. Attacking our language is a cheap way of not having to hear or understand anything outside yourself. Trolls exist. Don’t feed them! Treating with compassion and graciousness defangs their insults and prevents you from becoming a troll in return.
We live in a new era where new social spaces and new media are bringing us into contact in ways that were never possible, where the old standards of human interaction don’t work and don’t apply. We need a new code of public discourse. But the first new rule is also the oldest: read others as you would want to be read.